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What Teachers Want (from Professional Learning)

Marcus Garrett  |  Follow posts on LinkedIn

If you’re interested in teacher professional learning in Australia, the 2018 OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is a treasure trove.

The TALIS Survey is an international snapshot that allows us to see what teachers and school leaders think and feel about their working conditions and the learning environments at their schools. The survey, taken every 5 years or so, covers around 260,000 teachers in 15,000 schools across 48 countries, and “aims to provide valid, timely and comparable information to help countries review and define policies for developing a high-quality teaching profession” [1]. For folks interested in the teaching profession in an international context, the TALIS data sets and associated reports can be accessed at http://www.oecd.org/education/talis/.

At IEL Australia, we’re particularly interested in issues affecting the professional preparation, mentoring support and ‘in-service’ learning for teachers in Australia. Here’s a few insights the survey can tell us about both how Australian teachers engage in professional learning, and also what they expect from the professional learning they undertake.

Firstly, the great news is that the professional development ecosystem for teachers in Australia looks pretty healthy when we look at broad measures. The percentage of Aussie teachers who participated in at least one professional development activity in the last 12 months prior to the survey was 99.3%, which is almost 5 percentage points above the OECD average of 94.5%. Surveyed teachers in Australia also indicated that the average number of ‘professional learning activities’ that they attended in the 12 months prior to the survey was 5.2 activities, and that 91.7% of those teachers felt that the professional development activities they participated in over the 12 months prior to the survey had a positive impact on their teaching practices [2]. So far, so good.

As always, however, the devil is in the detail. The TALIS survey engineers define teacher professional development activities in any of the following categories:

  • Courses/seminars attended in person;
  • Online courses/seminars;
  • Education conferences where teachers and/or researchers present their research or discuss educational issues;
  • Formal qualification programmes (e.g. degree programme);
  • Observation visits to other schools
  • Observation visits to business premises, public organisations or non-governmental organisations;
  • Peer and/or self-observation and coaching as part of a formal school arrangements;
  • Participation in a network of teachers formed specifically for the professional development of teachers;
  • Reading professional literature; or
  • ‘Any other professional development activity’.

So, let’s take a look at Australian teachers’ participation in each of these activities, ordered by the percentage of teachers who participated in an activity of this nature in the 12 months prior to the survey:

Graph - Types of Teacher Professional Learning

Source: OECD (2019), ‘Education GPS’ / ‘Australia’. Online data repository – downloaded Indicator data set (Excel). Available at http://gpseducation.oecd.org/CountryProfile?plotter=h5&primaryCountry=AUS&treshold=10&topic=TA

Courses and seminars – or what we might refer to as ‘go away and come back’ professional learning activities – were far and away the most popular type of professional development at around 93%, whereas only just over 12% of survey respondents reported participating in formal qualification programs (such as Masters or other higher degree programs). This is not really so very surprising, especially considering the personal time and costs teachers bear when completing a formal academic program whilst working in the classroom. Part-or whole-day courses, however, typically involve either whole staff PL sessions presented by a visiting ‘expert’ during times teachers are not otherwise on class (eg. pupil free ‘PD Days’) or courses and conferences requiring teachers to leave their classroom teaching and attend a program that is delivered off-site – usually paid for by the school.

Things really start to get interesting when we as the question, what types of professional development is the most effective in terms of translating into real change in teachers’ pedagogy, content knowledge and practice – and then, what proportion of Australian teachers are participating in these types of professional learning?

We looked at the OECD TALIS teacher professional development categories and sorted them into two broad groups: professional learning activities that are primarily individual-based (ie, mainly involve teachers learning alone or in isolation from their peers and the classroom, for example ‘go-away-come-back’ PD or offsite ‘courses’) and professional learning that is primarily collaborative in nature. (We removed the indeterminate ‘Other Types of PD Activities’ category from each of these two groups).

“… For professional development activities that were mainly individual in nature, 70% or more of Australian teachers had participated in the last 12 months. However, for PD activities that are collaborative, less than 70% of teachers had participated.”

