professional development of teachers

The evidence says teachers need more time and more money. Why is the government ignoring it?

Governments must stop telling teachers to scale up practice by copying strategies developed for another school’s context. The latest change in NSW education policy again confuses teacher learning from their own evidence-based practice with guidance from practice developed elsewhere.

Scaling up won’t work for improved learning outcomes. Here’s why.  The context of our schools is significant for developing evidence-based practice. Trotting out: “Here’s what worked in this A ranked school”  is as pointless as mandating protocols across subjects or year levels within one school.

And let’s not even get into the contentious lack of clarity on measures of the ‘most successful schools’. UNSW Professor Pasi Sahlberg told us this exactly three years ago. He cautioned teachers to ‘avoid urban legends’ in his 2018 book FinnishED Leadership. After decisive longitudinal research in Australia, the call for no more reform hangs on hope. 

But hope just won’t cut it with the latest proposed Successful Schools Model for NSW. The first point the model makes (evidence-based practice) and last point (scaling of practice) are counter-productive, counter-research and counter-teacher-led-inquiry in context. 

The hopes educators have for fewer administrative burdens and practical support are illusive. The government says it requires teachers to work from an evidence base yet overall policy selectively draws on the wording of research without a concrete offer of structural change. 

Governments must action the well-worn call for time and money for teacher professional learning (TPL) where it happens – in schools.

The complexity and time required for TPL are highlighted in the recent findings and recommendations from the independent Gallop inquiry Valuing the teaching profession commissioned by the NSW Teachers Federation. A case in point – will teachers have time to respond via survey on the recommendations of the report? The imperative for government is clear. TPL requires significant structural change to provide the allocated time and salary increases for the essential collective work efforts of the teaching profession.

The profession and the research literature tell us all we need to know. The Australian experience of TPL within a global perspective is outlined in my book Enacted personal professional learning (EPPL): Re-thinking teacher expertise with story-telling and problematics. The idea of EPPL is that teacher learning is complex, contextual, collectively driven, and takes time.

Now, complexity is not the same as difficulty. More difficult means that the understanding and skills become harder by building from the same basic level, that is, the examples become harder. More complex means that the understanding and skills require multiple relations or interactions within context. 

So for teachers, complexity occurs among individual learners in one class, between classes when teaching the same subject, or across different learner developmental levels. This complexity occurs throughout the teaching and learning process, which is why pedagogical models continue to be grappled with by both teachers and researchers. 

Teachers develop expertise together in dealing with complexity of practice throughout their career. However, teacher collective efficacy (CE) doesn’t come from being a ‘diva’. A diva school or teacher is inwardly focused on their own development and outwardly focused on achievement in competing with others. This undermines empowered teacher learning through a collective practice-based inquiry that meets all individual needs. Enacted personal professional learning (EPPL) requires approaches that develop professional trust in context with colleagues and enable collectively successful practice to flourish. Communities of teachers working in situ on longitudinal TPL programmes draw on teacher’s individuality to harness the collective learning. This work is both difficult and contextually complex – and ongoing. Articulating the thinking of teachers and their students is a continuing challenge in developing a shared language of learning. One of the positives teachers were able to take from the COVID-19 crisis is that it highlighted the difficulty and complexity of teacher work and learning to those uninitiated to the profession.

Challenges and achievements of teacher professional learning

One teacher professional learning (TPL) programme that was conducted across nine different school contexts enabled teachers to develop strategies through evidence-based practice. Cultivating a schoolwide pedagogy: Achievements and challenges of shifting teacher learning on thinking details the findings and recommendations. Various combinations of teaching teams from either a learning stage, curriculum area, or cross-curricular areas considered their own practice for cultivating a schoolwide pedagogy. The longitudinal time frame allowed teachers to trial a variety of strategies drawn from the formal and informal research literature. Teachers used a shared pedagogical model to understand the scope of learning thinking through an inquiry-based approach. Evident in the creation of pedagogical protocols was the need for teachers working together in context. The impact on learning outcomes was evidenced in the shared thinking on and language of learning for students and teachers.

The teaching profession needs allocated learning time and commensurate salary increases

Governments must make the overdue structural change for the teaching profession. Workloads need to allocate time for TPL and salaries of teachers need to be increased to recognise the increasingly difficult and complex work of the profession. This action is supported by the research and best-practice of TPL.

Teaching as the learning profession models the use of research to develop evidence-based strategies through inquiry into practice. In some jurisdictions internationally, TPL is included in the employment hours resulting in reduced face-to-face teaching hours and the use of agreed standards to progress individual development plans. In jurisdictions like NSW Australia, TPL is completed in addition to teaching loads with a government mandated approach to PD requirements. This does not allow for the potential achievements of changed practice through the collective work efforts of teachers.

