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Experiential learning: improving the effectiveness of teacher professional learning

Marcus Garrett  |  Follow posts on LinkedIn

Why are ‘on-the-job’ applicability and engagement with colleagues so critical for effective teacher professional learning?

Research, recent survey findings by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and industry best-practice provide us with a pretty good set of reasons.

1. Access to quality, relevant professional learning for teachers is often difficult.

Not all teachers in Australian schools share the same access to quality, relevant professional learning opportunities. Many teachers find it very hard to engage in professional learning to sharpen their skills and practice, either due to geographic, financial, technological or time-related barriers.

According to AITSL’s 2017 survey of over 2,200 teachers, 64% of teachers who participated in professional learning undertook four or more activities with an average of 6 hours each. This is just 24 hours (about 1 to 1.5%) of a full-time teacher’s estimated total work time over the course of the school year. However, 27% of casual or relief teachers also reported having completed little or no professional learning in the previous year [1].

The AITSL survey reported that the three biggest barriers to undertaking professional learning are:

  • Casual or part-time employment status as a teacher (due to lack of service tenure or lack of workplace continuity);
  • Employment in the Early Childhood sector (due to high duty of care environments and low professional learning budgets); and
  • Location in regional or remote schools and communities (due to the high geographic barriers to participation and in some cases lack of access to reliable online services) [2].

There is a wide range of professional learning resources available to the teaching profession in Australia, both in terms of face to face ‘courses’ and online. Indeed, sorting through the myriad of professional development programs and resources, for many time-poor educators, has itself become a barrier to engaging in useful professional learning.

Enabling online networking, coaching and mentoring online for teachers across a diversity of contexts, and especially for rural and remote teachers, is one way of building the supportive communities of practice so critical for teachers as they face the enormous responsibilities in their jobs [3].

Digital tools and resources that simplify access to quality PL programs and which foster collegial sharing networks are essential building blocks for school leaders wishing to build effective communities of practice, even when faced with geographic, financial and time-related limitations.

2. Face-to-face courses are only part of the picture.

AITSL reports that 28% of teachers surveyed attended face to face or ‘in person’ professional learning courses, while 13% undertook professional reading; 12% undertook online learning; and 12% were involved in professional learning conversations with colleagues. Importantly, the latter three were identified by AITSL as ‘effective alternatives to face-to-face course attendance’ [4].

Research by Olivero, Bane, and Kopelman (1997) examined the impact on executive managers’ performance of conventional ‘training’ compared with coaching [5]. It showed that ‘one-off’ types of professional development resulted in just over 22% gain in productivity and effectiveness, while coaching increased productivity and effectiveness by 88% [6]. Effective learning requires practice or application in a ‘real world’ setting to truly consolidate and to change practice.

One off ‘training’ or ‘professional development’ – which usually occurs either in a training facility removed from workplace reality, or in the often socially isolated realm of an ‘online learning’ course – rarely has a significant impact on the practice of teachers and leaders. This is firstly because authentic learning is ideally social in nature; we learn most effectively from other people we know and to whom we can relate.

Accountable professional learning teams and formal mentoring arrangements are school structures which help to ensure that ‘go away and come back’ face to face ‘courses’, online learning, colleague to colleague or on-the-job experiences are all leveraged effectively to make a difference to teachers’ practices.

3. Collegiality is fundamental to improved student outcomes.

According to the Victorian Department of Education and Training (2019), the best available research indicates that collective responsibility, collective efficacy and teachers learning together ‘on the job’, along with ‘privileged time’ for colleagues to engage in professional learning conversations, are each important elements in effective school improvement.

While it’s important that schools involve and make use of external expertise to spark effective learning within their professional communities [7], we also know that teachers learn most effectively from and alongside other teachers. Effective collegial structures such as formal mentoring arrangements and Professional Learning Teams (PLTs), who work together to share expertise and professional responsibility for improvement in student outcomes, are essential here.

Mentoring, coaching and PLT models – when structured intentionally and implemented well – support staff over a sustained period of time and leverage the power inherent in teacher collegiality ‘at the chalkface’.

4. Professional learning should help teachers make a real difference to their practice.

The 2017 AITSL survey indicates that after attending professional learning (PL), 76% of teachers wanted to change something about their teaching practice.

