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What does effective professional learning for teachers look like?

Parents routinely roll their eyes any time a school announces a student-free professional learning day for its teachers. Many parents consider these days an inconvenience and struggle to see their purpose.

High quality, continuous professional learning (as opposed to one-off, snapshot professional development) is critical for keeping teachers’ skills and knowledge relevant. However, too many teachers participate in professional development that is disconnected and too ad hoc to improve classroom teaching skills. Passive, single-session professional development activities with little connection to a school’s context and long-term vision waste teachers’ time, government money and have very little or no impact on students’ learning outcomes.

This was one of the main findings in the recent Victorian auditor-general’s report on professional learning in Victorian public schools.

The report found that professional development activities are often “ineffective”, “once-off, generic events” occurring outside the classroom with “limited capacity to explore the diverse needs of every teacher". It acknowledged previous research that confirmed high quality professional learning improves teaching quality, which, in turn, can have a significant impact on student outcomes.

The report noted that the benefits of effective professional learning will only be realised if the focus is on the quality of professional learning undertaken, instead of the number of hours completed.

Victoria University confirmed similar findings in an Office of Learning and Teaching project completed in 2016 that studied the professional learning needs of academics teaching in universities. Arguably, the need for high quality, ongoing professional learning is even greater in higher education where academics are employed to teach content, but have little, if any, formal training in how to teach their content.

Professional development in education is a thriving industry, and providers of various quality bombard schools daily with their products. How can we help schools to make the right decisions about their professional learning needs?

Nearly a decade ago, Victoria University began to trial AVID – Advancement via Individual Determination – a system of evidence-informed, continuous professional learning programs for primary, secondary and tertiary teachers. VU now provides ongoing, professional learning through AVID and other activities to invest in its teaching staff as it transforms tertiary teaching and learning through its block model of teaching.

The underpinning philosophy of AVID’s student-centred approach is to continuously support teachers over time and guide them to be the great teachers they have the potential to be. AVID validates good practice that teachers are already using and guides them to become even better teachers over time.

Through research and experience, we have found that effective professional learning has three major features: it is ongoing and scalable; immersive and practical; and customisable.

First, just as students need to progress along a learning continuum through their formal years of schooling, teachers, too, need to learn continuously during their career to master their craft.

This was one of my key messages as a witness at the recent Federal Parliamentary inquiry into the status of the teaching profession. Teachers don’t graduate as highly accomplished practitioners, they learn and practise those skills to develop expertise over time.

There are no silver bullets in education. A school must have learning and teaching goals grounded in a language shared by teachers, parents and students. Each school must develop a strategic professional learning plan that leadership endorses and prioritises. A professional learning strategy invests in its teachers, and recognises that real and effective change in teaching quality is incremental and occurs over time.

Second, professional learning programs should themselves be engaging and model effective teaching practices. They must practise what they preach. AVID’s professional learning activities are facilitated by highly accomplished and practising lead teachers who model a repertoire of high engagement teaching strategies. Practical workshops give teachers the opportunity to practise and apply the teaching strategies to their own context with guidance from expert teachers. Teachers experience learning from their students’ perspectives and have the opportunity to apply these strategies to their own students’ needs.

Third, since effective professional learning activities respond to the context and needs of each school, they must be customisable. One size does not fit all as no two schools are the same. No two teachers can teach the same way, either. Follow-up visits by AVID’s professional learning team to every school during the year consolidates a respectful partnership that reinforces ongoing professional learning. AVID contextualises, customises and scaffolds each school’s professional learning to address specific needs.

Teaching is both a complex art and a practical craft. It takes years of practise to teach well. When we give our profession the respect it deserves by investing in effective and meaningful professional learning, we enable our teachers to enjoy the passion, joy and beauty of teaching effectively, and our students to develop a shared passion for lifelong learning.

Claire Brown is the national director of AVID Australia, at Victoria University. On 6 March, 2019, she gave evidence about teacher professional learning to the Federal Parliament’s Inquiry into the status of the teaching profession.

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