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Professional learning on a Saturday?

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a professional learning event for teachers, provided by teachers. PedagooTweed was one of a series of events happening across Scotland, supported by Pedagoo, a self-created teacher support group, and SCEL (Scottish College for Educational Leadership). This is an interesting dynamic of the formal and informal  that exist in Scotland that aim to help teachers to learn and develop, by unleashing the power that resides in all of them. So on Saturday teachers and educators from across the south of Scotland met up in Peebles for professional learning and dialogue that was shaped completely by themselves, with no agendas set by others. Also, the mix of sessions were being led and facilitated by practitioners, who were willing to share insights and offer support. No-one had been bought in to deliver, and no-one was selling anything.

There were a mix of activities available. A sharing-table, where attendees put a book or resource that had particularly helped inform their own practice; a series of learning conversations around different aspects of practice; the opportunity for everyone to share some of their practice that had helped them and their learners, with names pulled out of a hat and a time limit of two minutes. Plus, of course, the opportunity to mix and chat with colleagues at break and lunch times to explore motivations and share more insights and experiences. I love events like this, because they have that 'Buzz' that Tracey Ezzard talks about in her book of the same title. Everyone was there because they wanted to be, and we all sought to get the most from each activity, especially as they were giving up their own precious time to attend.

I spoke to a lot of people at the event, and more since via Twitter. The most common adjective used by them all is 'inspired'. They were seeking to be inspired by what they saw and heard, and the event seems to have worked on that level for most of the attendees, which I am sure all the organisers and contributors will be pleased to hear. Everyone, organisers, attendees, presenters, and particularly the pie and cake maker, deserve respect for their contributions. Some people came with colleagues, but I am particularly in awe of those who had made their own way individually seeking to have their professional development nourished in a way that perhaps their current context did not allow.

I had been asked to lead one conversation for forty five minutes. There were a range of these that teachers could sign up to over the day, and mine was to look at and explore some of our attitudes to professional development or learning. Here is what we covered.

To set the scene, I noted that I was sure we all understood that education and learning was complicated, with no easy answers to anything. Added to this complexity was the fact that education was riddled with dichotomies, where practitioner often set themselves up in one camp or another. Through social media and face to face, various members of different camps could be very strident in their defence of their position, and quite intolerant of those they saw as being in opposite camps. Some of the general dichotomies I had identified myself were; traditionalist or progressive, child-centred or teacher-led, play or structured learning, theory or practice, zero tolerance or acceptance of individuality, rote learning or discovery learning, research driven or data driven, academic subjects or the arts, teaching as a science or teaching as an art, summative assessment or formative assessment, knowledge or skills, leadership or management and finally revolution or evolution in terms of development? Phew! It had taken me about ten minutes to come up with these, and I have no doubt that there are more that I and yourselves could identify.

I then turned to dichotomies in professional development or learning. There was another straight away, and there were more. Teacher training or teacher education, 'things' or a process, teacher priorities or school priorities, school priorities of local authority priorities, local authority or national priorities, in school or away from school, individual or collaborative, compulsory or voluntary, recorded or un-recorded, personal or corporate, own time or school time? I then added some quotes on professional learning from some of the researchers and writers I most respect in this area.

'The networks or partnerships we envision must be powerful, focused on teams, and concerned with drilling down into deep continuous improvement.' Fullan and Hargreaves 2008

'Around the globe, every year, teachers routinely participate in hundreds of hours of professional development and training. The implicit assumption is that attending courses equates with professional learning and that by participating in such events somehow professional practice will change.' A Harris 2014

'Effective professional development is intensive, ongoing and connected to practice; focuses on the teaching and learning of specific academic content; is connected to other school initiatives and builds strong working relationships among teachers.' Darling-Hammond et al 2009

'It is no longer acceptable for professionals in school 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 students.' H Timperley 2011

'...moving from outside professional development to opportunities for communities of professional learning within and across schools, linked to teachers' work, needs and the experiences of their classroom contexts and students' priorities.' Lieberman, Campbell and Yashinka 2017

All of this was to stimulate thinking and dialogue amongst the mixed group of educators in my session. I then posed some questions for exploration and discussion.

My opener was straightforward enough, 'what professional learning activity/event has had the greatest impact on your identity as a teacher? Why?' I actually thought this might be difficult for some people to identify, but I was pleasantly surprised when every member of the group was able to say what it was that had had the greatest impact on them, and their practice. In fact, they were enthusiastic, as well as open, in their willingness to discuss and reflect on these in the group. There were some very honest and enlightening sharing that took place and I was blown away by the mix of experiences that had made all the difference for each of them. I do not propose to go into any details of what was said as to do so would betray the confidences shared, I will just share the main messages.

My next question was, 'who is professional learning for?' Another lively discussion ensued and responses tended to centre around the learner and the teacher. There seemed to be agreement amongst the group that professional learning should have benefits for learners, by better equipping teachers to develop their understandings and their practice. I asked, what about the school? Which led us to discuss those dichotomies that I had started with. We reached agreement that most of these are false dichotomies and that the best teachers adjust their practice, moving between many of the different 'camps' depending on the context and the needs of the learners in front of them.

I then asked, 'so, who should identify professional learning activities and needs?' Everyone agreed that this should usually be the individual teacher, based on their personal and professional context, but that there may well be times when there might be greater input from the school and its priorities. There was agreement that such activity should be a career-long commitment.

'What should professional learning look like?' This generated another lively debate, as we came to the conclusion that it could look like anything, and could happen anywhere. It may be formal and pre-planned, but it may also be informal or ad-hoc in nature. Any activity that helped teachers to explore and develop their thinking and practice is a professional learning activity, indeed many of the most powerful are spontaneous, as described by members of my group. Professional dialogue, that focuses on common issues, is a powerful way of moving thing and practice on. Teachers needed time and space for this to happen, and sometimes they needed to create that themselves with events such as this, or by developing collaborative networks on Twitter or elsewhere. My own view is that this should be part of a coherent process, but sometimes doing 'things' might be part of this process.

My final question was, 'how do we measure the impact of professional learning?' I had talked a little about Knud Illeris and his work on transformative learning and identity. The group generally agreed that for professional development to have had impact then an individual's personal and professional identity had to be changed positively. When this has happened there are benefits for learners and we should be able to see these, over time.

We had run out of time, but this was a fascinating exploration of some of the issues around professional learning and school development. As I said at the outset, there are no easy answers, just lots of questions that need exploring if we are to find our way forward as individuals and as a system. Dialogue, and learning cultures, where everyone sees themselves as a learner, and where the culture is supportive, collaborative and based on high degrees of professional trust, is the way forward. Keeping your head down, and leaving these questions for others to consider and answer, helps no-one, including yourself.

Thank you to Susan Ward and the other organisers of the event, and especially thanks to those who turned up for my conversation. There were others happening at the same time and I am sure all the facilitators, like myself, found the whole experience positive and affirming with regard to the profession and its future. I can hardly wait for the next one!
 connected to other school initiatives and builds strong working relationships among teachers’ Darling-Hammond et al 2009

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