Professional Learning (Development)

Do staff really learn through the professional development opportunities they are offered? What constitutes effective professional learning?

The introduction is a reflective exercise on a blog which questions assumptions about professional development.

A short think piece makes the distinction between professional development and professional learning. It challenges the assumptions behind much professional development and focuses on the prerequisites for professional learning to take place.

We look at the power of collaborative teamwork within school professional learning communities to provide professional development opportunities as well as workshops that are external to the school (face to face and on-line workshops).

The grass is greener when you water it.


Schools are learning organisations in which students and staff should be continually learning things anew. Whilst this may be true for the students is it the case for staff? To what extent do our staff engage in ongoing professional inquiry? All schools provide professional development opportunities, but to what extent are they also professional learning opportunities? What constitutes good professional learning and how do we facilitate it in our schools?

Activity 1: Personal Reflection

  • What has been your best piece of professional development?
  • What made it so?
  • What has been your worst piece of professional development?
  • What made it so?

What makes professional learning effective?

Continuing professional development (CPD) is key to spreading evidence-informed best practice and improving how we teach and thus how students learn. However, research continually shows how ineffective CPD often is. The main reason for this is that classroom practice is based on behaviours and habits that are formed and hard to shift. So how can CPD provide professional learning that leads to change habits and behaviours that bring about better learning for our students?

Activity 2: The Problem with Professional Development - a reflection

Access Kevin Ruth's blog The Problem with Professional Development by clicking here. As you read the blog reflect.

Ruth quotes from Steven Katz and  Lisa Ain's book Intentional Interruption:

"Professional learning is the cornerstone of many (if not most) school improvement efforts. The basic idea is that student learning, engagement, and success are dependent on high-quality practices in classrooms and schools. And high-quality practice emerges from meaningful professional learning. That said, despite best intentions, significant research has found that professional learning is often about activity rather than about learning. And if it’s not about learning, then it is unlikely to have an impact on practice in a way that will lead to real and sustained improvements in schools. The key question, then, is what does it mean for professional learning efforts in schools […] to really be about the kind of learning that truly improves practice?"

  • Do professional development opportunities engage us with new learning or merely transfer boxed knowledge between people?
  • What do we understand as professional 'learning'? To what extent do our professional development opportunities bring about "a permanent change in thinking or behaviour"? To what extent do we encourage our staff to think anew, to interrupt acquired ways of thinking and behaving with the intended result of furthering student learning?
  • What is the connection between professional development, professional learning and action research?
  • How do staff perceive their professional development opportunities? Do they see them as something 'done to them' or opportunities for thinking afresh, engaging with new learning?
  • What is the culture around 'mistakes' in your school? Are they regarded as learning opportunities or things that have gone wrong?

 ‘It’s more important to change what teachers do than what they know’.” Dylan Wiliam

 What implications does this thought have for designing professional development for teachers?

In the following think piece a distinction is made between much professional development activities and effective professional learning. Real professional learning takes place when it brings about a permanent change in how professionals think and behave (i.e. how they teach or lead).

Activity 3

Read the following quotes taken from Katz & Dack’s book Intentional Interruption. Highlight what challenges your thinking.

  • Did the definition of learning – as a permanent change in knowledge/behaviour – surprise you? Why or why not?
  • Using the distinction between professional development and professional learning what were the last three “professional development” experiences that you were part of? Thinking about them now, would you consider them to be professional learning? Why or why not
  • What problems of practice are you facing? What are you curious about?  Frame these into questions that can form your professional inquiry. Note that a collective problem of practice needs to be something that people really want to inquire into and find answers to. It should be related to student learning, or indeed challenges they are facing in their learning.

In-School Professional Development

Professional development through professional learning communities (PLCs)

"The most powerful forms of staff development occur in ongoing teams that meet on a regular basis...for the purposes of learning, joint lesson planning, and problem solving." (National Staff Development Council's Standards for Staff Development. An overview of these standards can be found by clicking here.)

It is worth referring to the section of the website which explores in some depth what a PLC is. The following three pages are relevant:

Collaborative teacher teams within a school are a powerful forum for professional development. They provide opportunities for job-embedded learning. People often develop their practice best when they practice doing something (as opposed to listening to a lecture or workshop leader!). On the job action research into how children in the school are learning also provides daily opportunities to apply and assess what they are learning.

The International Academy of Education has produced an excellent summary of research on ‘Teacher professional learning and development’ (Timperley, 2008) that has been shown to have a positive impact on student outcomes. Its starting position is that “student learning is strongly influenced by what and how teachers teach”. Click here to access and download the document.

When planning professional development bear the following top tips in mind.

  • Professional development should focus on student needs and not just learning new practices.
  • Theory (e.g. regarding curriculum, effective teaching and assessment) is developed alongside its application to practice.
  • Professional development should build on teachers’ prior knowledge.
  • Information about what students need to know and do is used to identify what teachers need to know and do. The key question is “What do we as teachers need to learn to promote the learning of our students?”
  • Teachers need to be metacognitive – they need to use self-regulatory skills to monitor and reflect on the effectiveness of changes they make to their practice in order to maximise student performance.
  • Professional development is about changing practice and developing the skills of professional inquiry.
  • At times it is important to bring in ‘experts’ external to the group to challenge existing assumptions and to develop new knowledge and skills.
  • If professional development is taking place ‘on site’ it is important that school leaders are present since they validate the vision for the school, manage teacher engagement in the learning process and facilitate change.
  • “Teachers who are engaged in cycles of effective professional learning take greater responsibility for the learning of all students; they do not dismiss learning difficulties as an inevitable consequence of the home or community environment.”

Dig deeper

  • How does your staff define effective professional learning? Here is some of what the experts say. You could use this as a tool to start a conversation with staff: What makes professional learning effective?

  • Nicholas Alchin's blog on How can we improve professional standards. Click here to access it.
  • Learning Forward shows you how to plan, implement, and measure high-quality professional learning so you and your team can achieve success with your system, your school, and your students. They are devoted exclusively to those who work in educator professional development. Their Standards for Professional Learning define the elements essential to educator learning that leads to improved practice and better results for students. Their website has a wealth of material on how to help you nurture the professional development of your staff. Click here to see an overview of their standards. Their newsletters feature tools and resources to support the facilitation of professional learning - click here to access a list of their articles. The Learning Principal newsletter was published from 2005 to 2013, focusing on strengthening leadership practices and leading learning among all members of the school community – click here to access the link to the back copies and articles.
  • Developing Great Teaching:Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. This review set out to address three apparently simple questions: What makes ’great teaching’? What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture it? How could this promote better learning? Click here to access the report.
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