Teachers also reported wanting:

  • PL that is explicitly matched with their individual professional development needs;
  • PL that meets the needs of their students, in the classroom or school context; and
  • PL that provides them with practical things to use in their teaching and learning practice [8].

For professional learning to be effective and powerful, it must enable teachers to actively instigate and action ‘research’ inside their own classrooms and schools [9].

Teacher ‘learnings’ are ideally proactively embedded through the use of ‘action research’ or formalised professional practice projects. Through these, teachers can try out new ideas and understandings in the classroom and observe colleagues and provide feedback as they do the same.

5. Effective school leadership and engagement in professional learning are inseparable.

Leading educational researcher Helen Timperley describes professional learning as ‘core school business’; the role of school leaders in supporting this as critical [11]. Without the active engagement in professional learning by school leaders and executive, teacher PL becomes a ‘hit-and-miss’ affair that remains unaligned with school improvement goals and therefore represents an unaccountable waste of schools’ financial resources and teachers’ valuable time.

In the AITSL 2017 research, school leaders reported wanting professional learning activities that contribute to the schools needs and aims and that assure a high level of quality in what is delivered. They also acknowledged that their staff preferred to undertake professional learning programs together; however, only 20% of leaders were themselves involved in the PL learning that took place in their school [12].

Leading educational communities require school leaders who actively and authentically promote a learning culture in their schools and amongst their colleagues. This includes providing resources, time and structures that enable collaboration to occur between teachers and themselves being involved in the monitoring and feedback of those structures [13].

School and educational leaders also need sound and measurable accountability and feedback structures that are easily managed via user-friendly digital tools, to promote and be involved in prioritised professional learning. Any school’s investment in the professional development of its teachers can only then genuinely and authentically become ‘core school business’.

[1] AITSL 2017, p.1

[2] Ibid, pp.4-5

[3] QCT 2018, p.11-12

[4] AITSL 2017, p.6

[5] Olivero et al 1997, cited in ACER 2016, p.7

[6] Ibid

[7] Timperley 2017, p.xxix

[8] AITSL 2017, p.7

[9] Desimone 2009, and Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999, in Nishimura 2014, pp.21-22

[10] Timperley 2011, p.14

[11] AITSL 2017, p.11

[12] Ibid

Australian Council for Educational Research (2016), A Guide to Support Coaching and Mentoring for School Improvement, p.7. ACER : Camberwell, Australia. Available from https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=professional_dev. ACER : Melbourne, Australia.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) (2012), Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders: A Shared Responsibility and Commitment, August 2012. Available from https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/hqpl/aitsl-hqpl-summary-findings-report-final.pdf. AITSL : Melbourne, Australia.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) (2017), Uncovering the current state of professional learning for teachers: summary findings report, October 2017. Available at https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/hqpl/aitsl-hqpl-summary-findings-report-final.pdf. AITSL : Melbourne, Australia.

Department of Education and Training, Victoria (2019), Professional Learning Communities: The 10 Principles of Effective PLCs. Online resource. Available from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/management/improvement/plc/Pages/default.aspx#link32. State of Victoria : Melbourne, Australia.

Nishimura, T. (2014),  Effective Professional Development of Teachers: A Guide to Actualizing Inclusive Schooling. In International Journal of Whole Schooling. Vol. 10, No. 1, 2014. Available from http://www.wholeschooling.net/Journal_of_Whole_Schooling/IJWSIndex.html. Whole School Consortium : Florida, USA.

Queensland College of Teachers (2018), Submission to the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into the Status of the Teaching Profession, December 2018. Available from https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House/Employment_Education_and_Training/TeachingProfession/Submissions.

Sawchuk, S. (2015), Long Beach District Sets Course to Personalize Teacher PD. Article in Education Week, September 28, 2015. URL: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/30/long-beach-district-sets-course-to-personalize.html?r=1638406577. Education Week : Maryland, USA.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H. and Fung, I (2007), Teacher Professional Learning and Development Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration [BES]. New Zealand Ministry of Education : Wellington, NZ.

Timperley, H., (2011), A background paper to inform the development of a national professional development framework for teachers and school leaders. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) : Melbourne, Australia.

Victorian Department of Education & Training (2005), Professional Learning in Effective Schools: The Seven Principles of Highly Effective Professional Learning. Leadership and Teacher Development Branch, Office of School Education. Available from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/school/teachers/profdev/proflearningeffectivesch.pdfState of Victoria : Melbourne, Australia