Teacher professional learning

Teacher professional learning (TPL) helps teachers gain insight into and knowledge of their craft. It encourages the development of new ways of thinking about content and new approaches to teaching. This will substantially affect student achievement over a sustained period of time. Changes in teaching practice and improved student achievement need to be observed and/or measured.

In implementing changed practice, teachers acquire new knowledge, modify their existing beliefs and attitudes in relation to their teaching and sustain that change over time. This change in teaching practice needs to correlate strongly with the improvement of specified student outcomes.

There are five key areas that are important in the design and delivery of effective teacher professional learning that can lead to improved student outcomes (Desimone (2009). School policy and information management - Design principals for effective teacher professional development (PDF 617.42KB) provides a summary of the research – see references at the end of the paper.

Content focus

Content focus may be the most influential of the key areas. Research links activities that focus on subject matter content and how students learn that content, with increases in teacher knowledge and skills, improvements in practice, and, to a more limited extent, increases in student achievement.

Content is broadly defined to include:

  • subject-matter content and ways to teach that content
  • knowledge about students and how they learn
  • pedagogical content knowledge (including how to correct misconceptions)

When designing teacher professional learning you should address the following questions:

  • Is the content well-researched?
  • What is the current research on how students learn this content?
  • Does the course focus on pedagogy as well as content?
  • Is the teaching methodology used proven to be effective?
  • Is the content suitable for the target audience?
  • What are common misconceptions held by teachers/students in this area? (for example When teaching multiplication how do you overcome the misconception that multiplication always results in a bigger number?)

Active learning

Active teacher learning includes:

  • observing expert teachers or being observed, followed by interactive feedback and discussion
  • collaboratively reviewing student work
  • leading discussions and participating in online forums incorporated into the professional learning activities
  • working with other teachers to design lessons and assessment tasks as well as participating in peer teaching.

When designing teacher professional learning address the following questions:

  • What opportunities are provided for active learning in the course design?
  • Are there information technology (IT) solutions available that can employed to encourage active learning (e.g. blogs, wikis, moodle, social media)?

Coherence

Content focus needs to be:

  • consistent with teachers’ knowledge and beliefs
  • supported systemically i.e. policy and/or funding support federal, state, regional and/or school level
  • supported by school leaders

Changes in teaching practice to improve specific student learning outcomes require:

  • professional learning integrated into classroom practice and reflected in school performance targets from the school plan
  • time and support for teachers in the classroom
  • effective mentoring
  • allocation of resources to support teacher practice.

When designing teacher professional learning you should address the following questions:

  • What are the needs of participants?
  • Is the content and pedagogy proposed consistent with the participants’ ideas and beliefs about good classroom practice? How would this be determined?
  • Is the course or program well supported by school leaders?
  • Can the professional learning be readily implemented into current practice?

Duration

Research supports professional learning activities that are spread over at least a semester and include 20 hours or more of contact time with the course facilitator(s). It takes time to apply new knowledge to practice, reflect on responses from students and colleagues and revise the approach to suit the local context. Short professional learning activities may be useful in providing teachers with new information but further follow-up is necessary for significant change teachers’ practices and beliefs for improvement in student achievement to occur.

When designing teacher professional learning you should address the following questions:

  • Is there sufficient contact time built into the course for professional learning to impact on teaching practice?
  • Does the course design include the requirement for teachers to apply new knowledge and skills in the classroom?

Collective participation

Professional learning that occurs in a school community with a group of staff reinforces the school’s culture, values, beliefs and policies. Collective participation:

  • reflects a number of cognitive theories for teaching and learning: situated cognition, cognitive apprenticeship and social constructivism
  • involves the gathering of teachers with a common purpose e.g. same school, grade level, subject speciality.
  • includes the formation of professional learning communities.

When designing teacher professional learning you should address the following questions:

  • What does current research tell us about the implementation of a professional learning community?
  • Does the course design involve the formation of a professional learning community – either a group of teachers from the same school or a cluster of teachers?
  • Does the course design provide the opportunity for experts to interact with the professional learning community to ensure support for changes in teachers’ practice in their classrooms?
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