Effective professional conversations

Helen Timperley, Professor of Education, University of Auckland. Professional conversations essentially are any conversations between two professionals talking about their work rather than a social occasion. But in the literature that we could access was really more formal conversations, although we know that teachers learn from the informal conversations. There were three areas of conversations that I could find good research on. And one was the observation and improvement-focused feedback. Another area was teachers, usually in professional learning communities, solving problems of practice and looking at the ways they could improve their practice. And the third one was focused on looking at evidence of student work or student results, and unpacking what that meant for their professional practice. And what was interesting was that those enablers were the same, at a higher level, obviously, for each of those areas. One enabler that’s often not thought about very carefully, but it's really very important, is what are the resources that are brought to that conversation. The resources might be tools, might be material, artefacts, might be protocols that help to shape the conversation. And part of those resources is the expertise that is brought to the conversation, often through leaders or through outside people helping to facilitate the conversation and bring important knowledge and skills. So, careful attention to the resources is a really important enabler. Another is relationships. We know relationships, trust and support, are crucially important. I’m not telling anybody anything there, but what came through the literature was also the enabler of challenge in relationships, and in a way that those relationships developed the agency of the conversation participants—might be teachers, might be leaders—to actually make a difference. So it's a little bit more than just respect and trust and challenge that we all know about. It’s about those relationships coming together to make people feel, “Yes, I can actually make a difference.” A third one was the processes. And we think of conversations in terms of processes, but it was interesting, the degree of structure that was around some of those processes. So rather than just having a conversation that people knew what processes, that there was clear purpose, there was clarity of process, particularly processes that brought the conversations back to “are we making a difference for our students?” And another enabler was about the knowledge. So the processes actually resulted in some kind of new knowledge. It might be just, “Okay, I’m thinking about that in a slightly different way,” or it might be something substantially new. But that it did change people’s thinking about what was happening for them and their situation right then. And the final one was related to culture. And again, we sort of think about culture as important, and it is incredibly important. But it was a culture that people were prepared to look at their own practice, they developed, again, this word agency, for actually making a difference. That was the culture that was most important. Context is kind of like a wallpaper behind every conversation I mean, even the national policy context influences how teachers talk about their work and students. School context is really important. Leadership is a key contextual aspect. And a lot of these conversations occurred in a professional development context. So all those contexts really impinge on the kinds of conversations teachers have.