During my studies, I have been reading a lot of research about what makes professional learning effective. Professional learning is something that governments, education systems and schools invest a lot of money in, and so as you can imagine, there is quite a lot of research about what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. In fact, there was a recent meta-analysis that included fifteen research reviews, which altogether included 550 studies, all looking into exactly this: what key features are found in effective professional learning.
What is considered effective professional learning? While what makes professional learning effective for one teacher may be completely different to another, when it comes down to it, it’s all about the outcomes! Measuring the outcomes of professional learning is complex, as there are many ways in which teachers engage in learning. While public discussions about education, teachers and money spent on things like professional learning tend to focus on ‘hard facts’ like improvement in student achievement, there is a growing body of literature that argues against measurement using single indicators, such as student test results, claiming that this does not capture the ‘complexity and the messiness of practice-in-context’. In fact, identifying a link between particular professional learning strategies and student achievement has been particularly elusive. Changes in teacher practice may be considered a broader indicator of the effect of professional learning. These practices may include proficient curriculum design and high quality instructional and classroom management strategies. Improvement in teacher practice may in turn lead to enhanced school cultures and student achievement.
It may come as a surprise, but almost all of the research found that attending formal information sessions, where the ‘expert’ speaks and the learners passively listen is not all that effective in creating change in teacher practice. If you read my previous blog post, you might recognise this as an example of traditional professional development. While there is definitely a place for this type of learning, particularly for introducing new concepts, if this is the only type of professional learning you engage in, then little change over the long term is likely.
Instead, the sort of things that the research finds to make for professional learning include:
- Content Focus: Really, this should surprise no one. If the professional learning is specifically focused on the content that teachers need to teach, and on how students learn this content (pedagogical content knowledge) there is a good chance that teachers’ practice will change to reflect this learning. It makes sense. Specifically addressing what to teach, and how students learn rather than wafting on about generalised topics is obviously going to be more easily taken on board and put into practice in the classroom.
- Active Learning: again, there should be no surprises here. Just like students, teachers learn better when they are part of the process, taking ownership of their learning and actively constructing their understandings, preferably with others, and with actual student work. This is why things like Lesson Study, Action Research and other inquiry based professional learning, where teachers actively investigate problems that they are currently facing and implement solutions that they have identified work so well. The downside to this is that this type of learning is time-consuming and takes a lot of energy from teachers; you can see why tired, overworked teachers might choose a day sitting listening to a speaker, even if they know that an action research project might lead to greater change.
- Coherence: Coherence in professional learning relates to consistency between what the teacher knows and believes and what they are learning, as well as alignment between what teachers learn and school and system policies and plans. If professional learning is unrelated to everything else that is going on in the school, then it is unlikely that a teacher will take it on board and build it into their practice. When the learning ‘fits’ with what the teacher already believes and knows, and what the culture and plans of the school or system are, it will be more likely to become part of practice.
- Sustained duration: a one off professional learning session is unlikely to make any long term impact on practice. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, teachers are busy people, and if there is no time offered to reflect on learning, develop ways to embed the learning into practice and discuss how these changes went, then long term change is unlikely. Secondly, learning takes time. While I am not too sure that a specific time frame for effective learning can be pinpointed (studies have tried…some say at least 14 hours is needed, others say 20, while a whopping 80 plus hours is what some research has found) it makes sense that having learning take place over a series of sessions, so that teachers can take in new information, reflect on it, implement changed practice and then share feedback would be more effective.
- Collective Participation: teaching, like many other professions, is becoming collaborative. Recognising that we is bigger than me, the complexity of teaching is best managed by teachers who are working together, and learning is no different. When teachers discuss, share, debate, feedback, observe and problem-solve together, they are more likely to experience effective learning, and what’s more, the sense of shared responsibility means they are more likely to sustain any change to their practice. Participating collectively reflects some of the other features of effective learning also; collaborative learning is much more likely to be active, sustained and coherent, and when teachers learn together, they usually are working on content focused stuff – they don’t spend a lot of time on the airy fairy!!
So…these are the five aspects that multiple studies have found to be necessary for effective professional learning. What’s with this ‘special sauce’ mentioned in the title?
All of these features are enhanced (indeed, made more possible in some cases) by making practice public. Traditionally, teaching was a private profession. Teachers went into their classrooms, and spent their days working with students – not other teachers. They may have attended professional learning events with their colleagues, but at the end of the day they returned to their classroom, to resume their practice in private.
Sharing what works and what doesn’t is part of making practice public. Putting your planning out there, celebrating your achievements (those little wins in the classroom when a student ‘gets it’ or a lesson just flows) and opening up to colleagues when things don’t go so well is also making practice public. A great deal of teachers’ preparation time is spent developing, remixing and re-interpreting resources – sharing these with other teachers is another way to deprivatise practice. When you open your classroom door, and flatten your classroom walls, inviting others in to observe, feedback, exchange – you not only offer others the chance to learn from you, but also you create amazing opportunities to learn from others. What’s more, in an age of accountability, where teachers need to show how they are learning, when and where, putting your learning ‘out there’ is a wonderful way to create a record of knowledge creation.
One way to create a public face for your work is to share it online. Blogging about teaching, distributing resources you create online, curating and publishing lists of resources, using digital creation and publication tools to create and share, connecting and discussing with colleagues from all over the world using social networking tools – all of this will create a professional portfolio that captures your learning, and enables others to learn from you.
It may sound idealistic, but if everyone started small, and published and shared just one third of their work, imagine how much learning would happen. Social media and web 2.0 tools makes sharing your learning easier than ever before; and the return on your investment of time may be bigger than you ever imagined…