Editorial: Professional learning

John Graham

A central purpose of the AEU’s professional journal – Professional Voice – is to promote professional learning through critical debate and the discussion of current issues in education. It parallels journals from practitioner organisations (unions or professional associations) in other professions such as medicine, engineering and law. The articles and interviews in our journal are selected because the contributors have something important to say to teachers and principals as professionals working in public education. Each article is intended to create a dialogue with the reader whose ideas and understandings are extended or challenged or reinforced (or all of these) as part of the continuous learning process which helps to define professional work.

The title of this edition of Professional Voice refers both to this generic purpose of the journal – which all of the articles contribute to – as well the more specific focus on teacherprofessional learning in the lead article and comment on it in several other contributions. The phrase “professional learning” is gradually overtaking the more familiar “professional development” in schools. While they are often used interchangeably, there is an ambiguity in the term “development” and it can have negative connotations implying a staff deficit requiring remediation. The more neutral, and accurate, “learning”, verbally links the process of teacher learning to its fundamental purpose – the improvement of student learning. It is a better fit with the idea of schools as learning communities for all of those involved in them.

Providing effective professional learning for teachers has some similarities and some differences with what teachers know about enabling effective learning for their students. For example, the following learning principle would seem to apply to both teachers and students: 

People come to learning with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught or may learn them superficially and revert to their preconceptions in real situations.i

On the other hand, teachers as ‘learning experts’ and adults have a different experiential mindset when they participate in professional learning:

Professional learning can ask a lot of teachers in the interest of their students. Even those who are confident in their professional role can feel
profoundly uncomfortable when what they hold to be true is challenged and they have to rethink their beliefs and practices. This is particularly so
because teachers are adults who have well-defined and defended schema about the way the world works. ii

Reading an article in a professional journal has been described as “informal and incidental” professional learning. However in Victoria it is now recognised as a “professional practice” activity which can be documented and counted towards the requirements to maintain professional registration. The Victorian Institute of Teaching (VIT) defines such activities in terms of answering the question: “How does this activity contribute to my professional knowledge and how will I apply that knowledge to my practice to support the learning of my students?” The VIT also refers specifically to the “expansion of knowledge through reading and research” being counted for renewal of registration when it is consequent upon delivering professional development to colleagues.

In their major study of teacher professional learning Helen Timperley, Aaron Wilson, Heather Barrar, and Irene Fung from the University of Auckland wrote about two ‘black boxes’ which needed to be unpacked. The first was the connection between the acts of teaching and associated student outcomes and the second was the connection between professional learning opportunities and their impact on teaching practice. The lead article in this edition of Professional Voice uses a meticulous research methodology to provide insight into the second of these complex questions. Mary Kennedy, a professor emeritus of education at Michigan State University, describes her literature study of what works in professional development. She found that only a relatively small number of articles and reports provided sound evidence about the PD programs they studied. By “sound” she means they measured student learning after the program was finished and they compared these teachers’ classrooms to comparable classrooms elsewhere.

Kennedy found that the differences in pedagogy used in the various study programs were a key variable in explaining why some programs were more effective than others. She concluded that “situated problem solving”, which involved teachers in group discussion and analysis of teaching situations, was the only pedagogy that helped teachers learn and change their practices. This is a substantial finding which raises questions about the pedagogies which are still dominant in a number of high profile professional development programs in Australia. Two other findings of real interest were, firstly, that the evaluation of the impact of professional learning programs should not end when the program ends but be continued into the following year as changes to teacher practice as a result of professional learning were incremental and continued over a longer period. Secondly, smaller programs seemed to be more beneficial than larger ones and this may be because the effective pedagogy for professional learning is more able to be implemented in smaller sized groups.

Stephen Dinham’s article is a summary of the comprehensive research he has carried out into the strategies and approaches which have the greatest impact on student learning. This is a follow-up to his article in the previous edition of the journal where he wrote about common classroom practices which lack a convincing research base. He identifies professional learning as one of the four “fundamentals of student achievement” along with a focus on the student (both as learners and people), leadership, and quality teaching. He uses the effect size research of John Hattie to establish the impact of professional learning. Hattie’s typical effect size (impact) of different influences, interventions and innovations on student learning is 0.40. He estimated professional development to be 0.50, micro-teaching 0.88 and formative evaluation and feedback to teachers 0.90.

