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.”

Book cover design for ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

Netolicky BOOK COVER

My book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools has a cover design!

For me, the image on the cover speaks to transformation, collaboration, the interaction between the individual and the organisation, the fluidity of identities, the complexity of learning, the non-linearity of growth, and the humanity of education.

It is available for pre-order from the hyperlink above (due for release on 20 September), where you can also read the table of contents and the book’s first reviews.

It is also available for pre-order–in paperback, hard back and eBook versions–from other online booksellers like bookdepository and Amazon.

My editor and I have worked with the publisher to reduce the price of the book from AUD$60 to the more teacher friendly AUD$39.99 (already reduced further by some sites), although some sellers don’t yet have the updated price.

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing.

abandoned chairs

source: @MichaelGaida on pixabay

This week, New South Wales MP Mark Latham, of the Australian One Nation party, discussed the One Nation NSW education policy. The policy uses language like “embarrassing” to describe Australia’s performance on PISA testing, as well as constructing teachers as “substandard” and “underperforming”, arguing that many should be reported and “removed”. It states that “what gets measures [sic] gets done”. It advocates for introducing performance-based pay for teachers, based on measuring teacher performance; “for example, testing a class at the beginning and end of the year and assessing the improvement (or regression) in results over the 10-month period.” Of course, measuring so-called teacher effectiveness is notoriously unreliable and a teacher’s influence on the students in their care is multifaceted. Check out the Twitter hashtag #OurWorkCannotBeMeasured through which teachers describe student progress or teacher work that cannot be quantified through an oversimplified performance measure.

On Thursday, as a result of an article I wrote for The Conversation back in 2016 on performance pay for teachers, I was invited to comment on ABC New South Wales radio about Mr Latham’s proposal. The interview is online here, at about the 2 hour and 7 minute mark. I explained during the interview that performance pay for teachers has no evidence for improving student achievement. Rather, merit-based pay is damaging. It creates toxic cultures of fear, isolation and competition. It leads to reduced collegiality and collaboration, less innovation, exacerbated wellbeing issues and the dehumanisation of teachers and students to data points.

During the interview I was asked, “What will fix all these problems we have in our education system?” My response was that “while there are issues, part of the problem is this notion that the education system needs fixing, that the system is broken, that schools and teachers are failing and we need to fix them. We have excellent teachers doing incredible work in our schools. Part of what is going to help the system is trusting teachers to do their jobs and providing trust, support, resourcing and time, instead of punishments, rewards and accusations.”

The experience of this brief radio interview—squeezed into the school day in between lessons and meetings in the last week of Term 2—led me to reflect on themes in my upcoming book. Titled Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools, it includes chapters on collaboration, mentoring, coaching, self-directed learning, professional standards and leadership for professional learning.

When people ask me what my book is about I say, “professional learning for teachers and school leaders” (usually followed by a tongue-in-cheek “it’s a real page-turner”). It is about that, but it is also about significantly more.

My book is about trusting and supporting the profession through meaningful opportunities to grow. It is about why, how and on what education stakeholders can best spend time, money and resources, for positive outcomes. It is about treating those working in schools as professionals who are experts in their work but who can always improve, not because they are deficient, but because their work is complex and entangled with identities, relationships, society and humanity. It is about policy that takes the long view rather than aiming for quick wins, and about leadership that empowers rather than inspects or punishes.

It is about nurturing collaboration and collegiality, over surveillance and isolation. It is about those things that systems and organisations can do to develop the capacity of those within the system. It is about how to build productive organisational cultures that simultaneously value, honour and sustain each individual and the group as a whole. It is about meaningfully considering workload and wellbeing, so that teachers and school leaders can best serve their students and communities without sacrificing themselves, burning out or taking shortcuts to stay afloat. These themes are relevant to other organisations and systems, too, not just to education.

When I reflect on my upcoming book, one of its central messages is this:

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing. There is outstanding work going on every day in schools around Australia and the world. We should focus on trusting and empowering the teaching profession.

Opt-in interest groups for teacher professional learning

Source: pixabay.com by @rawpixel

I wrote earlier this year about the individualised professional learning pathways model that my school is trialing this year. Teachers and leaders are now able to have more voice and choice in the internal process of professional learning in which they engage. Where before staff were allocated a school-based development process (such as coaching) based on their place in a three-to-four year cycle, we have in 2018 opened up a range of new options and each staff member negotiates with their line manager the one most appropriate to their career stage, interest and development needs.

One of these options is what we are terming ‘Professional Learning Groups’. These groups have been opted into by staff from PK to 12, from various faculties, and in a variety of roles including teachers, leaders and staff from libraries or co-curricular arenas. This year, of our 140-odd teaching staff, 40 chose to be involved in one of these groups, so each group includes about ten people. The following groups were on offer.

