How can we create effective professional learning? Lessons from high-performing systems

In any district, state or country, when student learning stagnates or falls, the response is universal: we must improve teaching to improve learning. All of the evidence shows that this is the right response. But it’s incredibly difficult. We spend millions of dollars on teacher professional development, but it’s not having the desired impact on our kids’ learning.

But in some high-performing systems it is working. What makes these systems different? What steps can other systems take to make professional learning effective?

Too often, children from low-income communities do not receive a great education, and in several education systems, the number of high-performing students is shrinking. The response to these problems is almost universal: to focus on improving teaching to increase kids’ learning.  

It is the right objective, but while there are pockets of success, the money invested in teacher professional development has not resulted in improvement in most schools. It is incredibly difficult to improve teaching and learning across tens of thousands of classrooms. Too few school systems succeed in making the transition. But for those that do, the benefits to children are immense, and the working lives of teachers improve dramatically.

Too often, a typical teacher reaches the end of the year exhausted. She is enthusiastic about educating children, but she often feels overwhelmed by the complexity of the job. She sits in her office knowing she has had success with many of her students but she wishes for more success for them and feels a bit disappointed with her opportunities to develop her professional expertise. She has technically clocked on a lot of ‘PD hours’ going to seminars and workshops, but she remembers many of them as being sort of boring and not really relevant to issues she was facing in her classroom. She only received feedback from a classroom observation once, and she never got the chance to view other teachers’ classes, like she was hoping to. It is so hard for her to improve her teaching – to help the kids she is having trouble reaching – when no-one looks at what she does and tells her how to improve. She was assigned a mentor in her school, and although the mentor was helpful for administrative questions, she didn’t receive much advice after someone has actually watched her teach. She knows she is not alone. Many teachers around the world have access to professional development, but most teachers report little impact on their actual teaching.

Learning First’s new report Beyond PD: Teacher professional learning in high-performing systems examines systems that have made the transition, namely, British Columbia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. These systems vary in their geography, history and culture but all have a similar strategy to improve teaching and learning.

So, why is professional learning having a real impact in these systems? What are the steps other systems can take to refine their improvement strategies?

First, ensure that teacher professional learning is focused on an improvement cycle that begins and ends with student learning. The topic of teacher professional development should be determined by the learning needs of students in a classroom. Teaching is developed to address these learning needs. Professional development should not be considered effective unless it actually improves student learning.

Second, develop a strategy that changes how teachers and school leaders work in schools. To achieve this, reforms should extend well beyond traditional professional development policies. This requires changes in:

  • How we hold schools accountable – increasing accountability for the quality of teaching and the development of teachers;
  • How we develop our school leaders – high-performing systems have created new leadership positions in schools to develop teachers and improve professional learning. These new leaders, like their school principals, are specifically trained in how to use the improvement cycle to continually improve teachers and their teaching; and
  • How we target school resourcing to make sure teachers have enough time to focus on professional learning. 

Over time, this blend of policies can have a profound impact. Professional learning becomes central to teachers’ jobs. It is not an add-on. It is not something done on Friday afternoons or for a few days at either end of the school year. Teacher professional learning is how educators improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs. 

Professional learning that starts and ends with student learning

Professional learning programs in high-performing systems follow an improvement cycle in schools that is anchored in student learning. It is not the name of the program that is important – whether it is a mentoring program or a professional learning team – but whether it functions on an effective improvement cycle that follows these three steps:

First, teachers assess students to identify their learning needs. So teachers in a primary school may look at the data and realise they have a problem in Grade 3 maths. They then deeply analyse student learning in this area (mainly through assessment) to better diagnose where students are and are not learning.

Second, they develop the teaching practices that meet the student learning needs identified in step 1. So after diagnosing the key areas for improvement, these teachers then draw on experts and look at the evidence on how to improve instruction. They pick the most effective strategies and try them in their school.

Finally, they evaluate the impact of these new practices on student learning, refining practice along the way. As these teachers and school leaders try new methods of teaching, they evaluate whether teaching is improving and how students are affected. Teachers and school leaders observe each other's lessons and provide feedback on how to improve teaching and learning. If the new practices are working, teachers share what they have learned throughout the school. If they are not, then teachers analyse why and further refine instruction.

