It is a pleasure to publish Martin’s blog reflecting on how school leaders need to consider the development and professional learning of teachers to reduce the skills gap within their contexts to help promote the equality of learning for pupils. Martin argues that leaders need to embrace the complexity of the needs of schoolteachers, by considering a wider range of opportunities to support teachers’ professional learning. Martin conducted a case study research project which outlined 5 key themes school leaders need to consider for success. We hope that you enjoy Martin’s blog, and will continue to engage with his work by reading his article in MIE as well.
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Over the past eleven years, my work with professionals from different schools has revealed a stark reality: some teachers are significantly more effective than others. This raises the question: how should school leaders positively reduce this expertise gap to promote educational equity for the children within their care?
Progress in this area should not be left to chance nor be solely dependent on which teacher a child is taught by. Unfortunately, studies repeatedly show significant variation in children’s learning experiences both within and between schools, emphasising the critical role of professional learning in addressing the issue (Atwal, 2019) and here lies a problem: professional learning in education is inconsistent. Often teachers, whose core purpose is to help students learn, experience ineffective learning themselves; this can deskill and demotivate teachers. For example, an early career teacher (ECT) that joins a struggling setting may inherit ineffective practice and become frustrated by it. On the other hand, successful leadership of professional learning can empower and shape teachers into passionate, expert professionals, acting as a positive change vehicle for consistency in teacher expertise supporting educational equity (Weston and Clay, 2018).
The variation in professional learning quality can be attributed to multifaceted factors like teacher motivation and school culture (Hargreaves and Rolls, 2020). Consider an instructional coaching programme that embeds successfully in a particular school; it may motivate teachers and positively transform teaching quality and student outcomes. However, delivering the exact same programme in a neighbouring school may generate drastically different results due to issues like initiative fatigue (Myatt, 2016) or other contextual barriers. Such problematic situations highlight the intricacy of leading professional learning in complex school settings (Fullan, 2020).
Leaders must embrace the complexity, harnessing their opportunity to make a difference through professional learning. In recognition of this, I conducted case study research to explore the features of effective professional learning that can address this expertise gap.
Empowering Professional Learning – Five Key Themes for Success
The research revealed five themes that can guide school leaders to create transformative professional learning, reducing expertise variation. The research aimed to extensively analyse and triangulate teachers’ views of professional learning experiences through surveys and interviews, to improve future provision. Leaders need not just consider the five themes but the way in which each finding should be applied dependent on their school.
Teachers found professional learning that enables teacher collaboration to be the most valuable element of their past experiences. This theme coincides with a wealth of research encouraging active, collaborative professional learning which takes place in real time during lessons as opposed to in isolated workshops (O’Leary, 2020; Weston and Clay, 2018; Garvey 2017). Whilst simple, deliberately transferring learning from formal workshops into lessons is often overlooked by leaders, resulting in professional learning garnering limited impact on classrooms. School leaders should structure formal workshops and teacher observation opportunities in a way that coincide, promoting classroom collaboration through activities such as peer observation and team teaching.
Teachers also felt professional learning cycles often ended too quickly, limiting their impact. Many initiatives can resemble a firework: starting with a bang, captivating in the short term, before rapidly fading away with no impact on lasting memory. The rationale for this is rooted in the multiple priorities schools have, leading to a tendency for the focus of professional learning to change frequently, reducing the likelihood of tangible classroom impact (Hargreaves and Rolls 2020). Evidently, it is important that leaders mitigate this pitfall by sustaining professional learning cycles.
Another theme raised by the study was the importance of balancing autonomy and expertise. At interview, teachers discussed professional learning experiences whereby excessive autonomy caused frustration whilst acknowledging that too little autonomy was likely to hinder engagement (Pink, 2018). The goldilocks analogy is relevant here: leaders need to find the ‘just right’ balance dependent on the expertise and self-efficacy of teachers, with the effective utilisation of autonomy able to ignite motivation to enhance professional learning impact.
Teachers spoke of the deeply personal and context-specific nature of professional learning. With this in mind, leaders need a detailed understanding of the needs and views of teachers. To achieve this, simply put, trusted and close working relationships between leaders and teachers are essential (O’Leary, 2020). Once formed, leaders can understand teachers’ needs, expertise and motivators and use this to make quality decisions about professional learning including the focus and time required for it.
Research-informed professional learning is recognised amongst theorists (Atwal, 2019). Contrary to my personal expectations, the data analysis found teachers not to hold research in such high regard, showing it as the least impactful option of those provided. The findings showed time-poor teachers did not necessarily have capacity to engage with certain types of research. Resultantly, leaders should carefully select timely and accessible research to inform but not dictate actions within the professional learning process, with teachers given agency to tailor ideas to their classroom setting (Vare et al, 2021).
Whilst no panacea for effective professional learning is apparent, the proposed five interdependent themes provide a starting point to improve professional learning in practice. School leaders should consider the way in which each theme can be applied in their setting. With empowering professional learning that makes teachers excited about their own growth, consistent expertise and educational equity for all students can be achieved.
Atwal, K. (2019) The Thinking School: Developing a Dynamic Learning Community, Suffolk, John Catt Educational Limited.
Fullan, M. (2020) Leading in a Culture of Change, Hoboken, Jossey-Bass.
Garvey, P. (2017) Talk for Teaching, Suffolk, John Catt Educational Limited.
Hargreaves, E. and Rolls, L. (2020) Reimagining professional development in schools, Oxfordshire, Routledge
Myatt, M. (2016) High Challenge, Low Threat [ebook reader] Suffolk, John Catt Educational Limited.
O’Leary, M. (2020) Classroom Observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning, Routledge, London.
Pink, D. (2018) The Surprising Truth about what motivates us, Canongate Publishers, Edinburgh.
Vare, P., Dillon, J., Oberholzer, L. and Butler, C. (2021) Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers Discussion paper on Continuing Professional Development, Promoting Quality in Teacher Education
Weston, D. and Clay, B. (2018) Unleashing Great Teaching, Oxfordshire, Routledge.