Professional Learning for the 21st Century
Some time ago I was asked to recollect a professional learning experience that had directly impacted or changed my teaching practice. Over my 25 years in teaching, I have participated in hundreds, probably thousands, of hours of professional learning activities. I had no trouble recalling many excellent workshops, conferences, and in-house activities that I have participated in—but the struggle was to think of one that I could say had unequivocally had a direct impact on my practice. This reflection led me on a journey to think about the deficiencies of “traditional” approaches to professional learning and to discover what research and literature had to say regarding best practice.
Why Professional Learning Matters
First and foremost, professional learning matters because teachers matter. An extensive body of research and meta-analyses point to the fact that, whilst what students bring to the table is of great importance, teacher effectiveness plays a significant role in student achievement (Hattie 2009). This provides a compelling argument that, if we are to raise student achievement, then we must also grow teacher capacity. In addition, if teachers matter, then so too does the quality of professional learning designed to support their practice.
Secondly, we are in a time of rapid change—and professional learning has an important role to play in facilitating the kind of school and system-wide reform needed to accommodate this. The school has entered into a new education paradigm, a second Renaissance, with the 400-year-old factory-based model having run its course (Treadwell 2008). The new education paradigm calls for a move away from content-driven, teacher-centred, individualised, linear, book-based learning toward a focus on conceptual understanding, collaborative networking, interdisciplinary innovation, creativity, critical and higher order thinking, and on embracing the dynamic, media-rich access to information via the internet.
A reconceptualisation of learning and teaching is reliant on the understanding, expertise, and confidence of teachers. Unless teachers are suitably equipped, education will not move forward to meet the needs of the 21st century. Therefore, there is an increasing need for professional learning that targets the demands of the new education paradigm.
Professional Learning for Educators – Best Practice
So what does best practice professional learning for this new era actually look like? Traditional approaches relied heavily on a “show and tell” model that sees teacher development as something that teachers passively participate in as individuals or have “done to them.” However, more recent conceptualisations of teacher professional learning suggest that it should encompass a range of opportunities; put a mirror to existing beliefs, attitudes, and understandings; change teaching practice in a way that leads to improved outcomes for students; address both individual and collective competence; and focus on both present and future teaching and learning needs. This concept of developing the capacity of both the individual and the collective simultaneously resonates strongly with the Christian school view of collegiality and collaboration. The goal is not for a team of great teachers, but for a great teaching team with each teacher functioning at their capacity and in synergy with others.
The field of research is rich with lists of principles for more contemporary approaches to professional learning that will better support the transformation of teaching practice. Following are four key characteristics that are worth considering when developing a school professional learning plan.
If professional learning is to be effective, it needs to be clearly focused on specifically identified areas of need or innovation. Most importantly, the focus of professional learning should always be clearly linked to student learning outcomes. In thinking about teacher professional learning, key questions ought to be, “What are the desired outcomes for students?” “What do we need to do in order to achieve these outcomes?” and “How can success be measured?”
Embedded in Practice
Hamilton (2012, 42) asserts that there are broadly two types of professional learning, namely extracted and embedded. Extracted refers to the input of outside expertise, whereas embedded refers to professional learning which relies on expert knowledge from within the school. Embedded professional learning enables teachers to learn from one another within the context of their own school and presumes a view of the teacher as a professional who is well placed to make decisions about their learning and will learn best in community with others. Embedding the professional learning within teachers’ own workplaces also enables them to apply on-site learning directly to their own contexts.
The traditional model of professional development was characterised by short, episodic, and fragmented sessions, but researchers agree that professional learning that leads to changed practice needs to be sustained over time. Teachers benefit from the opportunity to apply the learning to their classroom practice over an extended period, as this allows for reflection and refinement as well as ongoing professional discourse. Learning needs to be continual, intensive, and in depth in order to change practice. This is particularly true if the learning is to have an impact on groups of teachers as opposed to just individuals.