  • Teaching best practice
      • Members of this group have a particular interest in teasing out classroom teaching. From evidence-based methods to transfer to ensuring that they are able to ‘reach’ all students in their classes, they have come with a desire to focus on their core business as teachers: teaching!
  • Pedagogies of learning spaces
      • This group is made up of a range of teachers and leaders working in various learning spaces across the school, some of which are newly refurbished and some of which are well-established. There has so far been vibrant discussion and sharing of the practices, challenges, and benefits of co-teaching and teaching in open or flexible spaces.
  • ICT for teaching and learning
      • Members of this group have a range of expertise and needs surrounding the use of technologies for teaching and learning. They have so far been very interested in one another’s expertise and also in the targets each person is setting for themselves, and challenges each is facing. They have been able to offer one another advice.
  • Post-graduate study
      • My idea for this group came about when I was doing my PhD. Working in a school while moonlighting as a post-graduate student can be incredibly isolating as you rush from work to study. There are often few people with whom teachers and leaders can discuss their study, especially when it involves self-directed research. This group is as much about solidarity, support, recognition and acknowledgement of those engaged in further study as it is about research methods or dissertation writing.

As the recent Gonski 2.0 report surfaced, teachers would like time to talk about and collaborate around teaching. Groups like these can provide this opportunity. While from the outset I had a loose idea of what these groups would do—such engage in scholarly literature, reflect and workshop problems of practice together, share practice, visit one another’s classrooms, collaborate in online spaces—I am facilitating them in a way that allows the group’s interests and needs to lead the way the group operates. This means employing structures for collaboration and coaching-style language, but in a way that is open to the groups operating in ways that are unexpected or taking directions that are surprising. These are not groups at which I am the expert at the helm or the instructor filling colleagues with my knowledge. They are groups of expert practitioners whose value is in the rich expertise around the table, and the potential of professional conversation and collaboration about our daily work.

Each person has come to each group with a particular intention, and we fleshed these out in our first meetings. The opt-in nature of the groups has meant that staff have generally arrived with enthusiasm for being involved; they have chosen this pathway for themselves. As my leadership role is PK-12, and in a previous role I coached classroom teachers across the school around their classroom practice, I get to see the potential symbiosis between disparate areas of the school (like the co-teaching in Year 3 and in Year 11 Physics, literacy approaches from PK-12, common strategies for behaviour management and developing classroom culture or addressing students with particular learning needs), but many staff do not have the opportunity to see the connections between themselves and others in the organisation. How might a Year 12 Design and Technology teacher know that their design thinking process mirrors that of the Pre-Primary classroom? The luxury of spending time with colleagues who share similar interests and challenges cannot be underestimated, especially in the environment of a PK-12 school where so often we can be siloed in our year level or faculty teams. So far there seem real benefits to those from vastly different areas of the school workshopping similar challenges and goals, ones they may not have known they shared with colleagues until coming together.

Teachers and school leaders need professional learning opportunities that are at once self-chosen and self-directed, but also collaborative and supported. Often internal expertise goes unrecognised and untapped in schools. Looking outside and borrowing others’ practice has its benefits, but schools can and should consider the expertise of those within their own walls, rather than looking tirelessly to external ‘experts’. Teachers are experts in their own classrooms. School leaders are experts in their own school contexts. They deserve to be recognised as such, and to be given time and permission to deeply and collectively engage in the core aspects of their work.

Professional learning and collaboration: Where have they Gonski and where are we going?

On Monday the Gonski 2.0 review panel report, entitled Through Growth to Achievement Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, was released. This was a much-anticipated second report on the Australian education system, written by David Gonski and colleagues. I have many conflicting responses to much of the report and its comments about curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and reporting. I would hazard a guess that many Australian educators feel more aligned with the first Gonski report, which focused on equitable redistribution of ‘needs-based sector-blind’ funding, as opposed to this one with its focus on individualisation of learning, increased measurement, and a ‘what works’ agenda for ‘maximum impact’.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will avoid the multiple elephants in the Gonski 2.0 room and focus on aspects of Chapter 3 of the report, and its focus on teacher collaboration and professional learning. Partly, this chapter is relevant to my role, and it felt particularly relevant on Monday when the report was released, because that was a staff professional development day at my school, one which I had organised.

What Gonski 2.0 says about professional learning and collaboration

The Gonski 2.0 report outlines what research literature has been saying for some time: that teachers need to meaningfully collaborate, and that schools need to provide a growth-focused professional learning environment in which teachers can interrogate and improve their practice, based on knowing research and knowing their students. On the theme of professional learning and collaboration, the Gonski 2.0 report singles out as particularly effective modes of collaboration: peer observation and feedback, coaching, mentoring, team teaching and joint research projects. These have all been foci of my school, to which many of my blog posts will attest.

