The importance of professional development

ProfLearningNSDCI’ve  been reviewing some of the material I’ve gathered over recent years as I prepare for some of the staff development days I’ve been invited to contribute to at the end of the month when schools are about to begin, and came across this report that was released about this time last year. Titled professional learning in the learning profession, it examines what research has revealed about professional learning that improves teachers’ practice and student learning.

The problem of how to maintain a highly skilled and effective workforce in our schools is a complex issue, and there no easy answers. this report provides some useful insights, however, of the key principles that should underpin any approches to professional development in our schools or at a regional or national level.

I was intrigued by the the opening paragraph in the introduction that sets the scene for much of what is reported (emphasis mine):

“Decades of standards-based school reform have helped identify what students need to know and be able to do… But educators and policymakers are recognizing that it is time for Standards-Based Reform 2.0. We need to place a greater priority on strengthening the capacity of educators and building learning communities to deliver higher standards for every child. Enabling educational systems to achieve on a wide scale the kind of teaching that has a substantial impact on student learning requires much more intensive and effective professional learning than has traditionally been available. If we want all young people to possess the higher-order thinking skills they need to succeed in the 21st century, we need educators who possess higher-order teaching skills and deep content knowledge.”

So here are a couple of important messages for everyone from leaders in schools through to our national policy makers :

  1. we can’t skimp on professional development in our budgets
  2. what we do must be strategic, future focused and measurable in terms of impact on student achievement

Key findings from the research include:

  • Sustained and intensive professional development for teachers is related to student achievement gains.
  • Collaborative approaches to professional learning can promote school change that extends beyond individual classrooms.
  • Effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice; focuses on the teaching and learning of specific academic content; is connected to other school initiatives; and builds strong working relationships among teachers.

The report also notes that over 90% of U.S. teachers have participated in professional learning consisting primarily of short-term conferences or workshops. While teachers typically need substantial professional development in a given area (close to 50 hours) to improve their skills and their students’ learning, most professional development opportunities in the U.S. are much shorter. It also states that U.S. teachers report little professional collaboration in designing curriculum and sharing practices, and the collaboration that occurs tends to be weak and not focused on strengthening teaching and learning.

Similar concerns are expressed in other international studies, including New Zealand’s own INSTEP research and programmes. As educational leaders we must take note of what the research is telling us. Cutting back on investment in PD simply because it is an easy target, and not “mission critical” is a very unwise move. Similarly, PD that is ‘hit and miss’, and not strategically linked to the goals of the organisation is also a waste of investment.

The organisation I work for is committing significant resource this year to designing and providing the sorts of programmes that will effectively support schools in their strategic approach to PD. In doing so we’ve had to include some short-term workshops and seminars to meet the immediate needs as expressed by teachers and principals, but the real value lies in the longer term engagements. It will be interesting to see how widely these are adopted.

5 thoughts on “The importance of professional development

    1. Hi Steve – thanks for sharing this material with me. I like what you’re doing in NJ – very much along the right lines as far as I’m concerned. I appreciated looking at the template you provide schools for planning their PD – beginning with the reflection questions which immediately helps contextualise what it is they then plan to do. Also like the emphasis in your overall plan of schools as collaborative learning communities – an essential dimension of PD in the 21st century in my view. I’ll be very interest to follow how this goes in your state!

  1. In 2003, the Swedish government offered 125 hours a year for in-service training for teachers. The focus was on IT. That goes some way to explaining why 900+ schools in Sweden today participate in a national teacher-resource database.

    It seems the same jargon I tried to translate when at the chalkface continues to trotted out by planners, regardless of location – impact on students learning…; higher order thinking skills…; higher order teaching skills and deep content knowledge…

    I bet ‘higher order thinking skills’ means ‘critical thinking skills, ‘critical appraisal’, ‘critical evaluation’… Just check the new national syllabus statement to find these utterly redundant terms, and more of their ilk.

    The fundamental question is not being asked. “What is ‘education’ for the New Millenium?” It is certainly not about more knowledge. It is about content and methodology. For example, how do geographers justify their subject in the curriculum? Are they there ‘by right’, like mathematics?

    Would geographers ever ask that question, or mathematicians?

    Pull my other leg.

    What about starting the new PD year, Derek, with that question? Too scary?

  2. Excellent question, Graeme. Indeed, in the work we do at CORE, we have developed a process of working with schools that begins with the question – “what is our educative purpose?” It generally comes as a shock to most initially that they are being asked to consider such a question, followed by a wide ranging and often hotly debated discourse that exposes the range of philosophical positions that are held, and the underlying beliefs that inform these. Unless we are prepared to engage at such a level we haven’t a hope of transforming our schools and, indeed, our education system, to meet the needs of learners in the 21st century.

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