Guest Blog: Questioning professional learning

rachel lofthouseThere are so many devilish temptations when offered an open brief for an educational blog post in May 2016.  I could try to right some policy wrongs, perhaps by offering a critique of the hastily written and ill-informed White Paper. I could propose a more lucid and coherent approach for organising teacher training because, from where I am standing, it couldn’t get much more chaotic. I could lament the experiences of family and friends whose own children are exposed by the debacle that is this year’s SATs. Alternatively I could celebrate the good stuff. I could reflect on the contact I have had with people interested in our new Lecturer in Education posts, and how each conversation or email opens up another imagined future of what skills, interests and experiences each candidate could bring to our Newcastle University staff and offer our students.  I could share the annual irony of the wonderful weather breaking to coincide with the national season of intense exam revision. The list of potential topics is enough to create writer’s block. On this occasion my decision has been refined because unlike most other blogs I contribute to I do at least have a sense of the readership, so I am able to choose something to write about which I believe is highly relevant to you as school leaders; and in that context I have chosen to write about teachers’ professional learning. It may not be as obviously topical or as politically fraught as any of the possibilities above, but it has a perpetual resonance, and carries the allure of something that school leaders can conceptualise and act upon.

Having left secondary teaching to join the PGCE team at Newcastle University 16 years ago much of the school landscape I now experience feels like unfamiliar territory. My current role as the Head of Education and my family life mean I do not reside in the stereotypical ivory tower and am never more than a few footsteps away from the realities through the school gate.  In our brave new educational world there are certainly an ever expanding range of outcome measures and political ideals that are deemed to need the might of school management applied to them, and as a result there is a burgeoning of new leadership titles and roles.  Despite these changes there remains a constant, perhaps increasingly significant, leadership responsibility of supporting and enabling the professional learning of teachers.  As a university-based teacher educator it would not be unusual for school-based colleagues to assume that I mean professional learning opportunities offered by university provision and qualifications.  I do believe that PGCE, Masters and Doctoral courses offer unique spaces for new and established professional educators to learn about, reflect on and develop their work. Indeed I am humbled by the fact that our programmes continue to attract part-time students many of whom are full-time teachers and school leaders. However as a practitioner and researcher my interests in the last decade have often coalesced around professional learning in and for the workplace. It is that which I want to focus on.  This is also timely because one aspect of the white paper I am trying to believe will make a positive difference is the fact that ‘a new standard for teachers’ professional development.’ My hope (perhaps naïve) is that this will offer a genuine chance for the profession to reframe the opportunities for teacher learning. My fear is that this will simply be a vehicle for more off the shelf, commercially-led, training packages.

In my recently completed PhD I developed a ‘practice development-led model for individual professional learning and institutional growth’. The model itself represents an ideal, but is also a tool through which those responsible for teachers’ learning can reflect on their own workplace practices.   My assertion is that a core role of any Headteacher and senior leadership team is to ensure that their school becomes a productive learning organisation in which their staff have genuine and transformative learning opportunities. I have evidence that many professional learning opportunities can be derived from cycles of practice development, such as offered through structured coaching, lesson study and action enquiry.  The difficulty can be in ensuring that this learning then sustains positive change, that improved practice is embedded (not discarded for the next teaching fad), and that it accumulates into enriched conditions for further professional learning.  So in the spirit of the model here are some questions to ask yourself, your leadership teams and your staff.

Firstly think about how well teachers are supported to learn through practice development:

  • Are both the vehicle for and objective of professional learning the development of educational practices?
  • Does this offer a chance for teachers to deliberately focus on the details, characteristics and outcomes of practice through engagement in cycles of action such as coaching, lesson study or action enquiry?
  • Is collaboration with others encouraged and capitalized on such that educational power can be derived from a genuine sense of solidarity?

Now consider whether your teachers are encouraged to develop democratic (rather than managerial) professionalism and whether their learning allows them to offer you a critical perspective (not the same as being a constant critic).

  • To what extent is teachers’ professional learning through and for practice development based in articulated values and critical enquiry?
  • Does it allows teachers to relate their practice to their values, or does it fall into the trap of expecting them to uncritically adopt new workplace procedures?

Finally think about how productively you are helping create opportunities through linking learning which goes on at both individual and organisational levels.

  • How does your teachers’ learning improve the potential for institutional growth and have you fallen into the trap of assuming that this is automatic?
  • How conscious is the integration of the individual’s growth with the school’s supporting infrastructure?
  • Is the flow of professional learning, from foundations to outcomes, reciprocal and cumulative, in that as professional learning is generated and the conditions supporting it are enhanced more professional learning can be sustained; for wider and deeper impact on practice?

So my challenge to school leaders of the North East (and beyond) is to consider these questions in order to better gauge how successfully you are enabling desirable professional learning that impacts on the quality of practice and thus has positive repercussions on students’ learning outcomes and experiences.  Think about the attributes of your school as a workplace and whether they guarantee an environment in which teachers continue to learn.  And while you do that please remember that ‘training’ is only part of learning, and that not everything that has been learned can be ‘measured’, and sometimes being so busy monitoring our teachers stops us from recognising nuanced and sometimes unpredicted learning and practice development that is so wonderful we should be celebrating it.

Dr Rachel Lofthouse, Head of Education, Newcastle University. 

Follow @DrRLofthouse on Twitter!

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One thought on “Guest Blog: Questioning professional learning

  1. Pingback: Questioning professional learning | Education @ Newcastle University

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