Professional collaboration in action

At my school, Monday was in many ways an embodiment of professional learning married with professional collaboration. Our staff day began with the principal’s address, which referenced the just-released Gonski 2.0 report’s findings. We then embarked upon a day of elevating the voices of staff within our organisation through discussion with, learning from, and collaborating alongside, one another.

A panel presentation shared the voices of four staff from different arenas in the school, in a discussion of how our 2018 strategic priorities are being embedded in various school contexts.

A two-hour block was set aside for TeachMeet style sessions, in which teachers ran practical workshops for each other. Teachers chose the sessions they attended. Topics were based on the AITSL Standards and our core business of teaching and learning. These were practical, practitioner-run sessions that harnessed the internal expertise and generosity of teachers at our school. Topics offered included:

  • Teaching literacy across the school: the big picture and practical strategies
  • Auditory, visual and sensory processing disorders: What they are and what to do as a classroom teacher
  • OneNote Classroom for teaching, learning and collaboration
  • Team teaching and collaborative pedagogies in action
  • Online assessment and feedback
  • Pedagogical frameworks for inquiry and project-based learning across the school
  • A roundtable on Indigenous pathways

Most sessions required collaboration in the planning of these sessions, as they were run by multiple participants from different sub-schools and a variety of faculties. Staff presenting and participating made connections across areas, seeing the similarities in each other’s’ work and recognising one another’s expertise. The feedback from these sessions has been resoundingly positive. The afternoon was then spent collaborating in teams.

This is a snapshot example of the kind of professional collaboration and learning happening in Australian schools and among Australian education communities. My school, like most, has additional collaborative mechanisms. Ours include differentiated professional learning pathways, coaching for professional growth, and professional learning communities focused on using student data to inform teaching practice.

Letting teachers focus on teaching

As the Gonski 2.0 report points out, however, teachers are weighed down by administrivia and tasks additional to their teaching load. The report notes that “submissions to the Review argued that teachers want to focus on teaching” (p.60) and suggests that schools will need to rethink “time use and work practices … where the average teacher is often burdened with administrative tasks and finds little time to develop new teaching skills,” for instance by “considering different and innovative ways to free up teacher time, for example using more paid paraprofessionals and other non-teaching personnel, including trained volunteers, to assist with non-teaching tasks such as lunchtime or assembly supervision or administrative tasks” (p.57).

As teachers are asked to increasingly use data, be aware of research, collaborate, and engage in ongoing professional learning, workload remains an issue. Collaboration and professional learning take time. Professional learning, in particular, often happens in teachers’ own time, and using their own funds. Time and resourcing are important considerations influencing to what extent teachers are able to collaborate and participate in effective professional learning.

Individualising staff performance development

doorway, Oia, 2008

This year at my school we are trialling a different approach to performance development and review processes. Historically, we have had a range of processes and each year staff have been assigned to the process they are ‘up for’ based on a chronological cycle. This has tended to mean that in the first year of employment at the school, staff go through a probation process. The next three years have involved a linear cycle of two years of coaching around teaching practice, followed by a year in which the staff member engages in reflection and performance review with their line manager around their role. And so on. Each year staff also have a reflection and goal-setting conversation with their line manager, which functions as an important check-in for the manager and a key feedback process for the staff member.

These processes aim to engender trust, build capacity, and provide support, while also facilitating a relationship between person and manager around performance, development, and needs. They are founded on a belief that our staff are capable professionals who have the capacity and the will to grow professionally; and an expectation that they will endeavour to improve, no matter how good they already are. Data, research, coaching, collaboration, mentoring, and self-reflection are all tools embedded into these processes.

Yet, despite the best intentions of these processes, and their basis in research, some staff have felt that the school-based development processes have not met their needs, or have not been meaningful. It has had me wondering:

How might school-based performance development be differentiated to meet the needs, aspirations and career stages of staff?

So this year we are trialling a non-linear, more individualised approach to our performance development. Teachers, for instance, will negotiate with their manager a choice from a number of options. Options for teaching staff include:

  • Coaching around practice with a teacher trained as a Cognitive Coach; involves using low-inference data for reflection and capacity building within a confidential and trusting space; leaders can opt to be coached by a peer or other leader
  • Working with an expert teacher who acts as a kind of classroom consultant; might include team teaching and mentoring with specific advice around classroom practice.
  • A reflection and feedback process with their line manager (which needs to happen every 3-4 years)
  • An internally-designed leadership development program for aspirant or early career leaders; includes leadership profiles, school leaders running sessions
  • A professional learning group, bringing staff together from across the school to engage in scholarly literature, reflection, and shared practice.
    • Teaching best practice
    • Pedagogies of learning spaces
    • ICT for teaching and learning
    • Post-graduate study

All staff will continue to complete their yearly reflection and goal setting conversation with their line manager. In order to support this work, all our school leaders, many of whom have previously completed the Cognitive Coaching Foundation course, are undertaking GROWTH Coaching training. This training will help them to guide and enhance the goal setting of the people they manage, and it supports our organisational belief (based in research and knowledge of our own context) that coaching is a powerful vehicle for building individual, collaborative and organisational capacity. We will also continue to provide additional leadership support and development.

