Professional Learning for the people or by the people?

A new school year is about to start here in Australia and I am, as ever, filled with excitement and a fair measure of trepidation. Excitement about the potential a new year holds, the learning, the relationships, the challenges and all of the things that are bound up in the complexity of education. Trepidation about how I’m going to do all the things I want to do while maintaining some semblance of a life outside of work and ideally without developing an eye twitch due to a combination of stress and exhaustion. Yes, I know teachers have loads of holidays and only work from 9-3, clearly I’m a wuss…

One of the things I am particularly excited about this year is professional learning, my own and the broader learning of staff in my school. In 2014 the sands have shifted considerably in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. Traditionally (and by traditionally I mean up until last year, and probably still this year) professional learning in many schools consisted of sending staff on a course at which they listened to an expert, generally someone who had been out of the classroom for a number of years, returning to school, trying to implement some of the things they’d been told and then returning to normal practice after about a week. This model of professional learning never really worked for me, or many others. It’s too removed, too isolated, too infrequent and generally disconnected from what is my daily teaching experience. It was, therefore, with a fair amount of glee that I heard that this model was being changed, or completely dismantled. While I do have concerns about the limited amount of time that schools, school leaders and teachers have had to prepare for such a significant shift in professional learning, I believe that this means a new opportunity for professional learning that is connected, meaningful and relevant.

What does concern me about the future is the rise of the mega conference and external consultants. In recent years I’ve seen the growth of conferences, both in Australia and overseas, that are headlined by the current eduguru and come at a considerable cost to schools and individual teachers. I am not going to provide the conferences with any free publicity by linking to them here but a quick search will provide you with a number of examples. One of the things that worries me is how these conferences add to the disadvantage and division in the Australian school system. School funding is a complex thing in Australia and not something I really want to get into here. However, the reality is that most (if not all) public schools would really struggle to send any members of staff to a conference that costs, for example, almost $700. When you add the costs of casual teachers on to this you are talking an expense of at least $1300 for one teacher to be out of school for two days to listen to experts share ideas that generally require some sort of significant shift to school culture or practice, something else that costs money. And really, if you’ve sent one person to a conference how much impact can that person actually have? So, who goes to these conferences? I have my own ideas about this, and don’t want to be unnecessarily divisive here so I encourage you to ask yourself that question. Do you go to the conferences? If you do, who else is there, is there equal representation from all systems and types of schools? If not, what’s the potential impact of this, if any?

I know that all teachers can read blogs, buy books, join twitter, talk to each other and learn that way. Absolutely true. Why then the conferences? Sometimes it is worthwhile and important to listen to the person with ideas, to meet others who are trying or have tried new techniques and strategies, sometimes it’s about the prestige, sometimes.

For me conferences are not a realistic form of professional learning, and to be honest they aren’t the way I learn best. For me, professional learning needs to happen in context, to be responsive, to be undertaken with colleagues so we can reflect and evaluate; and needs to be long term. I’m incredibly lucky to work in a school where we collaborate to develop our own professional learning, where we get to spend time in each other’s classes, where we engage in professional conversations and where teachers are able (and encouraged) to lead learning. I have seen the benefit of this in so many ways, in the ways in which teachers see themselves as professionals, in the pride teachers take in the changes they instigate and the effect these have on their students and in the way a staff team builds a learning culture. For me conferences do not have the same impact, in fact at times they reduce the confidence and self-esteem of teachers by setting up unrealistic ideals that do not and can not relate to most teachers’ experience and setting.

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Teachers collaborating, making meaning, discussing, questioning and learning. Professional learning in action.

There are so many exciting possibilities for educators, too many for me to properly go into here. Learning through teachmeets, action research, twitter accounts (insert plug for @EduTweetOz), informal and formal learning networks are all ways in which teachers can own their learning and make meaningful changes in their own practice. Yes, the conference brochures are pretty, and yes the speakers are knowledgeable, and yes it’s reasonable to not want to ‘miss out’ on the next big thing. However, I really do hope that educators and school leaders are asking themselves some questions before they fork over the thousands of dollars necessary to attend them. Questions like: ‘What actual difference will this make to my practice and my school?’; ‘Can I can learn about this in a way that might be more meaningful or powerful?’; and ‘Is this the best use of this money for my school and my community?’.

The potential for this new era of professional learning is truly exciting, I just hope we don’t get carried away in worshipping a few trends or gurus and see the knowledge that’s already there in our schools, our networks and in ourselves. Teachers are better placed than any other professionals to truly lead and share their own learning, let’s make the most of that advantage and spend our pennies wisely.

I’d love to hear about what you are doing for professional learning in 2014. How can we support each other in this journey?