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Professional Learning – It’s a walk in the dark

Upskill me - it's a fact that teachers like to learn. But a major shake-up over the past decade in how professional learning and development is delivered presents some challenges.

A few years ago, teachers could ring an advisor at their local School of Education and say, “Hey, we’re doing science next term, I need some help.” But those days are gone. Nowadays it’s the Ministry of Education that largely sets the agenda on what teachers can access by way of professional learning and development (PLD).

Schools of Education were amalgamated into universities, which now compete with private providers for Ministry of Education PLD contracts. Schools can sign onto ministry-funded programmes, delivered by private or university providers, or some can afford PLD of their own choosing out of operations grants.

In the past year, the ministry has set new priorities on PLD, centred on supporting national standards: so, out with PLD on music, science and art; in with maths and literacy.

As a result, very experienced advisors are being made redundant. “It’s a huge concern,” says NZEI campaign co-ordinator Neil Hammond. “These are fiscal decisions the universities are making, but there are long-term consequences.”

Teachers and principals report that PLD provider quality is variable, and that collegiality, the sharing of resources, and the identification of common needs across schools is undermined because providers must compete against each needs and by what a school’s leadership and staff have determined is their priority focus. It is entirely incongruous for the government on the one hand to talk about wanting enhanced teaching and learning outcomes and on the other to be putting the financial squeeze on PLD providers.”

The current situation leaves principals and teachers with less choice over what they can access, but with a maze of choices around assessing the best providers.

At Kaikorai School in Dunedin, principal Nigel Wilson says schools are now influenced by what the ministry is paying for. “But a school should decide its own path too, and whether or not to participate in ministry contracts depending upon its students’ needs. “In our annual planning, we decide what we want to focus on and we do whole-school planning and development in one- to three-year cycles.”

He says a holistic approach to PLD is necessary, and that the school does its own evaluation with its own benchmarks. He identified four factors that make for good PLD:

  • It must be linked to the school’s learning programme and it must result in teacher/pupil development and transparent learning.
  • It must include enough time, both during andafterwards, for evaluation.
  • T he school should engage a wide range of expertise, including private providers, but should not overlook the experts on its own staff (for example, a staff member who has attended a conference or course).
  • It must include follow-up. “It’s not an experience that ends.”

Nigel also makes use of strong links to his local university MA and PhD students are often working at Kaikorai, bringing with them new ideas and knowledge.

Bruce Hammond, an independent education advisor, former school principal and former nature study, science and art advisor, says PLD needs to focus on schools working out what they believe in and where to put their energy, especially in the new environment.

“The school needs a strong philosophy, just five or six things that they believe in.” This is important, he says, because in many cases they have “been ‘beliefed’ out by experts”.

DIY PLD

Some schools are getting around the difficulties of PLD with amazing initiatives of their own. Island Bay School in Wellington is becoming known as a centre of innovation around inquiry learning and constructivist theory and practice. Inspirational principal Perry Rush is well known for ‘giving talks’. Groups of teachers and principals are coming from all around the country to find out more, and others are inviting Island Bay teachers to come and visit them.

The school has brought out inquiry learning experts from Canada and Australia, such as Kath Murdoch and Lane Clark, and Debbie Millar from the US is due to visit this year.

The cost to learners, who do the work largely in their own time, is relatively light but the rewards huge. “Island Bay ran a conference for a day up in Wanganui, and it was extremely well attended,” says Deanna McKay, a teacher at Okoia School. “From there, we visited the school to see them in action. We gained new ideas and information, and started our own journey. “The thing about getting PLD from other teachers is that you get what works.”

She says that PLD run by outsiders can be all theory and ideals but the difference between ideal and theory and practical can be huge sometimes”.

Checklist for planning

Highly regarded US educationalist ThomasGuskey offers a pragmatic approach to evaluating PLD:

  • clarify the professional learning and development goals
  • analyse the school’s context (for example, teacher and organisation strengths, weaknesses and characteristics)
  • estimate the programme’s potential to meet the school’s goals
  • outline the strategies for gathering evidence
  • gather and analyse evidence of the participants’ reactions and learning
  • gather and analyse evidence of the school’s organisational changes
  • gather and analyse evidence of the participants’ use of new knowledge and skills
  • gather and analyse evidence of student learning outcomes
  • prepare and present evaluation reports.

ERO and the holy grail: good student outcomes

Last year, the Education Review Office (ERO) released two reports on PLD in primary and secondary schools. ERO said there is a wide variation in the quality of PLD programmes and their management. Some 38 percent of primary schools demonstrated the characteristics of high-quality PLD management. “These schools aligned their PLD with well-informed school priorities. They had a school culture in which professional learning was fostered and supported by school leaders.”

“Schools with good systems to manage PLD can demonstrate the impact their programmes are having on improved teacher practice and student outcomes,” says ERO. “If teaching is the greatest system influence on student outcomes, then it seems reasonable to assume that effective professional learning opportunities for teachers lead to improved student outcomes.”

In 2006, the Ministry of Education established In Service Teacher Education Practices (INSTEP), a national research and development programme that explores effective approaches for professional learning.

A wealth of resource materials on the integration of theory and practice for In-Service Teacher Educators (ISTE) learning has been developed (www.instep.net.nz).

The Ministry’s Iterative Best Evidence Synthesis Programme (iBES ) has also produced a series of publications that look at research evidence to explain what works to improve student outcomes and why. Helen Timperly writing for the iBES series identified important factors influencing whether professional learning had a positive impact on the outcomes for students, including:

  • focus on valued student outcomes
  • integration of knowledge and skills/assessment for
  • professional inquiry
  • multiple opportunities to learn and apply information
  • approaches responsive to learning processes
  • opportunities to process new learning with others
  • knowledgeable expertise
  • active leadership
  • maintaining momentum.

www.educationcounts.govt.nz

Key Points

  • The Ministry of Education has new professional development priorities centred on national standards
  • Schools are developing their own initiatives