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Professional development to produce the self-improving system

If you are a teacher, school leader or system leader, what does effective professional development look and feel like to you?

Our thoughts around professional development have certainly changed during my own time as a school leader. When I first became a school leader, and previously as a teacher, professional development consisted of a smorgasbord of training and activity that we dipped into as and when we pleased. Sometimes this was linked to school development, but often there was little or no such link. Basically, you picked something you fancied doing, then hoped your headteacher, or school, had enough Continuous Professional Development (CPD) funding to allow you to attend. If the answer was a positive one, off you went, with little if any demand for you to demonstrate the impact of your training, or to disseminate any insights gained amongst colleagues. This was professional development based on personal choice, and was characterised as being most often done to you, rather than by you.

Thankfully, most teachers, schools and their leaders have moved on from the completely ad-hoc scenarios described above, as we now have a more focused attitude towards professional development, and how it can support professional and school growth. However, I still think we have more to do. Nowadays, Career Long Professional Development (CLPD) has a much greater profile across the profession, and is included in the Professional Standards of the General Teaching Council Scotland (GTCS). The introduction of the Professional Update requirement for all teachers in Scotland has put even more focus on the professional development of all teachers and school leaders, as this requires them to demonstrate their continuous engagement with such professional development, and importantly its impact for learners. But still too many teachers, and dare I say schools and Local Authorities, seem to view all this through a lense which places high value on the attendance on courses and events, rather than as part of a continuous and connected process of career-long development and growth.

I view professional development as an ongoing and continuous process of professional renewal and growth of expertise. It needs to be individualised and contextualised and its impact needs to be measured in terms of improved outcomes for all learners, including the professional at its centre. It needs to lead to embedded changes in thinking, understanding and practice and a change in the personal and professional identity for those engaged in the process. It should become a professional disposition and commitment for all educators, and acknowledged as such by the profession. This is professional development undertaken by you, and shaped by you, not something done to you.

Some researchers have suggested that  teachers grow and change their practice most during the first three years or so of their careers, and that this then plateaus off during the rest of their careers, and they can then become resistant to change and a bit set in their ways. I have no doubt there are some teachers who exhibit such characteristics but, in my experience, most teachers and school leaders are generally trying to get better at what they do. Sometimes, however, they lack clarity in how they may most effectively go about this. This lays them open to the pick-and-mix approach to professional development or worse, susceptible to the latest fads and trends. Therefore, they need to be clear in their minds that their professional growth and renewal is dependent on them taking charge, and seeking to improve, based on research and evidence to help them achieve this. They need to develop the skills and experience to engage critically with such research and evidence, and avoid becoming passive consumers of anything presented to them under that guise.

Professional development needs to be individualised. In my experience, true change and growth only happens when individuals identify their own strengths and development needs, and then identify what they can do to get better. This also has to be linked to their particular context, professional and personal. Like all development, this needs to be fitted into the rhythm of school and personal life, so that it becomes truly embedded, and is not viewed as an add on. In my experience, add-ons soon drop off. Professional development should meet individual needs and fit in with whole-school development. This should be easily achievable if schools and individuals are focused on improving learning and teaching experiences and outcomes for all learners, as their main driver. Better still, this should be measured over a career, not just a term or a year.

The measure of the success of any professional development activity and process should be in terms of improved outcomes for all learners, including the person engaged in the development process. We should be able to identify how professional development has lead to improved outcomes for our learners, both in the short term and the long. This is where the regular collection of some baseline data, not lots, is important. Because we can then see and demonstrate improvements that are taking place. I am a great believer in development being seen best over time and we should not be looking to demonstrate improvements too quickly, as such development can just as quickly disappear if change is not deep, embedded and sustainable. Also importantly, there has to be improved outcomes for the professional, and their professional and personal identity should  grow and change over time. Their practice, thinking and understandings should be continually evolving as they model themselves as life-long, and career-long, learners. Their ability to self-regulate, reflect, diagnose and solve, in order to improve, develops their agency and adaptive expertise.

In my view, if outcomes for learners and teachers are continually improving, because of the cultures and dispositions developed by the profession, then so are they for their schools and the systems within which they operate. Only then will we truly have the self-improving system many seek.

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