I’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 :
- we can’t skimp on professional development in our budgets
- 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.