Some of the most respected names in educational research have had their say about what the best professional learning looks like in education.
Helen Timperley has said, ' It is no longer acceptable for professionals in schools to do their individual best. Rather, it is expected that they will engage collectively with what is known to be effective in improving outcomes for all students.' (AITSL 2011)
Michael Fullan said, 'Learning in context requires that we focus on changing the culture of the school so that educators learn continuously in the setting in which they work.' (2008 WWFFH)
BERA have noted, '..that research-informed, evidence-based teaching is vital to the broader project of school improvement and transformation, to raising achievement and building inclusion, and to strategies designed to 'close gaps' in educational outcomes....' (2014 The Role of Research in Teacher Education)
Alma Harris has written, 'Real improvement... means focusing on the needs of the learner first and working relentlessly to improve pedagogy so those needs are effectively met.' (2014 Distributed Leadership Matters)
And, finally John Hattie argues that in the best schools, 'professionalism ...is achieved by teachers and school leaders working collaboratively to achieve 'visible learning inside.'' He also states that such schools have 'a community of teachers that .. work together to ask questions, evaluate theirm impact and decode on the optimal next steps.' (2012 Visible learning For Teachers)
I could go on, and on, with more of the same, but I think we get the picture. Teachers are important to the learning process. They need to collaborate and situate their professional learning in their individual and local context. They need to continually learn, and ground their learning in evidence and research, and they need to measure the impact of their professional development and learning in terms of the production of positive impacts for all learners.
The above understandings are fundamental in the GTCS Professional Standards in Scotland. When a group of us were considering these recently we were challenged by Dr Margery McMahon of Glasgow University to consider 'how we moved beyond mere compliance?' An issue that is most difficult when looking at professional standards is how much of them is about compliance and minimum standards, and how much are they about promoting and supporting professional development and growth? When we focus more on the compliance aspect, there is a danger they encourage very much a 'tick-box' approach to practice and development. Perhaps, we need to consider again the purpose of professional standards? Perhaps we are in danger of conflating two contrasting and conflicting purposes, at the expense of the most important one, especially in cultures that are high on accountability and top-down direction, and low on trust.
It is interesting that some of us were having these conversations not long before it became common knowledge, over the last few days, that the Scottish Government were seriously looking at an approach similar to the 'Teach First' programme found in England, as a way of dealing with teacher shortages in Scotland. This has set alarm bells ringing throughout the profession, not least as our devolved Government seem hell bent on copying so much Tory educational policy. Yes we want, and need, to deal with shortages, but not at the expense of quality and expertise. Teaching is a complex and professional undertaking, not a technical and mechanistic one that you can learn as you go. In my view, it requires high quality entrants, properly prepared and educated at university level, and with a career-long disposition and commitment to keep learning and developing using research and evidence as they do so. In that way we can produce high quality professional educators, with high levels of adaptive expertise and agency, and who are 'self-improving in their practice and mindsets. This provides continual benefit to them individually, their schools and the system as a whole.
Education Scotland have been promoting the Scottish Learning Festival this last week or so. This is an annual jamboree, that has more to do with self-promotion and selling than learning. It is a common frustration with this event that it is almost impossible for teachers to attend, unless they are 'showcasing' some practice on behalf of their local authority, as it happens mid-week, Wednesday and Thursday. So the 'audience' mainly consists of Education Scotland, Local Authority Staff, Governments and other organisations, talking to each other and patting each other on the back. On their Twitter feed education Scotland have been trying to 'sell' this free event to teachers by asking 'Did you know that attending #SLF17 can contribute towards career-long prof learning?' I question this on two accounts. the first is that it continues to position career-long professional learning as constituting attendance at a series of one-off events or courses, that participants can tick off to show they have attended. The other is how it completely fails to recognise how much it costs schools to release a teacher for a day, or two, to attend an event like this, and which is likely to result in zero impact for learners. Harsh? I will let you decide.
The Scottish government is determined to 'reform' Scottish education, Mr Swinney and Ms Sturgeon have said so on many occasions and to many audience. Can I suggest that if they really want to make a difference they pay more attention to high quality teacher preparation and teacher professional development. We really need to have a conversation about what this should look like, based on the research and evidence from experts across the world, including many of their own 'international panel'. If we accept the research and the evidence, then individuals, schools and systems are going to have to change so many of their current approaches to, and practices of, professional development.
A commitment to career-long professional development that has impact needs to be thoroughly understood by all in the system. It needs to be high-level and situated in a teacher's professional context, and where they are on their own particular development journey. It should equip teachers to become more and more able to improve themselves, as they understand why, and how they need to grow their practice, and support their colleagues to do the same. They need to understand and embrace system leadership and teacher leadership as we move ever closer towards the self-improving system. Apparently that is what government and system leaders want. If that is the case, schools, local authorities and government need to be prepared to properly support and resource such development, and, most importantly, they better be prepared to accept the results!
It is my contention that when we have teachers, and school leaders, who are research rich, with high levels of adaptive expertise, and who embrace teacher leadership, teacher agency and dispersed leadership, then we will have a profession better able to meet the needs of all learners, but also to push back against the neo-liberal agendas currently to the fore in our own system and many others. Is that what you really want? Or do you just want compliance?