How We Make a Difference: the Importance of Professional Learning
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Education Review.
“I try to think of teaching as more than just a job,” begins one of the feedback forms from an anonymous professional learning participant, “teaching is an important vocation, but I feel like I’ve lacked the knowledge to reach my full potential. Your training has given me the knowledge and confidence to improve what I can offer my students and colleagues.”
Hawker Brownlow Education’s feedback archives are full of similar comments from professional learning events across the country. From public schools in Queensland to private schools in Western Australia, the sentiment is the same: professional learning is vital – and it makes a difference.
“This sort of feedback from participants is really important to us,” says Sonya Mackenzie, Hawker Brownlow Education’s General Manager of Professional Development, “but this feedback isn’t about us. It’s about ensuring the professional learning services we offer are meeting the real-world needs of educators.”
Making professional learning part of the everyday
The importance of professional learning in teaching – and of the teaching profession more generally – was highlighted in the recent Victorian Auditor-General’s report into professional learning. The audit emphasised the need for “student-centred, classroom-based and teacher-led activities”. To be effective, professional learning should be embedded into everyday practices. Without ongoing exposure to professional learning, the audit warns, there is a risk that teachers’ practices will “stagnate” – affecting not only their performance, but also that of their students.
Avoiding that stagnation is one of Sonya’s highest priorities. “Gone are the days of one-off professional learning. In today’s world, students are best served when educators collaborate to lead their own learning and define what works for them in their classrooms,” Sonya says, adding that this professional learning is most effective when the learning is structured and knowledge is being drawn from evidence-based research.
One of the biggest challenges for professional development is that there are no quick fixes. As the Victorian Auditor-General’s report emphasises, short-term learning activities (such as one-off conferences or seminars) have “limited long-term effectiveness” because they passively convey information with minimal follow-up.
“One of our most important roles is to work with system and school leaders to help them identify the professional development that will lead to long-term, sustainable change and ultimately improved student outcomes,” Sonya explains. While one-off events can help inspire teachers to take the next steps in improving their practice, the most effective professional development occurs when these events are combined with ongoing learning embedded into the daily lives of staff and students.
The power of PLCs
One process that helps incorporate professional development into the everyday is Professional Learning Communities. At the foundation of the PLC process is the simple idea that students learn more when their teachers work together. Staff work together in collaborative teams to develop strategies, inquire and share knowledge among each other to affect positive results in the classroom. The Victorian Department of Education has highlighted PLCs as pivotal to the state’s teacher improvement ambitions, and other states are seeing the benefits of this approach.
Hawker Brownlow Education has helped a number of schools make the transition from “just another program” – or worse, no program at all – to implementing an effective PLC through the PLC at Work® process. The PLC at Work® process helps schools create and sustain a PLC with help from certified experts through the development of school-wide practical strategies designed to embed professional development in all aspects of the school experience.
The staff at Harrisfield Primary in suburban Melbourne know all too well the challenges of professional development. “Prior to starting our journey,” says principal Meredith Iaconese, “we experienced a period of increased student welfare and management issues. This made it difficult, if not impossible, to prioritise high-quality teaching promoting best practice.”
Although providing teachers with planning time is one way to help teachers plan and assess, time by itself wasn’t working at Harrisfield. “Teachers were frazzled and isolated during their APT (Assessment and Planning Time) in their own classrooms. Teachers planned independently and differentiation was limited or non-existent, meaning children were engaged neither with their learning nor their peers.”
Like many effective professional development processes, change started incrementally, with teacher APT moved into an open-plan space and aligned to timetable blocks throughout the day. This helped foster productive collaborations between staff members. Teacher APT was then transformed into PLC meetings, which helped address the critical questions of student learning and instructional practice. Feedback to peers was systematised, resulting in teachers actively sharing strategies and observations, rather than concealing perceived deficits.
But when Meredith and her assistant principal attended a PLC at Work® Institute, the professional development journey really took off. A certified training associate was engaged to undertake whole-school professional learning and the PLC at Work® process became part of the fabric of the school.
