Which forms of professional development improve student outcomes?

This report was originally published 20 July 2016.

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A word from the experts: Dr Paul Brock.

How can evidence-based research answer the following question:

Are there forms of professional development or learning processes which, when applied to school teaching and learning contexts, make significant contributions to demonstrably improved student learning outcomes?

Some basic principles that I suggest should underpin all quality policy development in education

It is certainly true that evidence-based research must underpin any authentic response to the fundamental question posed above, and this will be the principal focus of this paper. But from a broader policy perspective, evidence-based research is an example of when what is ‘necessary’ may not be ‘sufficient’. Already completed and published research is but one of at least four inter-dependent and inter-related fundamental sources of information and understanding that need to be heeded.

The second fundamental source is scholarship– ie. the ideas, speculation, imagination, creativity, innovation and so on – generated and articulated by thinkers who would not fit into the mould of evidence-based researchers.

The third is the wisdom distilled from the reflection over their experience by excellent teachers, principals, and other school leaders who may never have undertaken evidence-based research, who may never have published in the scholarship genre, but who are able to abundantly irrigate educational theory and practice because of their own reflections on their expertise and experiences.

The fourth is practical, good old fashioned strategic nous, which might be described as that down to earth, insightful, flexible exercise of common sense, while fully aware of the complexities of the relevant context.

Some reflections on research

There is considerable educational research that merely confirms what good teachers, principals, and educators in many contexts have known or suspected for quite a while. For example, the research that has demonstrated that the quality of teaching is the most significant within-school factor in the quality of student learning, and that within-school differences are often more significant than between-school differences. These are really ‘no brainers’ these days.

When seeking to establish any compelling link between cause and effect in research, it is always important not to confuse cause with correlation.

When reading the outcomes of any particular piece of educational research, it is necessary to stress the importance of context when assessing the value of that research. For example, one should generally respond cautiously to any black and white research pontifications about the significance of any one, isolated, factor within the rich and diverse landscape that constitutes teaching and learning.

We must carefully exercise our critical powers when reading research. The questions that should arise include the following: Who undertook the research? What is their reputation? What was the purpose of this research? What was its context? What methodology was used? What were any underlying assumptions? Who funded the research? Who may have benefitted from it? What data was included? Was data excluded? How is the research intended to be used?

Teacher ‘professional development’ or teacher ‘professional learning’?

As in many areas of education, it is important not to get too caught up in semantics. For example, striving for any black and white distinction between teacher ‘professional development’ and teacher ‘professional learning’ can be counter-productive. Any professional development that does not involve professional learning – and any professional learning that does not involve professional development – is not worth very much at all. For the purpose of this short paper, I am focusing on the professional development of teachers through learning. I will use the expressions professional development, professional learning, professional development/ learning and professional learning / development interchangeably in this paper.

False and misleading dichotomies

One of the features that too often bedevils educational theory and practice is asserting or imposing dichotomies where they do not exist.

What are known as the ‘Literacy wars’ provide classic examples of this very thing. Too often acolytes of ‘gurus’ hurled abuse (however scholarly phrased) at each other without fully understanding the depth and nuances of the theories or practices they were inveighing against. What one side claimed that the other side ignored, may be found, on close forensic inspection, to be untrue – and vice versa. Another tactic not infrequently used is the ‘strawperson’ extremist misrepresentation of the opponent’s position, which is then rather easily demolished. Again, not infrequently it is the campaign waged by acolytes of notable ‘gurus’ which is more aggressive, even combative, than the positions taken by the originating researcher or scholar.

Incidentally, in some of the adversarial discourses within education in general, one sometimes hears the almost dichotomous assertion – made either in defence or attack– that ‘it works all right in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice’. I have always held the view, however, that if the theory does not work in practice, then there is something wrong with the theory; or the practice has not properly applied the theory; or a combination of both.

Teacher professional learning / development – a personal view

In general, professional learning / development for experienced teachers, (early career teachers are not the focus of this paper) to assist them to become better professionals, will be characterised by at least an appropriate richness and rigour of understanding of content; expertise in engagement of students in their learning; diversity and flexibility in pedagogical practice; and a thorough understanding of the importance of purpose and context in learning. This will all be true whether the learning is being undertaken by the teacher herself or himself, or if it is being provided by the education system within which the teacher exercises her or his professionalism.

I believe that there are two major dimensions in the theory and practice of teacher professional development / learning:

  • Like any member of a profession, every teacher or principal has a responsibility for their own professional development. For example, secondary school English teachers have a personal professional responsibility to keep abreast of research and scholarly developments in their field. Such professional development / learning can take a variety of forms.
  • Those who employ teachers have a responsibility to provide systemic professional development / learning for their teachers and principals when significant systemic change is undertaken. For example, the NSW Department of Education recognises and accepts its responsibility to provide appropriate professional learning for those with the responsibility of implementing new systemic policies. Similarly, such professional development / learning can take a variety of forms.

The phrase ‘life-long learning’ has become almost a contemporary mantra; if not, indeed, a cliché. But it has validity. For teachers and principals this can be expressed as ‘career-long learning’. Apart from anything else, those who seek to have their students learn must be learners themselves. Learning is not a static process – either for teacher or student.

Teacher professional development / learning – analogies with student learning

As far as student learning is concerned, it is now the increasingly accepted view that there is no one silver bullet form of teaching and learning. Here are some examples of what can be components of effective pedagogy:

  • ‘Stand and deliver’– for example, a teacher giving a lecture to combined classes of Year 10 students studying Macbeth – can be one perfectly legitimate component of a diversified teaching / learning strategy.
  • A ‘typical’ classroom lesson – provided the teacher is both thoroughly familiar with the content and able to engage the students effectively, and which incorporates a range of teaching / learning strategies – is another string to such a fle ible strategic bow.
  • Small discussion groups of students – properly set up and monitored by the teacher, with clearly enunciated principles, processes of engagement and authentic forms of assessment – also feed into the mix.
  • Students focusing on their work in pairs, also has a place.
  • As does, of course, a student working on her or his own– in whatever learning space this may occur; whether it be the classroom or the library or under a tree, or at home.

Any one particular approach consistently applied in isolation, is not, sui generis, the silver bullet. And then when you cross-reference or irrigate this (or any more extensive mixture) with more macro pedagogical approaches – for example, problem-solving, or project-based methodologies, etc – other possibilities come into play. When the considerable array of potential learning and teaching flexibilities and synergies generated by multi-media information communication technological platforms are overlaid on all of the above, the possibilities are rich indeed. But at the same time, such technological wizardry in no way removes the timeless educational need for discernment, curiosity, knowledge, understanding, skills, values and all those other characteristics of quality education articulated and outlined, for example, in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians.

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