Evolving Professional Learning

Over the past ten years I feel my practice as a teacher has changed beyond recognition. I have experimented, failed, tweaked, written, rephrased and reinvented nearly every aspect of my lessons with the goal of making the learning more effective for my students.

Over the years I cannot point to one professional development event that was pivotal in shifting this practice. In fact I can’t remember much about my learning in the first years of my career. The thing I do remember was the feedback I received from people who came into my class and observed. From observations in my teacher practicals to focused feedback from an early Vice Principal, I think I can still count on my fingers the number of times someone has been into my class. Teaching remains such an isolated profession and one in which you receive such limited feedback. I have written about this before, but I am still astounded with the quote below; as would parents and students with whom we are entrusted with educating.

Few other professionals are so isolated in their work, or get so little feedback, as Western teachers. Today 40% of teachers in the OECD have never taught alongside another teacher, observed another or given feedback (Economist, 2016)

Looking back at my professional growth there have been a few big one off events which have challenged my thinking (perhaps…Dylan Wiliam, Punya Mishra) and the odd Tuesday afternoon professional development session. But the most powerful ongoing learning has always been over coffee, on the couches in the office or in well structured collaboration sessions. Too many of our sacred Tuesday afternoon slots are gobbled up with administrative demands and for one-size fits all sessions. I am conscious that we need to balance the desire for top-down strategic initiatives to improve teaching and learning with the need to provide space for everyone to develop the craft of teaching.

All schools know they need to make more time for this but it remains a constant struggle and especially so in the High School setting. I am jealous of my coaching friends Primary School contexts who have a team time and collaborative planning and seem to make more progress.

With teaching as with other complex skills, the route to mastery is not abstruse theory but intense, guided practice grounded in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical methods (Economist, 2016)

What is the way forward?

I fell in to a rabbit hole of research and reports late on Monday night and there is lots of interesting and contemporary ideas being written about. A gem of a report from McKinsey “Five promising ideas for more effective professional development programmes” points to five ways to be more strategic and is worth a read.

  1. base the PD program on a vision of effective teaching
  2. segment teachers and deliver PD strategically
  3. make coaching the centerpiece of PD
  4. move from “push” to “pull,” so that teachers get what they want, when they want it
  5. only offer PD with demonstrated impact.

I think our school has done a lot of foundational work to develop teachers standards and learning principles which both guide our vision for effective teaching. The two areas where we could evolve is the differentiating or segmenting support for teachers and placing coaching and feedback at the centre of the professional learning. In the High School we have nearly 160 teachers so it is incredibly hard to cater to everyone.

Segmenting is a concept illustrated below, which for instance takes all teachers with less experience and invested in them highly regardless of performance. This is a likely valid approach to get staff up to speed with a new school and common issues. After the second year we begin to see different tracks of support with specific initiatives targeting high performing teachers (top practitioner tracks) and different investments into low performers. These two areas are ones where we need to be more creative. How do you leverage expertise of your best teachers most effectively? The struggle is what to do with the middle group. We had moderate success with formal “professional learning communities”, but again not everyone want to be part of one at the same time, and yet the groups needed time to meet. In pockets these are reemerging as small groups of teachers in a single department focusing on one project such as formative assessment strategies for Physics. In other departments teachers all share their personal learning goals and then might form into groups to help each other.

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Coaching is the second point which is well explained in the report. Coaching doesn’t need to come from one or two expert teachers who are spread thinly across the school, but should become part of the culture of a great school where everyone can offer feedback and help through reflective dialogues with colleagues. A report from the Sutton Trust in the UK – Developing Teachers – highlights lots of different examples of developing a culture of coaching and excellence including the Triplets model outlined below.

Teachers work in groups of threes to observe and coach each other on an individual ‘teaching target’ at the Herbert Thompson Primary School in Cardiff, Wales.

In the first term, teachers are given training on carrying out lesson observations, what an ‘excellent’ lesson looks like and coaching skills. Each teacher then records themselves teaching a lesson. They pick an area of their practice for improvement and set a ‘teaching target’. They then meet with the two others in their ‘Coaching Triplet’ and share their targets.

In the second term, the Triplets observe each other teach a lesson (with one teaching, one observing/coaching, and one giving feedback on the observation and coaching). In the third term, the observations are repeated with a senior leader providing quality assurance.

In our school I would like to run ‘open-classroom’ weeks and try identify other easy ways to develop a culture of feedback and collaboration. We don’t want to step back to formal appraisal systems but be open to seeing each other teach and to give focused feedback and ideas.

My folder of research is here if you wish to look through, but please comment below with approaches you have used at your school to develop meaningful and ongoing professional learning.


Coverphoto – JustyCinMD – caterpillar 2

One thought on “Evolving Professional Learning

  1. willkirkwood says:

    Very insightful post Andrew. You have been able to articulate so many things that have been bouncing around my head. I love the idea of coaching triplets – haven’t heard of it before – and I can see that working for certain groups of teachers. That idea that a one size fits all approach isn’t often the best fit is so true. Thanks for extending my thinking

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