Cliff Jones explores the problematic issues involved in ‘learning from our own professional learning’

For those of us engaged in the business of education it is of paramount importance that we learn from our own learning. We do not need uniformity but we do need a cogent, coherent, comprehensive but critical approach to making sense of professional learning.

There are, however, some problematic issues. They include the following.

Parity of esteem and equitable funding for the professional learning of different groups of professionals

As the implementation of 14-19 marches ahead it shall become more apparent than ever that those working in the post-compulsory sector, for example, are treated differently from their colleagues in schools. As both schools and colleges begin to receive different funding, resources and freedom of decision making so shall their relative capacities to build the value of different professionals begin to drift further apart. And bringing together different professional groups under headings such as ‘extended schools’ and ‘re-modelled workforces’ has the potential to exacerbate this unless all receive fair treatment.

The variety of initiatives and organisations that need, at least, to talk to each other

It might help if the Critical Advisory Support Partnership (CASP) tried to bring together some of these initiatives and organisations. Now that the DfES no longer has either the resource or the corporate memory to bring together people operating in different parts of the CPD forest someone has to step in so that, at the very least, we reduce the number of people who think that their world is the only one. The TDA seems an obvious candidate for this role but its remit does not provide power over other government agencies, especially in the post-compulsory sector.

The need for professionals to articulate their critical voice and to be heard
We know that CPD, both accredited and non-accredited, generates a considerable body of evidence for professional learning that is not systematically, collected, collated, evaluated and disseminated. Postgraduate professional development (PPD) is beginning to do this for a small percentage of school teachers but without a wider, more diverse and better embedded approach to learning from learning we shall have failed to have heard the critical voice of professionals working in education. Enquiring into impact is better than simply measuring someone else’s definition of it.

The danger that national standards for different groups of professionals might diminish the quality of professional thinking

There is plenty of evidence that the authors of the various standards do not wish this to happen but the linkage of the standards to pay, pay progression and promotion in England could create an atmosphere in which risk taking and experimentation is discouraged and little opportunity is provided for the examination of unexpected evidence for unintended professional learning outcomes. Professional learning does not happen in a box. We need perspective, criticality and professional awareness. We also need to make use of this approach across sectors and professional groupings.

The need for considerable cultural change

Moving to a systematic, sustained and professionally transforming approach to professional learning is not going to be achieved by ticking boxes. Measuring what is easy to measure is not the answer. The evidence from PPD is that a relatively small quantity of resource can be deployed to multiply the effectiveness of a range of initiatives and to draw attention to the richness of professional lives and learning when they are not constrained by a simplistic approach to the evaluation of impact. We actually have a large resource going into schools (though not into the post compulsory sector) for the purpose of professional learning that, sad to say, is not ring fenced.

Growing differences between the countries of the UK with government policy bearing down most heavily in England

The secretary of state refuses to contemplate a reduction of the assessment load placed upon children, teachers and schools in England and continues to have faith in testing and inspection as the main means of generating improvement. The other countries do not see things like this.

We have a clear need for sense-making instruments in order to learn from professional learning. One exists and has been tested

There is very little possibility that the secretary of state will wake up tomorrow and decide to increase vastly the money provided to subsidise postgraduate professional development or to extend it across the full range of professionals working in education, whatever their sector, speciality or professional group. Nevertheless, we have in PPD an activity or initiative that has been subject to more inspection, research and evaluation than any other part of CPD. It consistently impresses and it is worth making use of its critical sense-making (evaluation) framework very widely. Not only would this lead to us discovering much more from professional learning but it would help to introduce some much needed fairness to the process.

Words and phrases such as ‘lever’ and ‘intelligent demand’ are often used to show how performance management, for example, is going to bring about a greater participation in CPD. My point is, however, that professional learning must not confine itself to the implementation of policy. Yes, it must engage with policy but unless policy makers are prepared to listen to the critical voices of professionals working in education, learning from their learning, the education of children, young people and adults will be impoverished.