The end of the 2020 school year for teachers was difficult whilst still coping with the constant changes to COVID-19 protocols. In NSW, instead of a steady start to the 2021 school year, teachers were faced with understanding new teacher professional development (PD) maintenance requirements. Teachers now have limited choices with the drastically reduced accredited courses through the decimating de-registration of providers. The NSW government’s action has resulted in the economic damage experienced by many de-registered providers. TPL once offered by these providers is no longer available to meet the diverse needs of teachers and the required re-engineered approach for a blended online and face-to-face environment. Significantly, the bureaucratic approach to PD belies the complexity and time required for long term sustainable TPL that impacts teaching practice and results in improved learning outcomes for students.

What can the time and money do for teacher learning in context? 

Below are three identified areas of teacher influence on their own practice and that of colleagues for improved outcomes.

1. Individual and team thinking built through teacher collective efficacy (CE)

Developing new efforts with collective thinking to influence schoolwide improvement is challenging. The constraints on teacher’s time have developed practices of cooperatively dividing the work effort. Teacher collective efficacy (CE) is often misrepresented as collaborative task generation or cooperative marking or reviewing of student work. CE entails the work of teaching teams to garner collective contributions for:

  • developing understanding of observations on learning,
  • critiquing task requirements,
  • assessing student work samples,
  • creating reasoned strategies to implement and evaluation in context,
  • expanding and clarifying individual teacher thinking with colleagues, and
  • collectively developing practice in context.
2. A pedagogical model to support evidence-based inquiry and performance predictions

TPL that offers a pedagogical model enables teachers to predict performance and map progress of learning thinking. Trialling new strategies in classrooms requires allocated time and structural support to overcome various challenges. This is evident for teachers who struggle to change entrenched routines, as well as teachers currently working out of their curriculum learning area or with a new stage level, or those early career teachers still resolving the theory-practice divide.

3. Teacher and student language and thinking on learning

TPL situated in context gives meaning to teacher’s practice and enables shared findings to address what mattered to teachers. Over a longitudinal implementation time frame, teachers are able to track changes in the collective thinking on the influences of student learning and identify changes in practice school-wide. Developing student reasoning and a language of learning in context requires dedicated time for TPL. 

The essential call to action for governments is clear. Reward teachers for their collective efforts in learning and teaching through salary increases and allocated time in workloads.

Carmel Patterson, PhD, is Director of Professional Learning and Pedagogy at Stella Maris College Manly and an Industry Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She has published in her research areas of teacher professional learning and qualitative methodology. Carmel consults on professional learning courses provided by schools, universities, and private enterprise and has a wide array of professional networks.

Teacher learning, not student test results, should be a national priority for Australia

Ongoing professional development of teachers is vital for the successful education of our children. At present, teacher learning is not given the sort of attention it deserves by governments in Australia. Our teachers are finding themselves increasingly reacting to a plethora of national, and other, tests. What they are ‘learning’ in the process is that tests and testing matters because school results have to ‘look good’ at school and system level. This can narrow the focus of the development of teacher professional skills and knowledge across a whole school, and, indeed, whole systems.

Substantive teacher learning (that is teacher learning that contributes to student learning) is essential for fostering students’ academic and social development and learning. Much is known and has been written about the sorts of ongoing professional learning that are necessary to cultivate productive learning on the part of teachers, for students. Such learning should be ongoing, systematic, shared with other teachers in a public but supportive context, build upon teachers’ understandings of students’ current needs (not just academic but also socio-emotional and personal needs) and designed to extend students’ understandings in robust ways.

However, teachers’ learning is also influenced by the broader political and policy conditions within which they work. Some of these influences, such as having to constantly respond to standardised test results, can be counter-productive. They make it difficult for teachers to sustain attention to more long-term approaches focused on students’ actual work. This actual work includes students’ bookwork, extended assignment work, and extended responses in curriculum-based tests and other forms of assessment.

In Australia, the problem is most obvious in relation to national literacy and numeracy testing practices associated with NAPLAN (National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy). On the recent 10th anniversary of NAPLAN, we witnessed debates at the highest levels of government about the efficacy or otherwise of the program. Education Minister of NSW, Rob Stokes, (NSW is Australia’s most populous state) criticised the value and benefit of the national testing program, arguing for it to be replaced. The criticism was timely because reforms to schooling recently recommended to the Australian Government emphasised smaller, more ‘low-key’, modes of assessment in schools. Minister Stokes’ criticisms led to the federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, defending NAPLAN as a necessary vehicle to inform parents about students’ progress.