The above options do not cover everything that educators do to develop themselves and others. All managers regularly check-in on the performance of their staff; they do not wait until the rigorous formal process rolls around. We have staff who mentor pre-service teachers, contribute to professional associations, present at conferences, write textbooks, or complete post-graduate study. The above school-based options do, however, provide a more flexible suite of alternatives that honour where our staff are at in their career journeys. As always, we will ask for honest feedback from staff as we seek to find ways to serve our students, staff, and the shared purpose of the organisation.

The power of clear messaging

Cervantes sign

Cervantes sign

While professional learning is the internal process of knowing, learning and becoming, professional development tends to refer to activities, courses, sessions, talks or conferences that teachers attend, voluntarily or otherwise. While it’s more trendy now to say ‘CPD’ (continuing professional development) than ‘PD’, one-off rather than sustained learning continues to pepper the lives of teachers as they and their schools attempt to improve themselves, keep up to date with the profession and meet legal and professional requirements.

The Australian school year has begun, which means that teachers have been given the opportunity to enjoy or endure staff days. Staff days prior to the commencement of the academic year tend to include time for planning, collaboration and setting up classrooms, as well as guest speakers, seminars or the kind of scattergun PD that hopes to land somewhere in the audience and maybe make a difference.

How do schools make decisions as to what kinds of development, collaboration and individual growth they facilitate for their staff? Especially in light of provocative reports like that from the TNTP (2015), The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development, which suggested that we do not yet know what helps teachers to improve the quality of their instruction? The TNTP report (of a two year study into teacher professional learning of over 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders in three USA public school districts) found that, despite schools and systems investing time and money into professional learning of teachers, no clear patterns emerged to suggest which deliberate efforts improved teacher performance, as measured by teacher evaluation scores (using the education district’s final evaluation score, calculated using the district’s official methodology).

The TNTP report did note one school system whose teachers and students consistently performed better and improved more than the three public school districts. The report states that this better-performing, teacher-developing system had a more disciplined and coherent system for teacher development, a clear vision of success, and a network-wide culture of high expectations and continuous growth. Coherent system. Clear vision. Cohesive culture.

This year, my school decided not to invite a dizzyingly inspirational guest speaker or enlist the services of an external expert to run PD with our staff on those days. Instead our focus was on honouring, respecting and utilising internal expertise, and on communicating clear messaging around the school’s strategic priorities for the year. Valuing tacit knowledge and lived professional experience was important, as the strategic priorities were not new, either for the school or in education. The message, from the school executive and senior leadership team, to teachers, psychologists, education assistants and non-teaching staff, was that there are three key priorities for the year, summarised as three simple words. And that none of these was new, but rather things that teachers and other staff engage in every day, in and out of their classrooms.

What we aimed to do on our staff days was what Hargreaves and Shirley describe in their book The fourth way: The inspirational future for educational change as “explore the nitty gritty challenges of their practice through thoughtful exchanges with colleagues and in relation to relevant research” (2009, p. 93). We provided presentations from internal experts and leaders, including a panel of community members, as well as accessible readings and time for colleagues to collaborate with one another, both in their teams and with others from across the school.

The sense I got from our staff days was that staff were:

  • Relieved at the lack of new initiatives and the deliberate slowness in rolling out current projects; we continue to move forward, but in a measured way.
  • Comfortable with the clarity, simplicity and consistency of the messaging.
  • Grateful to be informed of and included in the strategic direction of the school.
  • Energised by the opportunity to work in a structured way with colleagues, around how the school’s strategic priorities would come alive in their own contexts.

I am often inspired by Ellie Drago-Severson’s work on adult learning, and the notion of the ‘holding environment’ as one of high support and high challenge, where people feel both ‘held’ and encouraged to be their best. Additionally, plenty of literature around school change talks about the need for shared vision, as does the 2016 ACER Professional Learning Community Framework for Australian schools. It is worth considering at length how to share school vision with the community so that it is lived, breathed, understood and propelled by those across the organisation. Everyone from the principal to parents and students have a part to play in knitting a community together around a common purpose. This year, those three words communicated from the executive down are helping to bind our community more closely together with common vision and shared purpose.