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:


“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.”

Can and should teachers be (viewed as) researchers?

Sarajevo bullets, by @debsnetWhen we respect teaching as an intellectual activity and give teachers the opportunities to raise serious questions about what they teach, how they teach and the larger goals for which they are striving, they can play a dramatic role in transforming their institutions. ~ Peter Senge, Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone who Cares about Education

This month – April 2015 – is the month in which Dylan Wiliam argued in the TES magazine that teaching cannot and will not be a research-led profession, in which Tom Bennett responded that evidence-based education is dead (but that evidence-informed education lives), and in which John Hattie was quoted in a TES article as saying that teachers should not try to be researchers and that ‘I don’t have any time for making teachers researchers.’ In response to his own question, ‘Asking teachers to be researchers?’ he replies, ‘They are not.’

In this article Hattie is also quoted as saying that teachers should use the “literacy and sensibility of research to inform their practice” and that the worlds of research (by academics, not teachers) and teaching should “orbit together”. This resonates with Tom Bennett’s assertion that teaching be evidence-informed (but not evidence-based) and with the mandate of researchED which is to raise research literacy in the teaching profession and promote conversations between teaching and academic communities (my post about researchED Sydney 2014 is here).

As someone whose identity straddles ‘teacher’ and novice ‘researcher’ (as a PhD candidate coming towards the end of my PhD journey) I agree that research should inform teaching, leading and educational practice, and that worlds of education and the academy should work in collaboration. I am not sure, however, that we should draw a divisive line with ‘teacher’ on one side and ‘researcher’ on the other.

When I read the TES article which presented quotes from Hattie, a number of questions arose for me. What does Hattie mean when he says that teachers are not (and perhaps cannot be) researchers? What is his definition of ‘researcher’?

Is he discouraging teachers from reading academic literature and collecting data to inform their practice? Is he telling teachers they cannot be (taught to be) systematic thinkers who investigate, trial, collaborate, communicate and utilise scholarly literature and evidence to inform their practice?

Many teachers have been involved in action research projects, or Masters or PhD dissertations. Are these teachers, too, incapable of conducting and applying research thinking and methods? For me this is an issue of identity, of sense of self. Am I a teacher who researches? A researcher who teaches? A teacher and a researcher? Is Hattie suggesting that these identities are unavailable to me?

Is research in a real educational context by a real educator less valid than that of an academic from a university?

Many have responded to this conversation. Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, warns against encouraging teachers not to pursue evidence, as he articulates in this TES article.

Teacher Chris Parsons explores how the teaching profession might strategically develop its use of evidence to inform practice.

PhD candidate Charlotte Pezaro, writing for the Australian Association of Educational Research, explores ways in which academics and teachers might interact.

Policy analyst Patrick Watson in this post argues that we need to identify research which is worthwhile for informing practice, build the research-literacy of teachers and encourage action research to facilitate reflection and deeper understanding.

The 2012 Grattan Institute report ‘Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia’ asserts that high-performing school systems view teachers as researchers, continually developing their knowledge base through practices such as professional reading and action research. My PhD cites examples of literatures which promotes participatory action research as transformative for individual practice and collaborative cultures. All research and all researchers have limitations. I wonder what the impact is of viewing teachers as researchers and of encouraging teachers to think of themselves as researchers. How does it shape teachers’ identities, self-perceptions and practices if they are encouraged to be consumers, curators, engagers and creators of research? Perhaps it is partly a question (to reflect Dweck’s work) of developing a research mindset.

One of Wiliam’s points is that research cannot tell us what could be only what we already know. If we are always basing our practice on what has been done, we aren’t innovating or trialling new possibilities. Teaching and schools should be about more than doing what has been done and what is known; it should be about moving forward and even about innovation and creativity.

Perhaps teachers who see themselves as researchers could call themselves ‘teachers as innovative, research-literate, reflective, evidence-informed, systematically-thinking, data-using-and-interrogating practitioners who drive their own learning and improvement in regards to what benefits their students.’ Or maybe that’s a bit long.

While I understand that the issue of whether teachers can or should be researchers is nuanced, complex and riddled with semantic argument, I (as someone who identifies as teacher and researcher) would like to think we can view teachers as researchers, by my definition, if not by Hattie’s.