We then compared two broad groups of teacher PD: “Peer-Collaborative PD Activities” (shown in yellow on the graph below), and “Individual PD Activities” (shown in blue on the graph). Here’s what we noticed:

Source: OECD (2019), ‘Education GPS’ / ‘Australia’. Online data repository – downloaded Indicator data set (Excel). Available at http://gpseducation.oecd.org/CountryProfile?plotter=h5&primaryCountry=AUS&treshold=10&topic=TA.

In summary, of the professional learning activities attended by teachers in the 12 months prior to the survey, for professional development activities that were mainly individual in nature 70% or more of Australian teachers had participated in the last 12 months. However, for PD activities that were collaborative, less than 70% of teachers had participated.

We think that matters – and here’s why.

Suffice it to say that it is well established in both research and professional practice that the elements of effective teacher professional learning emphasise the importance of learning that is collaborative.

The most effective teacher PL involves not only the input of external expertise but also situations in which teachers work together, learn from each other and share best practice on effective teaching and learning [3]. The Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) argues that teacher PL that is collaborative “has a powerful effect in magnifying and spreading the benefits of professional learning and adds a new and valuable dimension to the learning undertaken by individuals” [4].

In short, the best types of teacher PD activities are those which leverage teacher sharing and collaboration, to ensure that learning is focused on and embedded in teacher practice and built into the day-to-day work of teaching. This is of course so that teachers can work together to identify problems and then apply solutions ‘in the real world’ of their school context [5].

Australian teachers themselves are instinctively aware of this. When TALIS 2018 asked Australian teachers about the types of professional learning that they think has had the greatest impact on their practice, the top three responses, in order, were:

  1. PD that built on their prior knowledge;
  2. PD that provided opportunities to practise and apply new ideas and knowledge in their own classroom; and
  3. PD that provided opportunities for collaborative learning [6]:

Source: OECD (2019), ‘Education GPS’ / ‘Australia’. Online data repository – downloaded Indicator data set (Excel). Available at http://gpseducation.oecd.org/CountryProfile?plotter=h5&primaryCountry=AUS&treshold=10&topic=TA.

So, two of the top three reasons for which teacher professional learning was valued related to its applicability to real classroom context in conjunction with professional peers and colleagues. These aspects were in fact valued more highly than a focus on relevant subject content or adaptability to the teachers own ‘personal development needs’.

How much of your school’s teacher professional development is truly collaborative, and focussed on addressing the needs and demands of the real-world classroom environment? To what extent are teachers at your college or institute encouraged to mentor one another, share practice with one another and experiment with new pedagogical practices together? If your school is in some way geographically isolated, what genuine opportunities do you get as an educator to engage with other colleagues in professional learning experiences and practices?

School leaders and classroom teachers require solutions that facilitate and structure professional collaboration and experiential learning.

Without such, schools’ precious investments in the professional learning of their educators often remain ‘siloed’ within the lone experience of individual teachers, making limited if any impact on real world student outcomes.

Want to find out more?  Get in touch at info@ielaustralia.com.au

[1]        OECD (2018), URL: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/talis_23129638.

[2]       OECD (2019), downloaded Indicator data set, Table 1.5.1.

[3]       Victorian Department of Education and Training (2005), p. 13.

[4]      AITSL (2012), p.5.

[5]       Victorian Department of Education and Training (2005), Page 14.

[6]       OECD (2019), downloaded Indicator data set, Table 1.5.15.

Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) (2012), ‘Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders – A shared responsibility and commitment, August 2012’. Page 5. AITSL : Melbourne, Australia. ISBN 978-0-9872351-8-3.

OECD (2018), OECD iLibrary, ‘TALIS’. URL: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/talis_23129638.

OECD (2019), ‘Education GPS’ / ‘Australia’. Online data repository – downloaded Indicator data set (Excel). Available at http://gpseducation.oecd.org/CountryProfile?plotter=h5&primaryCountry=AUS&treshold=10&topic=TA.

OECD (2019), TALIS 2018 Results (Volume I): Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners, TALIS, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/1d0bc92a-en.

Victorian Department of Education and Training (2005), ‘Professional Learning in Effective Schools – The Seven Principles of Highly Effective Professional Learning’. State of Victoria : Melbourne. ISBN 0 7594 0402 X