Leading Professional Learning and Development (PLD) with Purpose
The research findings on effective PLD (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007) have been out a long time, so one might reasonably expect that positive changes would have been made at the school level, but often, our observations do not support this assumption.
Take one of the major and best-known findings: effective PLD should involve the school leaders, not just the teachers. Someone recently said in my hearing that that was mostly the case now. Unfortunately, that is not our experience. We frequently find that school leaders are not involved in the same PLD opportunities as their teachers.
No doubt there are many good reasons for this. The most obvious is probably time. For example, if a senior leader has carried out formal learning in the topic, they may well justify their non-attendance. And if the leader is a principal of a large school, they may well feel conflicted as there is probably a lot of PLD going on and they cannot attend it all.
This last point regarding too much PLD illuminates the biggest problem in PLD, in my view. There is still too much of it happening in schools and it is frequently not specifically connected to the identified causes of key learning problems that are negatively impacting teacher practices and student learning. If it was tightly-connected to problems in current practices, schools would have a plan for key shifts they want in teacher behaviours each term (agreed with teachers) and key shifts in learner outcomes. Rather, we still tend to see very generalised PLD that makes no effort to check its effectiveness against key teacher outcomes, and key learner outcomes.
Thus, I once again conclude that while there is a lot of talk about the spiral of inquiry, learning and action (Timperley, Kaser, & Halbert, 2014), what we see demonstrates a lack of understanding of its fundamental messages, one of which is that the effectiveness of ‘teacher learning’ should be a collective inquiry and one that is regularly checked against desired shifts in teacher outcomes and desired shifts in learner outcomes (quick wins). In other words, its effectiveness needs regular checking on small easily discernible, but important teacher and learner outcomes.
The current practice of allocating PLD hours to schools and Kāhui Ako may well be unintentionally reinforcing these poor practices. The fact that schools and Kāhui Ako get this ‘free’ means they are often overly hasty to apply for it (don’t want to miss a deadline) and then look for ways to ‘spend it’ without having carried out the key causal inquiry. Old habits are hard to break. Leaders have been applying PLD as if it is a generalised ‘treatment’ for what they see as generalised problems with teaching, for a long time.
Effective PLD is led by school leaders to address specific and clearly articulated problems (i.e., they are not a secret) (Timperley et al., 2007). Leaders and teachers need a very clear purpose for PLD and that purpose arises from a clear problem definition – i.e., what is the major cause of this issue that we need to address? That is the ‘inquiry’ part that is supposed to precede the PLD or ‘learning’ part of the cycle. And that is just the beginning. Where is the ‘action’ part of the cycle? The action is the change in teacher and leader practices. Leaders’ actions will inevitably be part of the problem. Organisational practices that leaders set up, create the conditions for teachers to learn and act. Often, these are key barriers or enablers for better outcomes. In other words, leaders and teachers both need to be part of the problem definition and part of the solution – it is not an ‘either or’ and the solution will not only rest with PLD. Any improvement is likely to require multiple strategies to get the desired shift in outcomes.
But it is the regular checking for those shifts in teacher, leader and learner outcomes that is the big missing piece in the improvement efforts of most schools and Kāhui Ako that strikes me over and over again. Outcomes are, it seems, often just afterthoughts or ‘hoped for’ results that will come along sometime.
So, some practical advice from the research and many observations of what is not done well in New Zealand and Australia are:
- If you are a leader of a large organisation and it is not realistic for you to attend a given PLD opportunity that you nonetheless think is important for your staff, get them to present you with some key findings and the recommendationsalong with the rationale for those changes that arise from what they have learnt. This allows them to influence you and your thinking. When leaders are not involved it is critical that they know what they have to do to provide the support for the required changes.
- Don’t just ‘get in’ PLD. Have a very clear purpose for it and be open with staff about what the purpose is. Too often leaders hide their true concerns but if you do that you are not opening your thinking up to critique and validity testing.
- Do bring in some critical expert voice (not a provider who simply wants to be re-employed and therefore does not offer critique). The ‘answer’ is not always in the room. Timperley and colleagues (2007) point to a study where three conditions were tested: one where teachers gave each other collegial support, one where teachers worked from a text book and one where they engaged repeatedly with an expert. No prizes for guessing which was the only method that made an impact; the one with outside expertise. Outsiders with a level of expertise see things differently to those who are used to ‘the way things are here’.
- Don’t treat PLD as something to ‘be done’ and then move onto the next thing; effective PLD requires multiple opportunities for adult learning and lots of time for teachers to engage with the ideas.
- But most importantly of all, have a way of checking that some shifts are happening every term: for leaders, teachers and learners! If you are not getting improved results in the short term, there will be no motivation to continue and it is unlikely you will get better results by waiting and hoping.
We know this is not easy to do. That is clear by how rarely we see it effectively enacted. But please, give the effectiveness of your PLD some critical thought and if relevant, take some small steps to improve it.
Timperley, H., Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Victoria, Australia: Centre for Strategic Education.
Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning and development. Wellington: Ministry of Education.