The ‘problem’, however, is not just isolated to practices around NAPLAN. Australian schools use other forms of quantified, standardized measures of learning such as Progressive Assessment Tests (PAT-tests) in reading, mathematics and vocabulary. There is also increased use and reliance on various ‘levelled’ readers as markers of students’ achievement. (Levelled readers are a series of reading books written to a formula of increasing difficulty usually from level 1 to level 30, with level 30 considered appropriate for students around 12 years of age). Schools often use these readers as a ‘quick’ way to ascertain whether students appear to be reading at year level, although they can be very limited in their content and foci, and do not necessarily serve as the best resources to inform teachers about students’ actual comprehension and reading fluency.

Of course all of these forms of data can be useful to indicate where students need further assistance and opportunities for development and learning. However, in a broader context in which national testing practices are simultaneously deployed for accountability purposes (most obviously through the ‘MySchool’ website), the more educative functions of using the data can be significantly reduced.

Increasing concerns about performance for performance sake can effectively cruel the potential of this array of tests and instruments to be genuinely educative.

Nevertheless, teachers are constantly creative in their efforts to learn from such markers of student learning. My research shows how teachers endeavour to use standardised data in conjunction with a much broader and more substantive array of student ‘data’ they collect during their everyday practices. This broader array of data includes extensive examples of students’ work, including various samples of students’ bookwork, as well as responses to formative and summative assessment tasks. Formative assessment tasks are designed to check on students’ understanding on an ongoing basis in class. Summative tasks are used to measure students’ understandings, often at the end of a unit of work, and for more formal reporting purposes.

Useful data can also include teachers’ notes about student academic progress more generally, their level of attentiveness in class, as well as about their well-being and social engagement with their peers, and other adults in the school. Seeking to work productively with a wide and deep array of data, beyond simply standardized measures, is the key to fostering substantive teacher learning for student learning.

So what can school authorities and teachers do about this?

First, school system administrators and school principals should actively talk about the need for teachers to collect and collate a wide variety of data, beyond simply test scores. They need to ‘give permission’ to teachers to be doing more than simply responding to the latest set of NAPLAN scores, and areas in which students fall short.

This will help build cultures in schools that ensure data are diverse, rich sources of evidence of students’ learning. If we are serious about encouraging the sorts of complex skill development and empathetic social capacities and understandings that are often promoted as the necessary 21st Century skills of the future, we need to encourage teachers to look for and promote the development of a wide array of understandings about student learning. This, in turn, will assist teachers to provide learning opportunities to help ‘future-proof’ students for an increasingly fluid job market, and cultivate the sorts of civic capacities so necessary in and for a genuinely inclusive, sustainable and global world.

Teachers can help to bring such a system of rich diverse data into being by insisting that principals, system administrators, parents and members of the wider community take a much more active role in thinking about what successful student learning actually looks like. Success includes the ability to communicate with others from backgrounds and cultural groups different from one’s own, having the confidence and resilience to keep striving for improvement and success in the face of adversity, and developing a sufficiently robust moral compass as a bulwark to avoid potentially exploitative circumstances in which students of today – citizens of tomorrow – might find themselves.

Such capacities are reflected in what the Australian Curriculum refers to as ‘general capabilities’, which were strongly supported in the recent Gonski school reform recommendations (Through Growth to Achievement). The capabilities include and emphasise strong literacy, numeracy and ICT capabilities, but significantly are not limited to these alone.

Governments need to more actively refocus policy upon a much richer conception of teacher and student learning. We need to move away from constantly reporting and comparing test results to providing and advocating for a wide range of substantive teacher professional development opportunities for all Australian teachers. Our children’s futures depend on us getting this right, just as we will surely depend upon them for our future well-being.

If you’d like to read more about these issues, please see my paper Governing teacher learning: Understanding teachers’ compliance with and critique of standardization in the Journal of Education Policy.

Teachers might also be interested in an associated article I recently wrote for the NSW Teachers Federation Journal of Professional Learning: Is Standardisation Governing Teacher Learning? Understanding Teachers’ Compliance and Critique

Dr Ian Hardy is Senior Lecturer, and Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. Dr Hardy researches and teaches in the areas of educational policy and politics, with a particular focus upon the nature of teachers’ work and learning. As an ARC Future Fellow (2015-2018), Dr Hardy is currently undertaking full-time research into how policy support for curricula reform influences teacher learning in Queensland, within a broader global policy context. At the same time, Dr Hardy is exploring how concurrent policy reform in Scandinavian (Finland and Sweden) and North American (Ontario and Connecticut) contexts is currently constituted, and influencing practice.