This blogpost represents my current thinking and learning about the role and the effectiveness of professional learning. It is a personal reflection both in terms of my role at The Mind Lab by Unitec and also my CORE eFellow research.
I’ve been reading the summary of “Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration”, by Helen Timperley, Aaron Wilson, Heather Barrar, and Irene Fung, MOE (2007). But before I get there, I’d actually like to start with a quote from something else I’m reading at the moment:
‘It’s all about the kids’ is an almost universal mantra at schools and pretty much expresses our collective mission. But in the case of changing education to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world, it’s really all about the adults. The kids get it; they are naturally adaptive and flexible thinkers; they use new technology easily; they see learning as fun as long as we allow it to be playful and interest-based and not dreary. Changing what and how learning takes place is an exercise in retooling the adult skill set…”
For me, this quote neatly encapsulates the moral purpose behind my position as Postgrad Programme Director (Wellington) at The Mind Lab by Unitec. It’s less about feeling like ‘the kids will be okay’, but more about ensuring that the lead learners in classrooms are equipped to work alongside our 21st Century learners. On a side note, for me it’s also about scale – the hope that I can accomplish more with the diverse group of teachers participating in the postgrad programme than I can inside one school.
So, it’s about the adults. But what do we know about what’s effective in professional learning? What prompts substantive, sustainable change that makes a difference for students? Luckily Timperley et al have synthesised a number of studies and have reached some really useful conclusions. The key summary is this:
“Seven elements in the professional learning context were identified in the core studies as important for professional learning in ways that impacted positively and substantively on a range of student outcomes: providing sufficient time for extended opportunities to learn and using the time effectively; engaging external expertise; focusing on engaging teachers in the learning process rather than being concerned about whether they volunteered or not; challenging problematic discourses; providing opportunities to interact in a community of professionals; ensuring content was consistent with wider policy trends; and, in school-based initiatives: having leaders actively leading the professional learning opportunities.” [emphasis mine, p. xxvi]
What I have been particularly struck by though is this:
- “Teacher participants rarely believe that they need to engage in deep learning or to change practice substantively, whereas providers typically believe they will but do not necessarily disclose this to the participants.” (p. xxix)
- “…it should not be assumed by providers that teachers’ current theories of practice are problematic or that providers’ theories are, by definition, more effective….Negotiating meanings, and debating and testing evidence of the effectiveness of both providers’ and teachers’ theories, are part of the process of achieving mutual understanding and effective practice.” (p. xl)
Firstly, I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am reflecting on these statements personally, not passing comment about The Mind Lab postgrad course nor its teachers. I believe the course itself stacks up against the criteria for effective professional learning and development as outlined in this Best Evidence Synthesis extremely well. And I know the facilitators of this course to be passionate, committed, reflective practitioners.
I want to own these two quoted statements myself. In seeking to lead transformative change in education, I do think teachers may well have to shift their practice substantially. And, underpinning that, I guess I have held a falsely superior view that I did know better. Yikes.
So, instead, what I keep coming back to are two things. Respect and transparency.
Each week I find myself in awe of the commitment teachers are making to their professional learning for the betterment of Kiwi kids. I want this to ring through what I say and in how I interact with the teachers on The Mind Lab course. My attitude is one of: let’s work together to explore what might work for you in your context and in your classroom.
And I need to be transparent in the expectations and assumptions I hold. Now this part is tricky, because they are my assumptions and sometimes I don’t even know I have them until I’m some way down the track. What I’m hoping that is by opening up conversations, participating in dialogue, and consistently positioning myself as a co-learner, I can confront my own assumptions and own them when they arise. I think this is respectful practice too.
So maybe I keep coming back to one thing only: respect. Aretha had it right all along.