“This set the stage for full-scale immersion in the big ideas of PLC,” says Meredith, “and we altered timetables (akin to moving heaven and earth!) to incorporate a daily intervention session!”
But what effect did this application of the PLC at Work® process have on the school’s performance? Harrisfield Primary was identified by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority as a “high-gain” school following significant improvements in Year 3 and Year 5 numeracy at the 2015 NAPLAN tests. The school has continued to thrive – often being used as a Department of Education success case study – and is one of a handful of Australian model PLC schools.
Kevin Williams is the principal of another Australian PLC model school, St Mary’s Toukley. Their PLC journey began with reading one of the subject’s seminal texts, On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities and has continued with workshops and in-school events. “We – the staff – repeatedly put our learning into action. We learn by doing. Our actions are then continually adjusted as we drive forward in a constant cycle of review and reflection in which we, as a staff, repeatedly refine our practices in light of our collective purpose: high levels of learning for all students.”
The school has structured time for teachers to meet regularly within the school day. Kevin has found these weekly Grade Team Meetings to be the most effective collaborative team structure to enhance student learning. These meetings, Kevin says, have created “a shared ownership and responsibility for all students’ learning.”
“Critical to our school’s journey as a PLC at Work,” Kevin adds, “has been learning from key Hawker Brownlow Education practitioners.” These practitioners have included Rick and Becky DuFour, Anthony Muhammad, Gavin Grift and many more. “They know the theory and they have practiced it successfully at the ground level in their own schools.”
Delivering quality, evidence-based professional learning
Teachers in Australian schools face a variety of challenges in their classrooms. Hawker Brownlow Education works hard to ensure teachers receive the highest quality support through the provision of resources, events and professional development services that are grounded in present-day research on learning and teaching.
As General Manager of Professional Development, Sonya Mackenzie is regularly at the coalface of Australian education, liaising with school and system leaders to facilitate professional learning for school-based educators. She is joined by a community of almost 50 Hawker Brownlow Education training associates who deliver training and support to educational professionals across a wide range of topic areas.
These topics – such as professional learning communities and differentiation – stem from the work of prominent authors such as Dr Robert Marzano, Richard and Rebecca DuFour, Gavin Grift, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson, to name just a few.
Hawker Brownlow Education is well-known and trusted by Australian educators, with a history stretching back some 35 years. Elaine Brownlow founded the company with a vision of ensuring Australian educators had access to high-quality resources from local and international experts. Hawker Brownlow was one of the first publishers to bring an international perspective to the world of Australian education, publishing local editions of research by authors such as Dr Robert Marzano.
Hawker Brownlow Education was acquired earlier this year by Solution Tree, a US-based educational publisher and professional development provider, with whom Hawker Brownlow has had a business relationship stretching back a decade. Hawker Brownlow is now able to enhance and expand its delivery of professional development, drawing from Solution Tree’s extensive insight and experience in this area.
The team at Hawker Brownlow Education understand that every school’s needs are unique. Context is key. “We tailor every professional development experience to the school, its staff and its students,” says Sonya Mackenzie, “One size never fits all.”
That’s why Hawker Brownlow Education offers a range of professional development solutions from single-day workshops and events, through to longer-term academies. While the evidence supports the effectiveness of longer-term professional development programs, single-day events and in-school workshops can be of great assistance in fostering a professional development culture.
If you are interested in learning more about Professional Learning Communities and how they can benefit your school, then the 2nd Annual International Summit on PLC at Work® in Melbourne (28–29 August) is a must-attend event for you or your colleagues to kickstart your professional development journey.
If you’d like to discuss your school’s professional development needs with one of our consultants, get in touch with us today on (03) 8558 2456 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard McKenzie Richard McKenzie is the Marketing Manager at Hawker Brownlow Education. Aside from helping to provide the best in educational resources, professional learning and events, Richard enjoys good stationery and taking nice photos. Read more articles by Richard McKenzie