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The self-improving teacher

For many years now we have talked about, and tried to promote, system leadership within education. I have written before about this in Beware What You Wish For: Some thoughts on System Leadership published in July of this year, and Headteachers and System Leadership published in February 2015, as well as in a number of other posts which have touched on aspects of such system leadership.The main driver for the development of system leadership within schools and education systems is to produce the self-improving school system. One that is organic and which grows from within, utilising the experience and expertise that already resides within in it. In the first post mentioned above, I did question whether this was in fact what some in the system really wanted, because it would lead to less command and control from above. But, let us assume that this is what we all truly wish to develop in the system. I would like to see true system leadership develop and grow within our education systems, in order to help those systems grow and develop themselves, without any need or expectation of direction and micro-management from those at the top of some hierarchical and dictatorial structure.

For this to truly happen, I believe we should be looking to develop and grow teachers, and school leaders, who are self-improving themselves. They need this as a disposition and a professional stance. The big question I then suppose is, how do we develop such qualities and dispositions within all teachers in a system? When we are emerging from cultures where for many years professional development, for many, was another 'thing' done to them, not by them, such a challenge is not going to be easy or smooth. What can we learn from research about what might work in developing such qualities?

In the mid-seventies, some forty years or so ago, the work of Lawrence Stenhouse proposed a sea change in trying to change our attitudes to teacher development. Stenhouse long argued for teachers to become reflective and enquiring professionals, who constantly looked closely at their practice. He suggested that by employing action research principles, more commonly found in higher education, teachers would have a model for them to take responsibility for their own learning. They would do this by focusing on aspects of their own practice or at systems and structures within their own setting. It is fair to say that this took off in a big way for some, but for many it either never happened or it mutated into something else that was doomed to failure, as people still searched for quick-fixes and silver-bullets, based on little understanding of what this approach recommended or why.

About ten years after Stenhouse produced his research and recommendations John D Bransford and others began to look at, and talk about developing, adaptive expertise in teachers and school leaders. Such adaptive expertise has been described as 'the ability to use knowledge and experience to learn in unanticipated situations.' Bransford and Sears produced a rubric that aimed to measure the use of knowledge in terms of innovation and efficiency. Bransford then went on to work with Linda Darling-Hammond to develop further this approach in preparing teachers and in developing teachers through professional development. I first came across adaptive expertise as a quality that would be worthwhile to develop in all teachers, through the work of Helen Timperley in Australia and New Zealand. To me, it makes complete sense that we should seek to develop teachers, and systems, that have high levels of adaptive expertise, rather than more 'deliverers' or clones of what someone else thinks the ideal teacher might look like.

The other big influence on me, and someone who I think also points the way in developing self-improving teachers, is of course Marilyn Cochran Smith, and her work around practitioner enquiry. Cochran Smith published 'Inquiry as Stance' with Susan Lytle in 2009. This set out their own take on professional development for teachers, and recommended the development of an enquiry approach to such development by all teachers. They saw teachers as best able to develop, individually and collectively, through the deployment of enquiring dispositions towards their own practice and their impacts on learning. This would be a career-long commitment and would lead to sustainable and continuous development, situated in each practitioner's classroom and practice. They would use a rigorous model that was grounded in, and informed by, research as part of a continuous process of self-development.

I believe that if we were to focus more on developing and improving teachers and school leaders so that they are enquiring professionals with high levels of adaptive expertise,  we would go a long way in developing the self-improving teachers and self-improving systems are going to need. We have known how we can go about this for a long time now. What we still need to do is bridge that gap between research and practice that remains persistently stubborn and resistant to closure. Then perhaps we could really address all of the other gaps that exist in schools and education.


'An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development' Lawrence Stenhouse
'Preparing Teachers for A Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be Able To Do' John D Bransford and Linda Darling Hammond
'Inquiry as Stance: Practioner Research for The Next Generation' Marilyn Cochran Smith and Susan Lytle


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