Dinham identifies student feedback as a ‘silver bullet’ for improving student achievement because it not only has a major impact (0.75 effect size) but there are so many opportunities to provide it. He believes the weak spot in feedback is the capacity of teachers to usefully respond to the student question ‘How can I do better?’ Rather than being “coaches” teachers often act more as “referees” - they are able to tell students when they are right or wrong, but not how to improve. The article outlines a school-based professional learning process to assist teacher understanding of the nature of productive feedback and to improve their capacity to deliver it.

The focus of Michael Fullan’s interview is public school improvement and the role of school leadership in that process. He has written extensively about both of these matters. He sees professional learning as an essential leadership component in any improvement strategy. Principals maximise their impact by becoming “lead learners”. This means they 

…participate as a learner in working with teachers to move the school forward together; lead and learn in equal measure (you can’t lead if you are not learning); and spend your tenure in any school (say for five or six years) developing a collaborative culture to the point where you become
dispensable!

When principals take on the role as instructional leaders in their school their focus should be on being learners rather than the boss. They influence the instructional practice of teachers through teachers. The payback when they do this is clear-cut: “The more you learn the more influential you become”. Fullan has much to say about how the relationship between school leaders and the system should work. He encourages them to see their relationship with the system bureaucracy as a two way street rather than one of compliance and says that in his experience “toeing the line is not a good job description”. Principals should be assertive but at the same time they should increase their participation as a learner with teachers. The result will be that they become more empowered and appreciated by both teachers and system leaders.

The other four articles in this edition are linked to professional learning in the generic sense of the journal’s purpose – expanding knowledge, supporting research, and discussing issues and ideas that count. Sue Thomson, a research director from ACER and National Manager of the PISA testing program, uses PISA data to peel back the layers of inequity in Australia’s schooling system. The data reveals a very uneven playing field where student achievement is heavily influenced by family background and school resourcing. She thinks the much discussed PISA performance decline of Australian students will only be reversed when these equity issues are properly addressed.

Peter Johnson writes about a relatively unexplored area of study - the number and importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers in Australian schools. He documents the significant national gap (2012) between the proportion of Indigenous students (4.9%) and the proportion of Indigenous teachers (1.7%). In Victoria (2015) 0.1 per cent of teachers identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders compared to 1.5 per cent of students. Johnson cites various research studies which emphasise the benefits for Indigenous students of being taught by Indigenous teachers.

The Shepparton Neighbourhood Schools Project was established to address the complex therapeutic needs of a growing cohort of disadvantaged children in Shepparton primary schools. The innovative project is led by a local paediatrician, Peter Eastaugh, and a group of primary principals. The project developed a process for identifying and assessing children with significant learning and/or behavioural challenges and linked them to a therapeutic intervention known as Child Centred Play Therapy, partially funded by State Government Equity Funding.

Andrew Fuller and Vicki Hartley describe the complexities of our brain systems and how they affect our learning and our actions. The authors outline an approach they refer to as Neurodevelopmental Differentiation (NDD) which is used to help students increase the effectiveness of each of their brain system areas and find ways for them to succeed by compensating for areas that are taking longer to develop. The value of this approach, which combines research on brain systems with research on learning, is that it opens up new pedagogical possibilities for teachers faced with the wide range of student needs and developmental stages found in most classrooms.

Notes

i Lorna Earl (2007), in Teacher Professional Learning and Development, Helen Timperley, Aaron Wilson, Heather Barrar, and Irene Fung, NZ Ministry of Education, p.viii http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/48727127.pdf
ii Ibid

John Graham is editor of Professional Voice and works as a research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic). He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. He has had particular responsibility for the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education. He has written extensively in various publications about all of these matters.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.1 Professional learning.