Balancing internal and external expertise in professional learning


I’ve spent a number of days recently in a couple of schools where I’ve been working with school leaders and staff for an extended period of time now, assisting them with their strategic visioning and planning, and in coaching and mentoring staff leading their in-school professional learning programmes. I find this highly satisfying and rewarding work – and it reminds me of just how complex the setting of a school is, and  how important it can be to have a variety of perspectives included in the process of designing and implementing an effective PLD programme that will (a) help a school achieve it’s strategic goals, (b) enable individual teachers to develop and grow professionally, and (c) contribute to raising student achievement as the ‘end game’.

New Zealand schools are currently coming to terms with what the new environment for professional learning means for them. The Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako that they are being encouraged to form are described as a group of education and training providers working together to help learners achieve their full potential. The significant difference here is that previously the agenda for government funded Professional Learning was determined by the Ministry of Education in order to meet their objectives – where now the onus is on schools and Kāhui Ako to take on this responsibility – and then proceed to find the approach that will best suit them to achieve this.

As someone who has spent much of the past two decades working alongside schools and teachers I am very interested in the approaches being taken (and in some cases not being taken) to engage with external expertise as a part of this process. In the Best Evidence Synthesis, Helen Timperley et al. (2007) emphasise the role of external expertise, which they say can assist in creating more challenging dialogue across a group. They found that “all studies of professional communities that did not lead to improved outcomes for students lacked external input. In these studies, challenges to assumptions held by community members typically did not happen” (p.203)**.

So it was with interest today that I came cross a report titled The State of Educators’ Professional Learning in Canada (pdf) from LearningForward, which provides a  useful overview of the experience in Canada – across the diverse approaches taken across the ten states and three provinces – of the provision of professional learning in schools.

Overall, the study findings indicate that valuing, respecting, and promoting a range of professionals’ and students’ outcomes is important in Canada. Student achievement matters; however, outcomes are not only about test scores. Generally, professional learning content needs to develop teachers’ efficacy, knowledge, and practices in order to support students’ efficacy, engagement, learning, and equity of outcomes.

In relation to my point above regarding the role of external vs internal expertise (and direction setting etc.) the Canadian report concludes..

Overall, the findings indicate that system- and school-directed professional development can be important to support current priorities; however, such development also needs to be balanced with flexibility for teachers and other educators to identify specific professional learning needs for themselves linked to their students, schools, and contexts. Opportunities for teachers to lead their own learning, and that of their colleagues, can benefit individual and collective professional learning and support changes in practices to benefit students’ learning.

This finding should offer some encouragement (and direction) for New Zealand schools who now have the mandate to operate with similar agency as they identify specific professional learning needs for themselves linked to their students, schools, clusters and contexts.

The key findings in the report are:

  • Evidence, inquiry, and professional judgement are informing professional learning policies and practices
  • The priority area identified by teachers for developing their knowledge and practices is how to support diverse learners’ needs
  • A focus on a broad range of students’ and professionals’ learning outcomes is important
  • The appropriate balance of system-directed and self-directed professional development for teachers is complex and contested
  • There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to professional learning; teachers are engaging in multiple opportunities for professional learning and inquiry with differentiation for their professional needs
  • Collaborative learning experiences are highly valued and prevalent within and across schools and wider professional networks
  • Teachers value professional learning that is relevant and practical for their work; “’job-embedded” should not mean school-based exclusively as opportunities to engage with external colleagues and learning opportunities matter also
  • Time for sustained, cumulative professional learning integrated within educators’ work lives requires attention
  • Inequitable variations in access to funding for teachers’ self-selected professional development are problematic
  • System and school leaders have important roles in supporting professional learning for teachers and for themselves
**Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., and Fung, I. (2007). Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington: Ministry of Education.

One thought on “Balancing internal and external expertise in professional learning

Leave a Reply