Written by Christophe Mullings

For many school leaders, the importance of effective teacher professional learning/professional development needs little explaining. As the NSW state government in Great Teaching, Inspired Learning (2012) straightforwardly puts it, “To ensure we have inspired learning in every classroom in every school, teachers need to develop and maintain their professional practice. Quality professional learning leads to improved teaching practice and improved student outcomes.”

We know that teachers themselves are also firmly invested in honing and developing their skills. According to an LKMco and Pearson survey, the prospect of making a difference in students’ lives motivates 92% of teachers to stay in teaching, so any further opportunities to increase their impact in the classroom are likely to be received with enthusiasm.

In the words of Dylan Wiliam, every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

What is teacher professional learning?

Teacher professional learning is a process of recording and reflecting on learning and development; the action of tracking and documenting the skills, knowledge and experience that teachers gain both formally and informally as they teach, beyond any initial training. It’s a record of what they experience, learn and then apply.

According to The Teacher Professional Learning and Development BES, effective professional learning must:

  • Integrate different aspects, e.g. integration of theory and practice, and integration of pedagogical content knowledge, assessment information, and information about how students learn particular curricula
  • Clearly link between teaching and learning and/or student-teacher relationships established
  • Be assessed to focus teaching and enhance self-regulation
  • Be sustainable – achieved by teachers acquiring in-depth understanding of theory and the skills of inquiry to judge the impact of teaching on learning and to identify next teaching steps.

In addition, by reviewing decades of research, Joyce and Showers (2002) found that professional learning must provide teachers with the theory underlying the new instructional strategies they’re learning, demonstrations, and opportunities to practice the strategies in their own classrooms.

Why is professional learning important?

The professional learning process helps teachers to manage their own development on an ongoing basis. It’s not a tick-box document recording the training they have completed. It’s broader than that. Here’s what professional learning helps teachers to do:

  • Ensures they keep pace with the current standards of others working in education.
  • Keeps their knowledge and skills current so they can deliver high-quality teaching and impact positively on student outcomes.
  • Makes sure that they become more effective in the workplace. This helps them to advance in their career and move into new positions where they can lead, manage, influence, coach and mentor others.
  • Opens them up to new possibilities, new knowledge and new skills.
  • Leads to increased confidence in themselves, others and the profession as a whole.

Teacher professional learning is also very useful at:

  • Reminding them of their achievements and how far they’ve progressed.
  • Directs their career and helps them keep an eye on their goals.
  • Uncovers gaps in their skills and capabilities.
  • Opens up further development needs.

How teachers record their professional learning is up to them, but you might want to think about offering an electronic method or a framework to help guide your teachers. Format is not important, what matters is that it’s meaningful for teachers.

We often hear that teachers and educators don’t have time for their own professional learning. Or they believe that it is the senior leadership’s responsibility to guide their professional development. More often than not teacher professional learning is thought of as ‘providing training to develop a skill’, but effective professional development is so much more than something that is delivered to teachers.

Instead of identifying professional learning as a process of acquisition based on the senior leadership team passing on their knowledge, learning should be more commonly conceptualised as a program of action whereby teachers actively and collaboratively construct their own understanding and skills.

The importance of personalised professional learning for teachers

In the past, Philippa Cordingley (Chief Executive of CUREE) has spoken about how senior leaders need to view staff like they would a class. This is echoed in the article with the suggestion that teacher professional learning leaders plan and structure training in the same way they would a lesson.

The difference is that unlike the article, Philippa is not concerned with viewing staff like a class in order for the professional learning leaders to feel confident in delivering a training session. Instead, her message is that professional learning leaders need to consider what it is that every individual member of staff needs, just as a teacher uses differentiation in the classroom. In the best classrooms, we see children as active contributors to the learning process and the same should be true of professional learning.

Philippa echoes part 1 of the standard, which highlights the importance of personalised professional learning for teachers. It recommends that professional development activities should:

  • Be designed around individual teachers’ existing experience, knowledge and needs
  • Be relevant to the context and day-to-day experiences of teachers and their schools

The staff in a school are like a class; each teacher has different levels of experience, different priorities they want to focus on and different ways they like to learn. It can’t be presumed that one style of professional learning will fit all.

Choosing a professional learning program for teachers

When we think of teacher professional learning, it’s often the one-off training courses that first spring to mind. But, as well as single training sessions, the term professional learning also covers teaching and learning activities designed to help teachers develop their practice; from research, self-reflection and lesson observations to feedback and coaching.  

When choosing the right professional learning program for teachers, it is important to distinguish between training and ongoing development.

