As a new academic year kicks off and the new General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) Professional Standards come into full swing, it is the perfect time for school leaders across Scotland to reflect on how they will support and encourage powerful career-long professional learning (CLPL) for their staff over the year ahead.
In this article, I identify the six key areas we help schools to consider as they look to develop their internal processes around CLPL, with some useful advice to ensure powerful professional learning for every member of staff at every stage in their career.
1, Leadership and culture
School leaders have an important role to play in ensuring a school’s culture is conducive to powerful professional learning for all staff. In schools where CLPL is seen as a priority and a tool of development rather than accountability, we see staff better able to actively engage in professional learning that has a positive impact on their students.
You can help to instil school-wide commitment to CLPL by starting at the top. Make CLPL a leadership priority and communicate this across the school. Designate a member of senior staff as responsible for professional learning and, where possible, include middle leaders in other positions of responsibility.
Create a sense of shared responsibility for the quality of teaching and learning across the school. Schools in which the staff leading on CLPL are encouraged to involve all colleagues in their decisions in this area often find it easier to garner buy-in to any change or new initiative. Staff input will also help you to balance the needs of wider development plans with individual needs and interests, making your staff members’ CLPL more relevant and focused.
The best leaders then embed the principles of what it means to be a professional learner by modelling this behaviour themselves. Openly prioritise and take responsibility for your own professional learning; take informed risks in your own classroom; encourage colleagues from across the school to observe you and to offer developmental feedback; take time to evaluate the impact of changes on your students and share what worked and what didn’t.
Displaying the behaviour you would like to see from your staff will create a sense of openness across the school and help instil collective principles of powerful professional learning.
Within the Teacher Development Trust’s National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN – see further information), the most powerful professional learning we see is based on sustainable, on-going processes – rather than a series of ever-changing “quick fixes” – that are focused and embedded in the everyday life of the school.
In such schools, we see teachers able to engage meaningfully with professional learning that has a direct impact on the students in their classroom.
To maintain focus, keep pupils’ learning needs at the heart of all decisions around CLPL and base all plans for career and professional development on these. Encourage staff to consider the learning needs of specific pupils or cohorts – as well as the new GTCS Professional Standards – when planning and monitoring their own professional learning.
Through our national network of schools, we support the pupil-focused teacher enquiry process of Lesson Study, which allows teachers to predict and measure the impact of their own development on specific case study pupils. Those schools engaged in Lesson Study trials have found that it allows teachers a more nuanced understanding of how to best support their students through their on-going professional learning.
Change the perception of CLPL as something that happens separately from all other parts of practice, and embed it within the daily life of the school.
We encourage all schools to allocate time in all staff meetings for pedagogical discussions around teaching and learning. Leaders in these schools then foster a culture of more informal discussions by instigating such conversations themselves: they openly discuss the latest research or a point of pedagogical interest with colleagues and encourage other middle and senior leaders to follow suit. In this way they demonstrate to staff that even short periods of discussion and reflection, when followed by thoughtful approaches to changing practice, can positively impact on learning in the classroom.
Evaluation is key to understanding the most important element of your staff members’ professional learning: its impact on students. On-going evaluation allows staff to identify and share practice that supports students’ attainment.
Help staff to evaluate the impact of all professional learning as standard. Use follow-up impact measurements around any change in practice, collating qualitative and quantitative data from a variety of sources (assessments, pupil feedback) to track and maximise the impact on particular areas of pupil learning. Give time to develop these skills where necessary, and encourage them to support one another.
The schools we work with have also benefited from engaging with a research partner and using their input to design methodologically sound evaluation processes.
4, Support and challenge
Powerful professional learning should challenge teachers’ existing knowledge and skills while also providing sufficient support and assistance.
Use – and provide adequate training for – career-long peer-coaching. Encourage peer observation that is aimed at developing – not judging – staff.
Complement this with a variety of external relationships, carefully selected to offer innovative support and challenge around identified areas of need. Ensure that all staff engage with organisations chosen using a rigorous process of comparison that favours evidence-based approaches likely to challenge and have a positive impact on existing practice and student outcomes.
Select providers who offer appropriately extended follow-up and support for impact evaluation, and use an independent database of CLPL resources such as the Teacher Development Trust’s GoodCPDGuide to find and compare providers, opportunities and reviews before making any investment.
Do not “throw money” at the problem, but dedicate and prioritise resources to supporting opportunities that evidence suggests will be most likely to have a positive impact on staff and students across the school.
In particular make time for collaboration among staff – research shows that collaborative teacher-led enquiry is one of the most powerful ways for a teacher to develop their practice and understanding. Successful schools within the NTEN give weekly or fortnightly opportunities for staff to work together on developing their practice.
Encourage staff to collaboratively plan, trial, develop and evaluate their approaches using processes such as Lesson Study, then maximise the impact of each teacher’s professional learning by putting systems in place to capture and share outstanding practice.
6, Research, innovation and evidence
Work towards an environment in which teachers systematically consult research and evidence when developing their practice.
Schools looking to instil a sense of empowerment and dynamism in staff support their teachers to engage with existing research. Discuss the latest research with staff and encourage them to share it across school, using collaborative planning approaches to embed and trial changes based on the findings.
Then, encourage teachers to actively engage in research. This could be a small-scale project, with individual teachers using evaluation and on-going refinement in the classroom to produce findings around a particular student learning need, or a larger scale research project. Create links with your local university, academics and other experts, and keep your ear to the ground for opportunities that will allow your staff to be at the cutting edge of education research and developments.
By addressing these six areas, you can ensure a future of dynamic, impact-focused, sustainable professional learning that will allow your teachers to thrive and your students to succeed.
You may also wish to consider joining the NTEN, a UK-wide partnership of schools who are supporting each other to improve the way their staff professionally develop and learn.
Sarah Coskeran is GoodCPDGuide programme manager at the Teacher Development Trust, the independent charity for teachers’ professional development.