3 things to consider when designing professional learning in schools

With a wide variety of professional learning opportunities and a certain limit to the funds that schools can spend on teacher learning and professional growth, it is important that school leaders ensure that the available funds are spent wisely on teachers to improve student learning.

There are a number of things that leaders need to consider when designing the professional development program for their school. Among them, the following stand out:

What are we trying to improve?

This can be a very difficult and contentious question to answer but, most importantly, it should begin with a problem or challenge that our students face. Professional learning should first start with the student in mind rather than the teacher.

It is the role of the teacher to undertake professional learning that best meets the needs of students. Herein lies a problem, in that who decides what the students need? Ideally, a collaborative process should occur with both teachers and leaders determining what is required to better support students together. Occasionally, it may be directed by leaders and at other times it may be driven by teachers.

Furthermore, decisions about professional learning for teachers should be informed by evidence of student learning needs and teacher competency in addressing these needs. This is where things can get tricky, as school leaders and teachers may disagree in what students need and, in turn, what the teacher needs support in their professional learning. Hence, the available evidence on student learning is crucial to resolving potential disagreements. Schools must have teachers and leaders that work together to prioritise student needs and from that point form a plan for professional development.

To what extent do we need to use outside experts?

Significant amounts of money get spent each year on external experts either visiting a school or staff being sent to a conference / workshop delivered by that expert. When funds are tight, a school is restricted in its access to these external experts. Two things can be done to overcome this obstacle:

  1. Develop experts in-house to deliver the professional learning. Perhaps, starting with a book study of the work, or research, of an educational expert, a school may develop a focus group who learn together and then work with a wider group of staff in helping teachers grow together professionally. To support the development of home grown professional learning facilitators, the school may put together workshops and guidance on how to present effectively or encourage collaborative presentations and workshop facilitation.
  2. Another way to get the professional learning funds to stretch further, is to require teachers who attend external professional learning to present to their peers upon their return and devise an action plan for how that learning will be implemented to support students. This leads to a further consideration.

What is the plan for the implementation of professional learning?

All too often teachers return from professional learning and there is no follow-up discussion about what they learned, or development of a plan that works towards implementing some of the skills and ideas learned at the conference / workshop. Having facilitated workshops, one thing I ask participants to do, is develop a three goal plan towards the end of the workshop, which includes a quick-win / short-term goal, a medium term goal and a long term goal. Beyond just setting the goal should be action steps that the teacher is going to take in order to achieve the goal and the evidence of completion. Having such plans will generate valuable discussions between school leaders and teachers in seeing outcomes from professional learning realised in the classroom. Follow-up conversations are crucial in helping to ensure that new learning becomes habit and ingrained in the teaching and learning culture of the school, so that improvement is enduring.

Without deep discussion between teachers and school leaders, the goals for school improvement cannot be shared and clearly understood. These conversations form the basis for any good professional learning program but the decisions taken must be student-centred rather than teacher-centred, which is a challenge that both school leaders and teachers must address together.

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