Studies show that when professional learning is approached collectively and within the context of a community of practice rather than individually it is likely to have a more lasting benefit. Connell argues that effective teaching can only be understood in the context of the “collective labour of teachers” (Connell 2009, 22) and that improving teaching should be seen as a collaborative venture of a community of teachers rather than a process of re-skilling individuals. This argument aligns strongly with the philosophy of Christian education, which very much sees teaching as a communal activity. In highlighting the importance of learning and working in community, Edlin (2014) writes: “This reflects another Biblical norm: that gifts, insights and competencies that we have or develop are given to us not for personal aggrandisement, but for the building up and encouragement of the portion of the body of Christ (that is, fellow teachers and students) with whom we share daily contact in the Christian school (Ephesians 4:12)” (Edlin 2014, 263).
The types of collaborative strategies outlined in the literature include:
- Study groups
- Coaching and mentoring
- Partnerships with external researchers and professionals
- Professional networks
- Professional discourse and conversation
- Shared action research, inquiry, and problem solving
- The establishment of and participation in professional learning communities
- Collective problem solving
- Peer observation
- Collaborative lesson planning
These activities are not mutually exclusive and many naturally overlap, particularly when used as part of a well-structured and focused professional learning initiative.
Toward a Purposeful Christian Learning Community
While all schools benefit from teacher collegiality and the capacity to operate as a team, in the Christian school context this is underpinned by a shared belief that teachers (and in fact all staff) are “members of the body of Christ” as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12. Using the metaphor of the body, this passage outlines a core Christian principle of working together, supporting one another, and recognising that each person has a specific role to play and gifts to bring, which are for the benefit of the whole. All parts of the body need each other and none are dispensable.
In both a professional and a spiritual sense, it is the teachers’ goal for all members of the team to support one another to ensure that each teacher is functioning at their very best. As Palmer (2010) explains, “If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from which we can learn more about ourselves and our craft. The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it” (141-144). True community requires teachers to make time for regular professional dialogue and learning together.
One critical challenge when it comes to engaging teachers in professional learning is intentional planning. To be effective, professional learning requires a strategically designed process. Steps that school leaders might take in order to develop a sound professional learning plan in their school are:
1. Set improvement goals. Identify, from both current research and school-based data, desired outcomes for students, evidence that would reflect achievement of outcomes, and strategies and resources required to achieve the outcomes.
2. Conduct an audit. Audit current organisational practices, strengths, and challenges in relation to the improvement goals in order to identify the specific learning needs of the teaching team.
3. Design a professional learning plan. Develop a professional learning plan that will meet the identified learning needs. The choice of professional learning strategies should be determined by school context, culture, resources, and according to what would be most beneficial to the particular need.
4. Implement the professional learning plan. Seek feedback along the way and be prepared to review and revise.
5. Evaluate success. Measure whether the desired outcomes for students have been achieved as per the expected evidence outlined in Step 1. Identify revised or new needs and repeat the process.
- Connell, R. 2009. Good teachers on dangerous ground: Towards a new view of teacher quality and professionalism. Critical Studies in Education 50 (3): 213-229.
- Edlin, R. 2014. Teacher training and professional development. Teaching well: insights for educators in Christian schools, edited by K. Goodlet and J. Collier. Canberra, Australia: Barton Books.
- Hamilton, Erica R. 2012. His ideas are in my head: peer-to-peer teacher observations as professional development. Professional Development in Education 39 (1):42-64. doi: 10.1080/19415257.2012.726202.
- Hattie, J. 2009. Visible learning. A synthesis of over 800 meta analyses relating to achievement. Milton Park, UK: Routledge.
- Palmer, P. 2010. The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life: John Wiley & Sons.
- Treadwell, Mark. 2008. The conceptual age and the revolution: schoolv2.0: a selection of 35 professional learning readings. Heatherton, Vic.: Hawker Brownlow Education.
About the Author
Maria Varlet currently serves as the head of Research & Innovation at Crest Education in Melbourne and is a board member for ACSI – Australia. She has been involved in Christian education for over twenty-five years, holding positions of head of Learning & Teaching, Campus principal, and executive officer for Christian Schools Australia. Her doctoral research investigates tensions between biblical ethos and assessment practices in the Christian school context. She can be contacted via email at email@example.com.