The Problem(s) With (most) Professional Learning

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Expert_01A while back I gained accreditation from NSW BOSTES to deliver workshops for which teachers who attended could claim hours against the teaching standards.

When I mentioned this to my old man in the UK he said, “Oh no! You’re not one them tossers now are you?”

He’s been an accountant for his entire working life building up – from scratch – a successful company just south of Manchester. He likens attending accredited professional learning in his industry to experiencing a slow and painful death. Hours of his life he will NEVER get back.

I’d never considered what professional learning looks like in any other sector than education but I’m of the opinion that many teachers probably think the same as my old man with regards to their professional learning.

I’ve arrived at this conclusion based on my own experience both as a participant in professional learning and as a facilitator working with different organisations (each of whom have various philosophies/understanding as to how learning takes place).

I’ve also observed how many teachers proclaim that Twitter (either a hashtagged chat or their PLN) and/or Teachmeets are, “The best professional development I’ve ever had!”

In short, if that really is true, then that is a sad indictment of your professional learning to date.

That isn’t to denigrate Twitter or Teachmeets, as I’m an strong advocate for both as part of any teacher’s approach to their learning. But it does highlight that many in the profession are disenfranchised from the learning that is provided for them by their organisations or systems.

As I see it, these are some of the issues with traditional approaches to professional learning:

1. Who are you?

I’m not against people from outside education offering their insights as to how education could evolve. In fact I’m all for it. However I am concerned when I see people from outside education suggesting that schools are fundamentally flawed, not fit for purpose etc. As a comparison, I could certainly offer some doctors I’ve met advice around developing their Emotional Intelligence… but I wouldn’t deem myself an authority on systematic health system (based purely on my ideology).

2. Ideas presented as fact.

Learning Styles – nuff said. (Check the date of this article – 2009 – seriously, how many sessions have you attended on this since?)

3. One size fits all.

We talk about individual learning plans and personalising learning for kids. What about for teachers? A one-size-fits-all approach rarely acknowledges the expertise or capacity of those in the room. This is where Twitter & Teachmeets have really found their place. Self Determination Theory (Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose) explains some of the key requirements for engagement – and Teachmeets and Twitter tend to tick these boxes rather quite nicely.

4. Talking the talk – and that’s it

It is ironic how many times you’ll be hearing about innovative ways to teach in the least innovative forum of all… a lecture. Often this is due to how – particularly large – events run. This approach often means many in the room are hearing things that they already know, or aren’t in a position to benefit from.

5. Not enough support to implement change as a result of PL

There are so many competing priorities in school (I’m yet to find a teacher drumming their fingers, at a loose end, looking for something else to do) that means professional learning is not an authentically continuous process as there’s no time. Rather it’s often a sporadic one, centred around 3 or 4 dates in the year.

So what’s the solution? HINT: There probably isn’t ONE (that would be a one-size-fits-all approach!) but for what it’s worth here are five ideas…

1. Engage someone who will build a relationship with your school, both prior to, during and after the learning, either in person, online or a blended approach. Relationships are pivotal in student learning. It’s the same for adults.

2. Develop your own understanding of what is presented. Some schools have their own research teams. But better still, why not seek to form a relationship (formal or informal) with a university or other research institution.

3. It’s one thing for leaders to present a vision (preferably one co-designed with the community) but it’s another to dictate the manner in which the vision should be achieved. An alternate approach is to empower your staff to develop their own learning plans in relation to your vision. They need to be accountable, and you could regularly get updates either informally, via an online platform or via a school event where teachers can explore what their colleagues are doing across the organisation. Heck you might even do all of these!

4. I’m not sure what the answer for HUGE events are here… but surely individual schools, or smaller events could get a little more creative in how things are done.

5. Time. Effective leaders realise that in order for good things to happen, often it means other good things can’t. Leaders need to ensure that there is time for teachers to meet, discuss, design and practice new strategies or approaches. For example in order to effectively implement Formative Assessment across your school, Dylan Wiliam suggests a 75minute meeting, with between 8-12 staff once per month… and that’s just ONE initiative!

I’d love to hear what some of your solutions are to address the issue of professional learning in your organisation/sector…

9 Comments on “The Problem(s) With (most) Professional Learning

  1. Hi Dan, A great post.
    I have just recently finished writing up a case study on this exact topic. My school has recently undergone a big structural change in the delivery of PL to staff and it has had mixed reactions. We have shifted from professional learning being ‘done to the teachers’ in a lecture style environment to professional learning being a small group focused on a topic teachers want to learn about. There has been some backlash against this as teachers now feel they are responsible for their own professional learning and it requires them to do something. It will be interesting to see how effective this new model is as we progress with it throughout the year. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    • Thanks for your comment Clare! I applaud the shift your school has made… although change is/can be often hard regardless of whether it is change for the better… so the real challenge will be for the leaders to nurture the staff. I assume that the school is still supporting learning with $$ though? It’s alarming how many teachers I’m hearing of who have to pay for their learning entirely out of their own pocket.
      Thanks again,

  2. I have been to 2 of your presentations and workshops Dan. I truly believe you are on the right path with your thinking re kids / education and teachers….Your presentations are always informative and interesting leaving me wanting to hear more of what you have to say. So keep up the great work and tell your Dad you are not “One of them” cause I would come to any workshop that you present. Well done and keep up with your work…..Karen

    • Hi Karen! Thanks for taking the time to stop by and your lovely comment – i shall pass it on! 🙂

  3. Hi Dan – thanks for the post. I’ve been thinking a lot about personalised/differentiated approaches to professional learning. With 100,000 teachers in NSW having to complete accredited hours from 2018 I’m truly worried that teachers will be lumped with a lot of legwork with little learning. I’ve got a few ideas to help though 😉

    • I’m sure you do! And that’s what it’s going to take I think… lots of ideas and opportunities for teachers to meet these standards… otherwise it could become a real tick-a-box ‘churn & burn’ scenario I think!
      Cheers Matt,

  4. Thanks for your post Dan! It fits in very well with a PhD I am doing on communities of practice for teacher learning rather than traditional pd

    • Hi Bernadette – thanks for your comment… I suspect as you’re doing a PhD you’ll have a better idea than I on these issues! Good luck with it! 🙂

  5. Hi Dan,

    Our school brought together 365 teachers from 96 schools on June 19 to hear from Carl Jarvis from Lincoln, Kevin Honeycutt from Kansas, Dr Kristy Goodwin and Steve Harris from Northern Beaches CS. We had 28 schools share their work thru workshops too.

    Good things are happening in PL in schools.

    Paul Taylor, Turramurra North PS

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