Training is about learning how to do something specific. It can be as simple as learning how to use a whiteboard and as complex as learning how to be an astronaut.

Development on the other hand, is informal and has a wider application, giving you the tools to do a range of things and evolve your capability and competency. It involves progression from basic know-how to a more advanced, mature or complex understanding of something. Development is what will take you from beginning teacher to experienced teacher or middle leader to head of department.

Both training and development have key roles to play in effective teacher professional learning. Let’s take a look at an example:

“Susie has been teaching for five years. She’s heard about a new teaching strategy that she wants to learn more about, so she applies to go on a day program. During the course, she learns all about the strategy and the theories behind it. At this point Susie has taken part in training. It’s not until she is back in her classroom applying the strategy with her own children, analysing the results, tweaking her technique, improving her practice and sharing with others that she’s taking part in continuing professional development.”

How to choose the right type of professional learning and provider

It is important to keep in mind what type of professional learning teachers actually want. The more engaged a teacher is in the professional learning they are offered, the more likely it is to succeed.

IRIS Connect UK asked 2,000 teachers what professional development activities they would prioritise if they were in control of their own professional learning. They gave some interesting insights which you can see in the diagram below.

When you’re sifting through teacher professional learning providers, asking the following questions will help you to gauge whether what you are choosing is likely to give good results.

  1. Clear outcomes: Is the information about the outcomes clearly stated from the outset? Including the skills and practical strategies learned by participants and the intended effect on the pupils in the classroom.
  2. Relevant and targeted: Is it carefully pitched to meet the needs of specific groups of teachers? Does each session clearly indicate who would benefit from the training? Does it meet your staff development needs? Does it explicitly match what’s been outlined in performance reviews as areas for development?
  3. Expertly informed: Has it been created by expert practitioners in the education field? How highly regarded are these experts among peers?
  4. Highly engaging: Does it sound engaging for participants? Does it include interactive elements, case studies, practical strategies and actively promote collaboration with peers?
  5. High-impact: Is there evidence that it has an impact on the skill levels of teachers and the learning of pupils? To help measure this, have they included thoughtful suggestions for assessing how successful it is in transforming practice? Knowing that a provider has used a solid foundation of research leaves you more confident in the integrity and effectiveness of the professional learning you will receive/provide.
  6. Follow up: What follow up support is on offer? Is it sustained over time? How can you evaluate the impact? The standard “one-day training” is all too familiar. However, most of the time, effective professional learning requires input beyond a single session. You should therefore prioritise services with opportunities for further support.

Similarly, when you’re wading through teacher professional learning providers, including teaching schools and research schools, asking the following questions will help you to gauge the quality and suitability of the provider:

  • Independently assured: Has the teacher professional learning provider been independently assured for quality and evidence?
  • Peer review: What have teachers and school leaders said about the resources and provider?

After investing time, money and effort into an effective teacher professional learning program, you’ll naturally want to know that it’s having a positive impact on your school’s teaching and learning.

How to assess whether teacher professional learning is being effective

Effectiveness isn’t about the performance of the teacher, but the extent to which practice and outcomes of learners has been improved. 

The systematic reflection on and evaluation of the effectiveness of approaches to teaching should be everyone’s responsibility – teachers, senior leaders and teacher professional learning providers. Teachers ought to feel in control of their own professional learning and be able to contribute to the culture of learning, openness and trust that is needed for professional learning that has a real impact on outcomes.  

Effective professional learning involves creating a rhythm of ongoing support and follow-up activities. This indicates that a traditional approach of one-off activities does not work.

It also stresses the importance of programs drawing on tried and tested methods, robust evidence and expertise of what’s sustainable and works in the classroom. With the sheer amount of professional learning providers available, it is vital that teachers receive professional learning activities that are proven by research to improve learning outcomes. Challenging professional learning providers on the evidence of impact of their approach is therefore critical.

The University College London Institute for Education suggests that the best professional learning is also ‘interspersed with episodes of practice’ and is tailored to each teacher. So, the easier that professional development programs can be integrated into individual teachers’ classroom contexts and the specific areas of their day-to-day practice they want to improve upon, the more lasting impact we can expect to see.

Finally, effective teacher professional learning relies heavily on collaboration, specifically peer support, feedback and focused discussions about practice. While there is undoubtedly a place for external expertise in teacher professional learning, teachers also have a great deal to learn from each other, especially within shared contexts or when overcoming common challenges.

Video-based professional learning platforms like IRIS Connect can be a very impactful and cost-effective teacher professional learning solution for schools. Get in touch with us today to find out more.


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