Cliff Jones invites readers to challenge the meanings of words and concepts with more definitions of terms in current use and questions to stimulate discussion

In an article in the March 2007 issue of CPD Update I presented my own interpretations of some terms and concepts for you to discuss with colleagues in order to explore the notion of critical professional learning.

While attending part of the IPDA Cymru conference in Llandrindod Wells recently (always a well organised and professionally useful conference) I was encouraged by the reaction of Ken Jones to this feature and in particular to the idea of ‘entitlement’. Exploring meaning for that concept in relation to CPD is providing much discussion in Wales. And Ken is now forcing me to re-examine what I said (sitting up all night in my hat and coat waiting for the CPD traffic wardens to knock on the door forsooth!). See the Ken’s comment at the bottom of the previous article. Maybe others will have something to contribute.

Meanwhile, in the hope that I can generate more discussion, here are some further terms and concepts for you to get your teeth into (this feature might continue for a while). Just make sure that you let me know your response and those of your colleagues. An editor depends, after all, upon feedback. Once again I emphasise that the opinions expressed below are mine and that they should not be viewed as unchallengeable. Indeed, challenging the meaning of words and concepts is what this is about, even if it means that I may have to revise my views and values.

Coaching – This term is increasingly being used to describe the way in which professionals can be supported by colleagues and others as they develop skills, knowledge, understanding and values. Its meaning overlaps with mentoring and is often qualified by use of the terms ‘peer coaching’ and ‘expert coaching’. All of these terms have largely replaced the term, and the process of, ‘appraisal’ which was often perceived as a relatively top down instrument.

A lot of work has been done to produce useful advice on mentoring and coaching and you will find this particularly useful when taking part in performance management reviews. In a sense, the work done by CUREE on mentoring and coaching has provided a starter language for the discussion of professional learning (see There is an opportunity for the profession itself to develop this language.

Mentoring – Professionals who have participated in initial teacher training/ education will be familiar with this term. As far as CPD is concerned mentoring and coaching are often used interchangeably and we still have much to learn about the difference between the two terms. My own view is that the term ‘coaching’ is best applied when there is a need to think about something specific and ‘mentoring’ applies to more general support. You can imagine, however, that what begins as one kind of conversation can easily change into another kind. See coaching above.

Could you say that in your school the work done on mentoring and coaching is helping you to discover and construct a language with which to make sense of professional learning?

Critical reflection – This is one of higher education’s most favourite terms and is usually to be found, either explicitly or implicitly, within assessment criteria or intended learning outcomes. It is often explained as being different from the power to describe. For example, it is not sufficient to describe an event or a personal, professional history or to summarise what has been written by famous authors; it is necessary, also, to identify and explain critical features, factors, relationships and consequences.

But one potential misperception should be cleared up. Using the word ‘critical’ in this context does not mean saying something ‘negative’. It is best to put to one side notions of positive and negative here.

Using or examining evidence from more than one perspective can help with critical reflection. If something is thought by a writer to be significant the reader must be given a fair chance of understanding why; asserting that something is ‘so’ is not enough. Any phrase such as ‘It is a well known fact…’ or ‘Research shows…’ or ‘All teachers think that…’ is in desperate need of explanation and supporting evidence.

Try to imagine reading a description of a valley written by someone standing on one side of it and then reading a description by someone else standing on the other side. Would they appear to be describing the same valley? You need both descriptions. You might add in the views of someone writing about the same area 100 years earlier. Then you could try reading the work of a geologist about the valley and follow that by reading the work of a sociologist or industrial archaeologist who added a wider and different perspective. You might then attempt some fieldwork of your own to test out what you thought you had learned up to this point. By this time you should be able to make reasonable sense of the valley without misleading your reader and you might also have a good idea of what else you can try to learn about the valley. In other words, it is difficult to be critically reflective in one dimension: it helps to have more than one perspective before establishing what you believe to be significant. This is particularly the case with professional learning and it is what allows us to prefix to it the word ‘critical’.

Realistically, how often do you get the opportunity to reflect critically?

And now for one of those really irritating phrases with which professional learning is littered.

‘It’s not rocket science’ – This is a phrase in frequent use to describe something that the speaker wants you to think is simple, such as running a meeting with colleagues. The implication is that by comparison with running a meeting ‘rocket science’ is so complicated that it is beyond a mere mortal like you.

In fact, the basics of rocket science could not be more simple. Think of a tube closed at one end and open at the other. Most of the tube is stuffed with explosive material. You point it and set fire to it. That’s all.

The difficult bits are controlling the rate of progress, the direction it is pointing and obtaining intelligent feedback from it after it has fizzled out.
Now that is much more like running a meeting.

Give yourself a pound every time you hear this phrase being used.

Cliff continued his exploration of CPD terms and concepts in the May issue. You can read the article here