A new teacher in Shanghai is nervous as she prepares to face her class of 45 students for the first time. Her learning curve over her first weeks, months and years is steep, but she knows that she can expect great support. She has two mentors: one provides subject-specific guidance, the other general teaching advice. Her mentors know that they will not be promoted unless they help her improve. They observe her classroom teaching on a regular basis, and she observes her mentors’ classes to learn and work on those aspects of her teaching that are most critical to her students. In between classes, she regularly attends research groups with other teachers to analyse specific teaching and learning issues in their classrooms. None of this is easy, but it is all focused on what her students most need. This makes her job easier as her development is specifically aimed at the teaching and learning issues she is most struggling with. Expectations for her development are high.

The improvement cycle is not new, and many schools around the world have and are trying various forms of it. It is based on the global evidence of effective professional learning. But the improvement cycle has also failed many times. It fails when it is used in isolation. To make it effective – to truly get the improvements in teaching and learning we have been looking for – requires a strategy that continually develops and reinforces effective professional learning.

A strategy to improve professional learning and teacher development

For this to result in actual improvement, a reform strategy must recognise the difficulties of shifting the way teachers work together and teach their students in thousands of schools. It requires multiple change leaders in schools to lead and role-model effective collaborative professional learning. It requires new evaluation and accountability policies to continually reinforce these new ways of working in a school. And it targets resources to enable it all to happen.

New professional learning leaders to lead the change in schools

To transform the way people work every day, in every classroom, in every school, requires strong leadership with specific skills in how people and organisations can change and move away from their usual practice. All of these high-performing systems recognise how difficult this is, so they have developed new leadership positions in schools and across the system. These new leaders are regularly trained alongside school principals, so each school has multiple leaders acting to change the way people work to ensure that teachers’ individual and collective professional learning is meeting school objectives.

Importantly, the new leaders are teachers; they are peer leaders, chosen from the teaching force to lead professional learning in each school. They often remain in the classroom on a part-time basis. Part of the reason they are effective is that other teachers are more likely to change the way they work when they see colleagues – not just official leaders – role-modelling effective practices.

Evaluation and accountability should be structured to improve professional learning

Too often, policymakers are told they have to choose between strategies emphasising accountability or development. So when a young teacher is not getting the professional development she needs – her mentor is not improving her teaching or her school principal has development days that target the wrong areas – it is often viewed as a problem with teacher professional development policies. In high-performing systems this would also be viewed as a problem of accountability. In these systems, accountability focuses not only on student performance, but also on the quality of instruction and professional learning.

Teachers in Shanghai will not be promoted unless they can demonstrate that they are collaborative. Similarly, mentors will not be promoted unless the teachers they mentor improve. School principals in British Columbia must prove that they are following an improvement cycle, and that it is improving results. If professional learning programs in Shanghai schools are considered to be of low quality, then the central office will take over much of the school’s professional learning.

Teachers need time for professional learning

A common problem preventing the development of effective professional learning in many systems is a lack of time. Teachers simply do not have sufficient time in the day for taking up effective professional learning. Shanghai provides the clearest example of a system that commits a large amount of time to teacher professional learning. They focus on the quality rather than the quantity of teaching. The average teacher in Shanghai teaches for only 10-12 hours per week. Considerable time is allocated to professional learning. But Shanghai is an outlier even amongst high-performing systems. For example, British Columbia made huge gains with only 1-2 periods per week allocated to formal professional learning.

Reform can start with small changes          

Importantly, creating effective professional learning does not require a complete overhaul of education policy. Progress in high-performing systems came through incremental improvements. For example, Singapore did not implement all of its reforms in one go: it changed one aspect at a time over many years, pragmatically trying what worked and discarding what did not work until it achieved a finely balanced approach.

This report offers a roadmap for reform: namely, to emphasise an improvement cycle as the key to school improvement and to build the leadership, capacity, and accountability for the quality of the improvement cycle in schools. Over time, this transforms the improvement cycle into a culture of continuous professional learning that turns schools into true learning organisations. When this occurs we will get the improvements in student learning that we all hope for.

Click here to read the report.

Click here for the Australian edition of the report.