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Professional learning: developing professional learning for instructional improvement

Independent Schools Queensland


Current literature almost universally assumes that professional learning for teachers and administrators ‘lies at the centre of instructional improvement’ (Elmore & Burney, 1997).

Guskey & Huberman, (1995) go further and assert that ‘the renewal of staff members’ professional skills is fundamental to improvement’.

Practising teachers, however, report that professional learning is most often aligned with reforms and, because reform is constant and may cover an excessive number of areas, the professional learning involved is more than likely to be desultory rather than systematic, and to include a confusing variety of presenters who seldom have time to provide opportunities for complex skill development (Goertz et al, 1996). 

There is a general consensus among researchers on the principles of good practice in professional learning.

Briefly, successful learning focuses on concrete classroom applications of general ideas; it exposes teachers to actual practice rather than to descriptions of practice; it involves opportunities for observation, critique and reflection; it involves opportunities for group support and collaboration; and it involves deliberate evaluation and feedback from skilled practitioners with expertise about good teaching (Elmore & Burney, 1997).

Knowing the principles of effective professional learning does not always or, in fact, often translate into organising successful professional learning that influences practice in large numbers of schools and classrooms.

So what might effective professional learning look like? Ball and Cohen (1999), suggest it should be grounded in the tasks, questions and problems of practice by using the actual context of teachers’ ongoing work.

Sparks (2002) puts the case for ‘reform type’ professional learning that he defines as learning that ‘promotes active teacher learning, collective participation and coherence’. ‘Reform type’ activities include teacher study groups, teacher collaboratives, networks or committees; mentoring; internships; and resource centres. It is these types of activities, according to the research, that seem to be most effective in increasing teachers' use of desired strategies for learning improvement in the classroom.

A 2003 evaluation of professional development programs by the Australian Council for Educational Research (Ingvarson et al) identified a number of characteristics of effective learning programs for teachers.

These included:

  • content focus
  • feedback
  • active learning
  • collaborative examination of student work
  • follow up.

Content focus – Recent research (Kennedy, 1998) indicates the importance of what teachers have the opportunity to learn during professional learning programs, and indicates that the substance of what teachers learn is more important than the form or structure of the program. That is, where teachers learn (in the school setting or outside) and how they learn (collaboratively, individually, over time) is less important than what the professional learning program contains.

Research suggests that professional learning is more likely to improve student learning outcomes if it increases teachers’ understanding of the content they teach, how students learn that content and how to represent and convey that content in a meaningful way (Cohen & Hill, 2000).

Feedback – Feedback on practice has long been recognised as a vital requirement for professional learning programs (Joyce & Showers, 1995).  Effective integration of new skills or development of current skills requires a clear theoretical foundation supported by research, modelling in real settings, opportunities to practise the skills, and feedback from a coach or supporting teacher.

Active learning – The research also confirms the importance of teachers being actively engaged in their own professional learning. This involves drawing them into an analysis of their current practice in relation to professional standards for good practice, and into comparing what their students are learning in relation to what students of that age and circumstance are capable of learning (Ingvarson et al, 2003).

Collaborative examination of student work – Collaborative analysis of student work opens up avenues for teachers to learn from each other, and leads to deeper understanding of student learning outcomes and greater discrimination about what counts as meeting those objectives. Hawley & Valli (1999) rate the collaborative examination of student work as a critical component of effective professional learning programs.

Follow up – Finally, follow-up support to teachers who are attempting to implement change as a result of professional learning is an important feature of the most successful programs (Fullan, 1982). A synthesis of the research on quality teaching and learning (see AISQ Research Brief 1/05) is helpful in identifying the characteristics of effective teachers, and thus the possible content of an effective professional learning program. The research concludes that:

  • Effective teachers are committed.
  • Effective teachers have warm, respectful relationships with their students.
  • Effective teachers are adept at classroom management.
  • Effective teachers have high level content knowledge of the subject(s) they teach.
  • Effective teachers have pedagogical expertise that draws high-level complex thinking from students and caters to the needs of individual learners.

Sergiovanni, 1992, describes the commitment of effective teachers as ‘competence plus virtue’ and describes this in practice as having:

 'a commitment to practise in an exemplary way: staying abreast of the latest research in practice, researching one’s own practice, experimenting with new approaches, and sharing one’s insights.  Once established, this dimension results in teachers accepting responsibility for their own professional growth ...'

Commitment as a quality of effective teaching requires that the professional learning program for teachers include:

  • professional readings which highlight latest research on learners and learning
  • communities of learners prepared to take risks by sharing their successes and failures with their colleagues
  • opportunities to observe expert teachers in practice and to have their own practice observed
  • strategies for teachers to reflect on their own learning
  • a discussion of teaching values which results in individual teachers articulating why they teach particular content in particular ways
  • attention to how students learn in different ways and what this means for practice.

Quality relationships imply that teachers have the classroom management skills to be able to build relationships with students free of the conflict that comes with ineffective classroom management skills. It also, however, implies more than this. Quality relationships as a quality of effective teaching require that the professional learning program for teachers include the explicit teaching of:

  • communication skills
  • providing and receiving feedback
  • listening skills
  • techniques for differentiating the curriculum to meet the needs of individual students
  • techniques for and practice in teaching to the variety of ‘intelligences’ in the classroom.

