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BCTF Advantage
Teacher Magazine Volume 27, Number 3
May/June 2015

Professional learning: What does the research say?

By Charlie Naylor, BCTF Senior Researcher

The true Finnish difference is that teachers in Finland may exercise their professional knowledge and judgment both widely and freely in their schools. They control curriculum, student assessment, school improvement, and community involvement."
-Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator, scholar, and policy advisor
 
What do experience and research literature tell us about effective professional learning?

1. Over the last few decades, changed terminology reflects an evolution in thinking about the nature and status of teachers' professional learning.

Staff development: reflects deficit- model thinking (teachers have a deficit that will be fixed by staff development) and also a notion of "staff" as employees that need to be directed or trained in areas considered important by the employer. Employers traditionally provide and pay for staff development.

Professional development: reflects and respects teachers as professionals rather than staff or employees, but still includes elements of deficit while incorporating teacher autonomy.

Professional learning
: describes reflective and autonomous professionals who are engaged not to address deficits but to reflect on and further their understanding about teaching and learning.

Webster-Wright (2009) articulated some of this change in her research into professional learning across a range of professions:
First, the term professional development is part of a discourse that focuses on the professional as deficient and in need of developing and directing rather than on a professional engaged in self-directed learning.
The change in terminology is more than just about language. While many use the three as synonymous in meaning, the term "professional learning" includes concepts of teacher professionalism and autonomy, and excludes managerial control.

2. Analyzing language allows us to understand concepts related to professional learning.

The U.S. has been obsessed with the issue of raising teacher quality, and has decided that the best way to identify it is to evaluate teachers by student test scores. In Singapore, however, raising teacher quality has meant improving teachers' prestige and working conditions.
-Diane Ravitch's blog, May 31, 2012

 
The term means very different things to different people-quality teaching is judged in some US states by student test scores. The Washington Post told the story of a teacher's evaluation report in May 2011: "It is a pleasure to visit a classroom in which the elements of sound teaching, motivated students and a positive learning environment are so effectively combined." Two months later she was fired because "the reading and math scores of her students didn't grow as predicted."

The language used in announcements around Bill 11 will not mean the same to all readers. "Quality teaching" to some is possible when contextual factors are addressed-including adequate teaching resources, manageable class size, and the alleviation of poverty. To others it means just a simplistic and erroneous connection between the "quality" of teachers and good test scores regardless of context. The government has failed to explain what "quality teaching" actually means. An open discussion about such terms might lead to a better understanding of how to extend and support quality teaching, rather than just measure it.

3. A strong literature base and evidence from other education systems support teacher autonomy in both teaching and in teachers' professional learning.

Professional autonomy enhances rather than undermines teacher responsibility by situating educators as the primary authors of their own success or failure. (Hyslop-Margison, E.J., & Sears, A.M. (2010).

Teachers will have the flexibility and autonomy to plan their learning relevant to their professional needs and interest. (Singapore Ministry of Education, 2012)
 
Autonomy research and the approach taken by Singapore were blatantly ignored by the BC government while preparing Bill 11. Although the Minister refers to "all the research in the world," he did not consider this significant body of research.

4. Managerial control of teachers' professional learning is unnecessary and counter-productive.

Countries with significant managerial control over teachers' professional learning-including England and much of the US-cannot make any impressive claims about student learning when compared to BC. In contrast, systems which encourage rather than mandate professional learning and provide support for professional learning (Finland, Singapore) have been among the world's best education systems
in terms of student learning, collaborative practice, and overall systemic support.

5. Some countries invest heavily to support teachers' professional learning but in BC, the capacity to support professional learning may be declining due to underfunding.

Singapore pays for 100 hours of professional development each year for all teachers (more than double the time available to BC teachers) and also provides 20 hours a week for teacher collaboration with its "Teach Less, Learn More" approach. Teachers enjoy more time for preparation and collaboration within the school day, and fewer hours actually teaching. A 2013 OECD reports that Finland's teachers teach for an average of 17.1 hours a week.

Some BC school districts maintain impressive levels of funding for professional learning. Others have shown declines in the last few years. With financial crises in many districts, some so-called "low-hanging fruit" will not be the supposed administrative waste but possibly those funds once available for teachers' professional learning:
 
In 2011-12, School District #43, Coquitlam, spent $2,120,335 on PD and travel. In 2013-14, they spent $1,224,219, a reduction of 42.26%.

6. BC teachers are pro-active in planning and extending professional learning and will continue to improve this practice.

Professionalism is about the search for improvement in practice and finding the best ways to teach the students we work with. For individual teachers, the commitment to continue learning needs to be maintained and extended: non- participation in professional learning plays into the hands of those wanting more managerial control. As a union, the BCTF is well placed to actively consider and discuss how to best support teachers' professional autonomy and learning.

7.  Collaboration including a supportive educational infrastructure will create more effective learning opportunities for teachers.

Public education needs organizations working together to build and sustain good education for all learners. For example, Ontario (between 2003 and
2007) figured this out, implementing supportive policies and providing
real resources. Instead, Bill 11 is a clumsy effort by government to mandate through legislation. There is another route-the withdrawal of Bill 11 and an open, honest dialogue about the nature, directions, and supports for teachers' professional learning. Such a dialogue could involve the BCTF, government, the Ministry of Education, school districts, and universities. The
world's best education systems thrive because their governments respect and support teachers, creating collaborative opportunities rather than imposed solutions. BC should take this route.

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