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Career Long Professional Learning as a Disposition

George Gilchrist

Career-long professional learning and professional development is something we have been thinking and talking about for many years now, but we don’t seem to have cracked this particular conundrum yet. Having been heavily influenced by Marylyn Cochran- Smith’s ‘Inquiry as Stance’, the schools I lead have sought to adopt teacher enquiry approaches to school development. This has led to a culture change in how we view professional development, which we see as a disposition in our career-long journey of professional development. Part of what it means to be a professional educator.

Helen Timperley is another influence, and I have been re-reading a paper she produced in 2008,‘Teacher professional learning and development’, written for the International Academy of Education. Timperley synthesises research from across the globe to identify key principles around teacher professional development.

First, ‘professional learning experiences that focus on the links between particular teaching activities and valued student outcomes are associated with positive impacts on those outcomes.’ Its crucial teachers identify links between teaching activities, how students respond to these, and that they understand the learning actually happening. She sees importance in teachers engaging in ‘cycles of professional learning’ that allow them to understand challenges learners face, but which do not let these become excuses for low achievement.

Secondly, ‘the knowledge and skills developed are those that have been established as effective in achieving valued student outcomes.’ Like others, Timperley cautions against fads and trends of professional development, often with little evidence of them producing positive impacts for learners. She notes flaws inherent in fixed programmes and ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches. Instead, we should focus on principles and approaches that have been shown to work, which we adapt to local contexts.

professional development has to start from where people are, not where we think they should be

‘The integration of essential teacher knowledge and skills promotes deep teacher learning and effective changes in practice’. Highly effective teachers combine curricular knowledge with pedagogical practice. They see connections to learning and teaching in all they do. One of my own beliefs is ‘if what we are doing does not improve learning and teaching, we should stop doing it.’ Another key recognition is that teachers, and schools, start in different places, professional development has to start from where people are, not where we think they should be.

We should ensure that ‘information about what students need to know and do is used to identify what teachers need to know and do.’ Teachers should engage in professional enquiry focused on positive impacts for pupils. Key to getting this right are effective assessment practices that ‘include, but go beyond standardised testing’, and which promote self-regulation.

We should recognise that ‘to make significant changes to their practice teachers need multiple opportunities to learn new information and understand its implications for practice. They need to encounter these opportunities in environments that offer both trust and challenge.’ One of my own beliefs is that teacher and school development stands or falls on ethos and culture.

‘The promotion of professional learning requires different approaches depending on whether or not new ideas are consistent with the assumptions that currently underpin practice.’ When teachers find new approaches in conflict with their own experience and views it is important that we support them and help them understand how they might ‘be even better’ as Dylan Wiliam would say. I believe that meaningful change cannot be imposed from above, sustainable change happens when teachers identify this themselves.

‘Collegial interaction that is focused on student outcomes can help teachers integrate new learning into existing practice.’ This reflects Fullan’s view about the power of collaboration, as a vital component for individuals, schools and systems.

A vision without action remains a dream

Regarding leadership, ‘designated leaders have key role in developing expectations for improved student outcomes and organising and promoting engagement in professional learning opportunities.’ Not only should leaders have a vision for professional development, they have greatest impact when they are active participants in this process. A vision without action remains a dream.

Finally, ‘Sustained improvements in student outcomes requires that teachers have sound theoretical knowledge, evidence-informed inquiry skills, and supportive organisational conditions.’ She decries short–lived efforts to improve and urges school leaders and teachers to adopt longer-term approaches, which protect teachers from continuous changes with low impacts.

Timperley cautions that these principles are not linear, but are inter-connected. All are necessary to have greatest impacts on student outcomes, and teacher development. None is new, but they bear repeating as, seven years later, many are still being seduced by the same pitfalls. When will we adopt what we know works?


‘Teacher professional learning and development’ by Helen Timperley 2008. A paper for the International Academy of Education as part of Educational Practices Series-18

‘Inquiry As Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation’ Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L Lytle 2009 Teachers’ College Press