This week I have been doing some thinking about professional learning and how this is underpinned by teacher identity and values, and how these contribute to the professionalism of teachers, here are some thoughts;
First of all, I think we can all agree with Chapman who asserts that “the quality of teaching is a critical factor influencing students learning” (2012:387). So how do we as an education system, support teachers professional learning and provide a quality learning experience which influences both teachers as professionals and teachers daily practice?
Gewirtz (2009) discusses teacher learning occurring in three modes which are “participation, construction (social learning) and acquisition (deficit model), so teachers professional learning is complex as it is a mixture of pedagogy, subject knowledge and practice, and is also strongly influenced by values.
A teacher’s professionalism reflects professional learning and values, and can be considered an individual perspective. However, Mitchell (2013:388) argues that there is a tension in this concept of teacher professionalism being individual as it is also “consensually derived”. Thus, if an individual is being unprofessional then they are acting in ways that does not comply with the consensus.
There is an argument that professional learning focuses mainly on aspects of behaviours and rarely considers either the ‘lived experience’ or ‘meaning making’ and as it influences only surface level practice and does not help teachers to get underneath and deepen their knowledge and skills, it is ‘more new learning’ rather than ‘deepening learning’. Various authors have contributed to these differing ideas of professional learning, Guskey asserts that the goals of professional learning are defined by “change in the classroom practice of teachers, change in their attitudes and beliefs, and change in the learning outcomes of students”, and Mitchell (2013) discusses professional learning as “the process whereby an individual acquires or enhances the skills, knowledge and or attitudes for improved practice”, both contributing to the idea that professional learning is about ‘more new learning’. Day and Fraser are more aligned the deepening of learning through reflection and moral purpose, Day’s definition talks about “the process by which teachers review, renew and extend their commitment as change agents to the moral purposes of teaching” and Fraser (2007) contends that professional learning is about “broader changes that may take place over a longer period of time”.
Research can influence how teachers think about and engage in professional learning. Research can help to underpin practice but also challenge ideas and assumptions about practice and values. Engaging in and with research can supporting teachers to become agents of their own learning and help increase teacher professionalism, promoting professional autonomy to create and decide ‘my leaning needs’ and ‘my learning journey’. Therefore, professional learning undertaken by teachers should involve opportunities to work together and to ask questions of their own practice and indeed the practice of others, which needs to be promoted and supported. This is high on the agenda for Scottish education and must remain so, if we are to be true to the aspiration of being enquiring professionals.
Practitioner enquiry is a vehicle to support teachers to engage with theory, policy and practice within their own local environment and is congruent with the act of ‘becoming’. It should lead to deep transformative learning, which significantly informs and influences a professionals’ understanding, practice and impact on pupil experiences. Engaging in enquiry helps teachers to “‘let go’, unlearn, innovate and re-skill in cycles of professional learning throughout their career in response to changing circumstances”, Menter et al (2011) and Sachs (2003) argues that undertaking practitioner enquiry can “act as an important source of teacher and academic professional renewal and development”.
Engaging in research may take the form of a simple enquiry based on a few questions or may involve a more structured and systematic professional learning opportunity where the enquiry is more in-depth and rigorous in methodology, evidence of impact and analysis.
Other forms of professional learning can also support teachers to deepen their knowledge and improve their practice, and although attending a one-off event can be enjoyable and beneficial, unless this has impact on practice it is not the best use of a teacher’s precious time. Professional learning needs to challenge the ‘going on a course’ mentality and move to finding the learning and research that meet the professional learning needs of teachers and support their learning journeys.
Teacher professionalism and professional learning, asks teachers examine their own beliefs, assumptions and behaviours so they can contribute to equality and social justice for all learners. It asks teachers to continue to improve and deepen their knowledge, skills and abilities in ways that keeps their practice relevant, fresh and alive, and to balance accountability with professional autonomy. All of this is expected and more, from teachers who are in the main intrinsically motivated, dedicated, have an altruistic disposition and drive to make a difference to the young people of Scotland.
Menter, I Elliott, D Hulme, M. Lewin, J Lowden K. (2011) A Guide to Practitioner research in Education. SAGE publishing
Sachs (2003) The Activist Teaching profession: Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice
Mitchel, R. (2013) What is professional development, how does it occur in individuals and how may it be used by educational leaders and managers for the purpose of school improvement? Professional development in Education, 39:3, 387-400