Selecting and undertaking high quality professional learning

Purposeful professional learning for teachers is one of the most effective ways to improve teaching practices and student outcomes. As Cole writes, “effective professional learning… is supported by sequential term-long individual learning growth plans that contain three or four specific teaching techniques that the whole school has identified as being highly effective for promoting improved learning.” As professionals, teachers have a responsibility to actively engage in professional learning throughout their careers. 

What types of professional learning should you undertake?

Effective and implementable professional learning comes from a range of sources. As a teacher, you should research and engage with a wide range and variety of professional learning. This will not only give you more practical and implementable tools to improve your practice, but also allows you to gain a more nuanced and thorough understanding of the Teacher Standards focus areas you have identified for improvement. 

Some different types of professional learning and examples are provided below. This list is not exhaustive, nor are the professional learning types mutually exclusive.

  • Classroom-based learning, including:
    • observation of practice
    • coaching and mentoring
  • face to face learning, including:
    • conferences
    • learning events in your setting
    • training courses
  • formal study, including:
    • post-graduate study
    • TAFE certified/diploma courses
  • research, including:
    • professional reading
    • inquiry cycles/action research
  • online learning, including:
    • modules and courses
    • webinars
    • online forums/social media
  • communities of practice, including:
    • professional learning communities or teams
    • networks

Job-embedded professional learning is more effective in improving teacher practice than many of the “traditional” external professional learning opportunities. Research suggests that an effective professional learning approach “is intensive and ongoing, and connected to practice; focuses on the teaching and learning of specific academic content; is connected to other school initiatives and builds strong working relationships among teachers” (Darling-Hammond et al. 2009, p.5).

By attending job-embedded professional learning, you are more likely to learn content that is based not only on the needs and context of your learners, but is also tailored to your own professional goals and those of your setting. Working collaboratively with your colleagues is a great way to learn together and to foster a culture of learning and growth within your setting. 

Always consider adopting a multi-modal approach to your professional learning. The majority of your time should be spent on professional learning that is embedded in your daily practice, some time should be spent on self-directed professional learning, and a small percentage of your time should be spent on formal experiences such as attending conferences and formal degree qualifications. 

Ensuring professional learning is fit for purpose

When selecting and undertaking professional learning, you should ensure that it is aligned to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (the Teacher Standards), regardless of whether it is job-embedded or otherwise. Goal setting, be it for you as an individual or for your entire setting, should always be done in relation to the Standards. Use the AITSL Teacher Self-Assessment Tool to assist with goal setting and identifying areas for professional learning, against the Standards. 

When you are selecting your professional learning, make sure the provider has identified which of the Teacher Standards focus areas the session will be geared towards. This way you will be able to assess whether the professional learning aligns with your professional goals.

Selecting and undertaking checklist

When considering which professional learning to undertake, ask yourself the following questions. 

  • Have I explored/considered different types of professional learning to select the most suitable one for my learning need?
  • Would the selected professional learning provide me with the knowledge and skills I need to challenge my thinking and enhance my practice?
  • How can I leverage the knowledge of my colleagues to enhance my expertise in the area of need?
  • Overall, does my professional learning tend to be more external or self-directed than job-embedded?

The role of a school leader in selecting and undertaking professional learning

As a school leader, it is important for you to ensure that the professional learning undertaken by your teachers both provides them with the professional growth that they need and furthers the goals of the education setting. As well as this, you also have to ensure that the budget allocated for professional learning is used as efficiently as possible to ensure it results in maximum impact on the learners. Below are some things to consider when working with your teachers to decide on the best professional learning for them.

  • Make use of the expertise already in the school. You may have some teachers on staff who have previously attended professional learning that is relevant to other teachers’ goals. Encourage teachers with expertise in relevant areas to conduct in-house professional learning to benefit the school
  • Similarly, where one teacher is attending a course or a conference, encourage them to bring this learning back to the school and share it with their colleagues
  • Consider a “buddy system” whereby teachers who would like knowledge and skills in an area where another is proficient are paired up. Through observing and discussing each other’s practice teachers are then exposed to new ideas for their own practice
  • Look at how each teacher’s goals are relevant to the larger goals for the education setting. Some links between skills and practices can be more implicit than others, so think holistically about how each piece of professional learning undertaken by each teacher can ultimately benefit the setting
  • Remember that while setting-wide goals are important, teachers also need to be empowered and enabled to pursue their own professional goals in tandem with those of the context in which they are currently working. 

Dr Lawrence Ingvarson - Professional communities and collaboration as a way of life

I often ask teachers where they go for good ideas – who they see as their professional leaders. Sometimes I provide them with a list of sources for improving their teaching and ask them which they regard as the most important – the list might include professional reading, university lecturers, school principals, professional learning courses, and so on. 

Their responses are always the same. They say other teachers by far. Which leaves me wondering; how well do we ensure working conditions capitalize on the idea that teachers value most what they learn from other teachers?

For me, building a professional community is basically about building on this knowledge; it’s about increasing the frequency of opportunities for teachers to learn from each other as a routine part of work, especially through conversations based on concrete evidence about each other’s practice and student work samples. But we must reduce workloads it we want this to become a reality.

My definition of a professional community is a simple one; a group of professionals who regularly and systematically use evidence to review how well their practices align with current professional standards and meet the needs of students. 

The research is clear; it is mainly by strengthening their schools as professional communities that school leaders improve the quality of teaching and student outcomes. Schools with a strong professional culture are characterised by shared norms and values, a focus on student learning, collaborative approaches to work, reflective inquiry into teaching practices and deprivatisation of practice. 

Deprivatisation is the key. A group of teachers become a strong professional community when they commit to working together in ways that deprivatise their practice in a range of ways. They thereby increase opportunities to learn from each other; to review and improve each other’s practice. A rigorous and well-rewarded external professional certification system reinforces these practices.

Strong professional communities are accountable communities. They are comfortable providing colleagues with examples of how their practice matches high professional standards; for example in staff seminars. They accept that the evaluation of practice is not just a responsibility of school management. Professional communities take action to rectify practices that are less than optimal for students. 

1. Peter Cole, Linking effective professional learning with effective teaching practice, Melbourne: Education Services Australia, 2012. 19.