TES book review of ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

This week, the Times Educational Supplement published a review of my book by Clare Sealy. Clare is a prominent voice in education in the UK. After years as a primary school principal she is now Head of Curriculum and Standards for the States of Guernsey. She has a wealth of experience in school and system leadership in education. We agree about the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum and of understanding cognitive load for learning and revision.

I thank Clare for taking the time to read my book and write a review. As the book’s author, I have reflected on some of her opinions about the book, which she describes as “useful but flawed”. I share these responses below.

False promises

Clare argues that by including the term ‘transformational’ in the book’s title—Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools—I was ‘setting myself up for a fall’.

“Surely, thinks the reader,” she writes, “if I read this, I will experience a deep – nay, transformational – shift in my understanding. The earth will move, the scales will fall from my eyes, my cup will runneth over. Inevitably then, with the bar set so high, this book disappoints.”

The term ‘transformational’ in the title is defined in Chapter 1 as a way to describe a particular view of professional learning: one concerned with those experiences and processes that have an impact on what teachers and school leaders think, believe, feel, and do. I deliberately spend some time discussing and defining the term transformational professional learning. I differentiate the term ‘transformative’ (associated with Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory) from ‘transformational’ as it is used in professional learning literature in order to be as clear as I can about the framework for the book’s discussion.

It wasn’t my intention to promise readers that they will be transformed through their reading of the book, and this isn’t something I promise. I do say that the book makes the case for professional learning that positively shapes teacher practices that improve student learning. If, however, a reader feels that their cup has runneth over through their reading of the book, that’s a lovely bonus.

The optimist

Clare points out that I am “slightly more optimistic than the research” I cite. I can probably be described as a critical optimist or an optimistic skeptic. My optimism helps to sustain me through the often negative press the teaching profession gets, and propels me in the work and advocacy I do. My cautiousness and skepticism helps me to challenge claims, consider alternatives, and make careful decisions.

Underwhelming conclusion

Clare finds my conclusion ‘underwhelming’.

My conclusion that ‘it depends’ and ‘context matters’ may be underwhelming, but as a practising educator, I prefer this to overreaching promises of ‘what works’.

Today, Daniel Willingham tweeted the following:

DTW

“It depends.” This is the reality of much education research and is reflected in the conclusion where I write:

“As in other education fields, the answer to the question ‘What works?’ is often ‘It depends’. However, accepting the complexities and nuances of professional learning does not preclude us from knowing what is likely to be effective, and in what kinds of professional learning schools would benefit from investing” (p.131).

As I say in the book, there is no one-size-fits-all model for individual or organisational professional learning, although I hope that my book points educators in profitable directions likely to be advantageous for students, teachers, and school leaders.

Clare adds that, “the truth, however unpalatable, is preferable to false promises.” That is, as I understand it, it’s better to acknowledge the unsexy reality of what we do and don’t know about what works in professional learning, than to conjure up deliciously simple checklists that overpromise, underdeliver, and don’t take nuance into account.

My book deliberately rallies against the oversimplification of education problems and solutions. It puts trust back into the hands of those working in schools, who know their students, staff, and communities. It is those working in schools who are best positioned to put research evidence to work by applying it with professional judgement and knowledge of their context.

Issues with coaching

While I spend Chapter 5 defining and discussing mentoring, instructional coaching, peer coaching and cognitive coaching, Clare comments that she would have liked to see more discussion around the difference between instruction coaching, mentoring and self-directed coaching. She is particularly interested in a more detailed examination of instructional coaching. (For those interested, there are plenty of resources on Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Group website.)

Coaching is indeed a slippery term. What we mean when we talk about coaching needs specificity and shared understanding. In my view, instructional coaching, peer coaching, cognitive coaching, GROWTH coaching, executive coaching, mentoring, and consulting all have a purpose and a place in the professional learning landscape. We need to fit the tool to the individual, the context, and the purpose.

I agree with Clare’s comment that novice teachers need modelling and scaffolding, while experienced teachers learn better from opportunities to reflect on their extensive experience. In Chapter 8, I describe the varying needs of teachers at different career stages and explain how my school differentiated staff development in order to meet the diverse needs, aspirations, and career stages of staff. This model included mentoring or instructional coaching for early career teachers and coaching or collaborative approaches for more experienced teachers, on a case-by-case basis.

The positives

As the author of the reviewed book, I was drawn to the more critical aspects of the review, but there is plenty there that is also positive. Some excerpts include the following.

“Most have some sympathy with Netolicky’s diagnosis of the problem with much that passes for professional learning.”

“Netolicky reminds us that you don’t change a teacher simply by giving them better information. What really changes people is not just informational learning but transformational learning, that is ‘actively changing how a person knows though shifts in cognition, emotion and capacity’.”

“The chapter on collaborative professional learning is perhaps the most useful. It blows away any easy assumptions that if we all just did loads of lesson studies and collaborative learning, then everything would be fine. Since this approach is often peddled as a panacea to top-down approaches, it is good to have a rigorous analysis of what needs to happen for this to be effective.”

“This book gives a useful overview of different approaches to professional development and their relative strengths and weaknesses.”

“Netolicky has done us a service in reading the research and sharing it with us.”

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