My earliest experiences of professional learning and development (PLD) tended to be short courses focusing on introducing a new skill, strategy or technology. I can remember as a young teacher being 'sent' to courses on how to use an overhead projector, or how to use simulation activities in social studies classes. Sometimes these things were useful to me when I returned to the classroom, other times they were more 'just in case' courses, simply provided because the opportunity was there.
Since the time I began as a teacher the expectations of teachers have increased, and so to have the expectations of PLD programmes and providers. My professional career has been focused on the professional development (PLD) of teachers for nearly three decades now, and in that time I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of educators across all sectors of the education system. In the work I have been responsible for I have seen a significant shift to participation in programmes that provide quality professional learning that is in-depth, in context, sustained over time, and designed to meet the needs of individual staff and whole schools.
I am anticipating that the findings of the NZ PLD Review (when it is eventually published) will support this – empahsising that the most effective professional learning is that which occurs within schools and is focused on supporting school goals targetting the improvement of student learning and achievement.
Whether the PLD focus is on individuals or whole schools, whether short programmes or longer term engagments, the common concern of most teachers remains "where do I find time to fit this learning in?" The increasing demands on teachers across a range of areas means that PLD is often relegated to the 'nice to have' pile, instead of being accorded the priority it deserves. This creates challenges in terms of the sorts of PLD activities and approaches that should be offered.
A new report, Developing Great Teaching: lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development, sheds some light on the sorts of activities that are worth our while. Written by researchers from Durham University, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) and UCL Institute of Education, the report confirms that the right PLD (or CPD as it is known in the UK) not only improves teacher practice but also improves outcomes for pupils.
Key findings include (emphasis mine):
- The content of effective professional development should involve both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy to achieve its full potential, with clarity around learners’ progress. Activities should help teachers to understand how pupils learn, generally and in specific subject areas.
- The duration and rhythm of effective CPD requires a longer-term focus – at least two terms to a year or longer is most effective, with follow-up, consolidation and support activities built in.
- Participants’ needs should be carefully considered. This requires stepping away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to creating content for teachers that integrates their day-to-day experiences.
- There should be a logical and consistent thread between the various components of the programme and creating opportunities for teacher learning.
- Certain activities are more effective – these include explicit discussions, testing ideas in the classroom and analysis of, and reflection around, the evidence and relevant assessment data.
- External input from providers and specialists must challenge orthodoxies within a school and provide multiple, diverse perspectives.
- Teachers should be empowered through collaboration and peer learning; they should have opportunities to work together, try out and refine new approaches and tackle teaching and learning challenges.
- Powerful leadership around professional development is pivotal in defining staff opportunities and embedding cultural change. School leaders should not leave the learning to teachers, they should be actively involved themselves.
One thing that the report identifies is clearly not helpful is sending teachers on one-day external courses which they say is likely to be wasted time unless participants also have in-school collaborative and iterative activities for preparation and follow-up.
The report also emphasises that schools that have stopped using external expertise completely are missing out on a key ingredient of effective PLD. It says that external experts and courses are an important element of in-school processes if we want to improve pupil outcomes. The point here is that the external 'expertise' can no longer be the person 'wheeled in' to provide the new ideas and strategies etc, but their role is changed now to being the critical friend, mentor and strategic adviser, allowing the leadership within the school to take responsibility for leading and managing the PLD programme. This is a particularly interesting to me as the pendulum appears to be swinging here in NZ, away from external providers to supporting the internal PLD leadership of schools.