Why it is time to rethink teacher professional learning

Katie Roberts-Hull

Schools spend a lot of money and time on teacher professional learning, but the evidence that it improves teacher practice is very thin. Katie Roberts-Hull suggests a new way to help teachers improve their craft.

To improve student outcomes, we need to improve teaching. This means teachers need to acquire further knowledge, skills, and tools. Some of these are (hopefully) provided during initial teacher education but, ideally, teachers will continue to learn new knowledge and practices on the job.

An enormous amount of investment goes into ongoing teacher professional learning. In Australia, teachers report almost universal access to professional development opportunities. Yet many feel these opportunities have little or no impact on their teaching. In the United States, one study estimates that about $18,000 per teacher is spent on professional development each year. The same study also found that very few teachers actually improve their practice as a result. It is generally taken for granted that teachers can improve through professional development, but the evidence shows that it is very difficult.

For professional learning to be effective, it must improve student outcomes. Therefore, effective professional learning is not as simple as learning something new.  Teachers must be able to learn something new, put it into practice, then assess whether it is implemented well or whether they need more development to further improve. It all adds up to a lot of time devoted to improvement in one specific practice area.

There is very little quality research on teacher professional learning, but some reviews of research (see table below) have identified useful findings about the time required for effective professional learning. There is no clear threshold, but it is clear that attending one or two workshops on a topic will not help a teacher improve practice in that area. Instead, to really improve, teachers need sustained learning for an extended period -- probably between 14 and 80 hours over six to 24 months. This is a massive amount of time, especially considering this time is needed for improvement in one area.

Teachers usually undertake professional learning across many topics at the same time. They might have a learning community talking about formative assessment, a mentorship discussing behaviour management, a workshop on reading comprehension strategies, a coach on maths instruction, and feedback from classroom observations on student questioning. All these activities rack up professional learning hours, but since they are spread among many topics, the teacher may not get the benefit of sustained learning in one priority area. Instead of developing deeper knowledge and skills, teachers may instead be left with more shallow understanding and few practice improvements.

Teachers may get close to getting 14 or more hours of professional learning in a term, but it is rare for them to get this much time to focus so deeply on one practice issue. Since research shows that a large amount of time is needed to improve, schools might consider ways to refocus professional learning activities around one prioritised teacher learning issue, possibly allowing teachers to stay focused on this one issue for the entire year, or longer. Schools may find this awkward, because there are so many issues that need to be addressed. But allowing teachers the time to focus deeply on one issue will be more effective than trying to cover many topics with little time spent on each.

Research on how much professional learning time teachers need

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For more details on the evidence on teacher professional learning, see the appendix of Learning First’s 2016 report: Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems.

Katie Roberts-Hull is Manager at Learning First