Teachers also need to observe effective teachers in this domain, working with and responding to a class, and to practise the techniques presented in a non-threatening environment. Many of the techniques that build quality relationships, also assist in effective classroom management, and it is generally true that the better the relationship between the teacher and students, the easier it is to maintain effective control of the classroom.

Effective classroom management as a quality of effective teaching requires that the professional learning program for teachers include:

  • teaching negotiation skills
  • explicit teaching of strategies that ensure classroom time is spent in teaching and learning
  • sharing of techniques by effective teachers who are adept in strategies that work
  • presentation of a variety of classroom management theories and skills which teachers can adapt to their individual classrooms and students
  • observation of effective teachers in this domain, working with and responding to a class
  • practice in the techniques of effective management, in a non-threatening environment.

Most teachers begin their careers fresh from university where they have had the chance to obtain solid content knowledge in their subject areas.  However, many of them find that they are thrust into teaching in areas that were not central to their pre-service training, or that over time new knowledge has made their content knowledge out-dated.

Effective teaching implies that teachers not only have some knowledge of the subjects they teach, but that they have deep knowledge and understanding.

Content knowledge as a quality of effective teaching requires that the professional learning program for teachers include:

  • explicit teaching of new content areas in their teaching disciplines
  • explicit teaching of the concepts and procedures within the discipline and the relationships between them
  • practice in developing effective ways of organising and presenting subject matter, including use of models, examples, metaphors, simulations and demonstrations
  • instruction in how the school curriculum is organised and structured
  • the opportunity to listen to experts in the field of knowledge they teach
  • readings in their subject areas that are relevant to the content they teach.

The major difference between experienced or novice teachers and ‘expert’ teachers is that expert teachers have high-level pedagogical skills.

Pedagogical expertise as a quality of effective teaching requires that the professional learning program for teachers include:

  • practice in describing the explicit quality criteria of a task to students
  • techniques that enable teachers to make clear connections between students’ prior knowledge and new knowledge
  • understanding and practising of scaffolding
  • reflecting on their own learning techniques
  • questioning techniques
  • explicit instruction in how to teach the skills critical to all subject areas – reading, writing, language structure, note-taking, research, speaking, listening
  • modelling thinking and talking about their own learning
  • practice in developing units of work that involve high levels of intellectual quality
  • practice in developing units of work that integrate subject areas
  • practice in developing assessment items that challenge students and allow them to problem solve.

The importance of ongoing professional learning for teachers cannot be understated. Moss and White (2004) sum it up like this:

‘Savvy educators are very aware that the context for learning and teaching will not wait for us to catch up with the pace of change. New learning surrounds us every day … if we are to claim teaching as a profession that will understand and support knowledge that is being transformed through cultural influences, changing technologies and media, we need to acknowledge that the ways we learn and learn to teach are changing as well. It’s through engagement in the process of … making our own professional meaning that we’ll distinguish the professional in the twenty-first century.’


This article first appeared in AISQ Briefings Vol 9 Issue 4, May 2005.



Ball, D & Cohen, D (1999), 'Developing Practice, Developing Practitioners', in Darling-Hammond, L & Sykes, G (eds), Teaching as the Learning Profession; Handbook of Policy and Practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Becker, J (2000), Peer Coaching for Improvement of Teaching and Learning, www.teachersnetwork.org/TNPI/research/growth/becker.htm

Cohen, D & Hill, C (2000), 'Instructional Policy and Classroom Performance: The Mathematics Reform in California', Teachers College Record, 102, 2, February.

Elmore, R (1996), 'Getting to Scale with Good Educational Practice', in Fuhrman & O’Day (eds), Rewards and Reform: Creating Educational Incentives that Work, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Elmore, R & Burney, D (1997), Investing in Teacher Learning: Staff Development and Instructional Improvement in Community School District #2, New York: National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future & the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Fullan, M (1982), The New Meaning of Educational Change, (3rd edition), New York: Teachers College Press.

Goertz, M, Floden, R & O’Day (1996), Systemic Reform: Studies of Education Reform, Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Guskey & Huberman, A (1995), Professional Development in Education: New Paradigms and Practices, New York: Teachers College Press.

Hawley, W & Valli, L (1999), 'The Essentials of Effective Professional Development', in Darling-Hammond, L & Sykes, G (eds), Teaching as the Learning Profession; Handbook of Policy and Practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ingvarson, L (1998), 'A Professional Development System Fit for a Profession', IARTV Seminar Series, 72, IARTV, Jolimont, Victoria.

Ingvarson, L, Meiers, M & Beavis, A (2003), 'Evaluating the Quality and Impact of Professional Development Programs', Teaching and Learning Research Program, AER Research Conference 2003.

Joyce, B & Showers, B (1995), Student Achievement through Staff Development: Fundamentals of School Renewal, (2nd edition), White Plains, NY: Longman.

Kennedy, M (1998), 'Form and Substance in In-service Teacher Education', Research Monogram, No 13, Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Moss, J & White, J, (2004), 'Successful Succession Planning: How mentoring can make a difference', Teacher, November 2004.

Sergiovanni, T (1992,), 'Why we should Seek Substitutes for Leadership', Educational Leadership, February 1992.

Sparks, D (2002), Designing Powerful Professional Development for Teachers and Principals, National Staff Development Council, www.nsdc.org/sparksbook.html


Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Professional development