Cliff Jones presents a discussion activity that could also help you construct policy

This activity is designed for those leaders, managers, directors and coordinators of CPD who find the idea of professional learning to be exciting, who are always looking for ways to learn and who value challenge. Its main theme is that by introducing criticality it is possible to help colleagues multiply the impact of their professional learning and that by generating ‘thinking professionals’ you establish ‘thinking schools’. I have followed my normal pattern by first making a statement and then providing a prompt for discussion.

1. Professional learning requires leadership but it may be shared leadership.

Professional learning requires coordination, administration and management. But most of all it requires leadership, even if for some this will be a shared role. The implication is that, rather than simply checking that professional learning is taking place, it must:

  • be made to happen for all colleagues, irrespective of post or position
  • not be confined to courses and events taking place outside school
  • become normal, sustained and systematic for thinking professionals working in thinking schools.

2. There should be no externally imposed orthodoxy.

We require more than a simple toolkit for delivering government policy. Using models for professional learning provided by government and government agencies may be unavoidable at times, but in order to develop a long-term critical professional voice for yourself and those with whom you work it is better to examine different models, instruments, approaches and examples that you can adopt, adapt or use as a basis for something better. After all, they have to fit your purposes and needs: no one else’s.

3. The process of CPD or professional learning is not confined to events and is not always timed, targeted and tidy.

Even when professional learning includes definable events the process of professional learning is, or should try to be, continuous and inseparable from work. The development of educational professionals is not confined to so many hours in a year. It does not come in a box. It is sometimes, therefore, untimed, untargeted and untidy. 

4. Professional learning is less of a loop and more of a spiral.

Picture the professional learning process as a climbing spiral in which it becomes a basis for, and leads naturally into, further learning. Anyone remember the spiral curriculum?

5. Professional penicillin (personal and whole school) will only be discovered if we examine the significance of unexpected evidence for unintended outcomes of professional learning.

In education we often find out things that we did not expect to find out. The job then is to examine this evidence to see what it means. It might be ‘professional penicillin’. You cannot discover unexpected evidence and examine it for significance if you only chase targets.

6. Mistakes and professional learning go together.

Concentrating CPD on targets can make professional learning very narrow. If targets are easily attainable there is little point to them. If it is realised too late that they are unattainable the result will be unsatisfying for everyone. Either way, they do not encourage adventure, discovery and unconstrained professional learning. Mistakes and learning go together. It is still important to plan though! After all, it may only be because you started Plan A with an open mind that you discovered the better effectiveness of Plan B.

7. Reflexive professional learning should lead to professional voice.

Reflexive learning means that the interaction between participants in professional learning, and also between them and the knowledge with which they are engaging, becomes a ‘critical professional dialogue’. This helps to form authentic professional voices. It’s more like reflecting during learning in order to create new knowledge rather than reflecting later. If national standards mean that professionals find it awkward to cross status boundaries in order to learn together this will not happen. Can you design a professional learning policy that encourages reflexive professional learning?

8. Partnered and collaborative professional learning is valuable.

Working and learning together, whether in a large group or with one colleague, does not guarantee that you ‘get it right’ but it does mean that there is a possibility of better questions being asked. Working and learning with others means that you will have to allow your own views to be challenged and it also means that you will have to allow others to state their views. We may have excellent teachers (ETs) and advanced skills teachers (ASTs) with responsibility for the professional learning of others but this does not prevent them from learning from, say, a newly qualified teacher (NQT). Teachers learn from learners. And when they think critically they also learn from learning.

9. Risk taking and continuing to keep failing better is recommended.

For a long time professionals working in education have worried individually and collectively about failure. We should encourage the development of a culture in which so-called failure can be brought into the open, discussed and transformed into positive professional learning. This is essential for continuous improvement. It may, however, mean working against the grain of government policy.

10. Objectivity is an elusive concept but we can try to attain the best possible quality subjectivity.

Too often people claim to have arrived at an objective judgement. It is, however, more than likely to be only relatively objective. We should, therefore, be careful when making assertions.

11. Continuous improvement is worth trying to achieve.

Education is a people business, so it is not likely that we can ever settle upon a way of working that will never need to be changed. Someone who is dedicated to critical professional learning will always be seeking to improve. To learn is to improve, even if new learning means moving to a lower starting point. Confronting so-called failure is part of this. But improvement is not simply better examination results or getting closer to non-negotiable targets set by others so we have to be careful with the word.

12. Government proposals should be subject to critical scrutiny.

For most educational professionals the state pays the wages and provides the resources. The role of thinking professionals, however, is not to implement government policy but to engage with it: to bring to bear upon it their experience, expertise and values.

13. Concepts such as ‘improvement’, ‘modernisation’, ‘new’, ‘effective’ and ‘reform’ have been devalued.

Every government uses these words about their education policies as though they were selling soap powder and seeks to tie them to simple measurements. Perhaps professionals can recapture these concepts. ‘Transformation’ as a concept may still be rescuable. Simple ‘change’ is often a more appropriate word to describe the intentions and effects of government policy.

14. There are times when teachers and related professionals are the only listeners to the needs and interests of children, especially perhaps when they are expressed in a confused fashion.

This can run counter to government’s notion of parents as customers. If parents are customers then what are the children? Are we talking about children’s rights or parents’ rights over children? And for professionals there is a lot to learn from children, especially when we learn with them.

15. Socrates gave us the notion that value comes from the examined self. This means critical reflection and asking serious questions about or interrogating our own professional learning.

It is usually the case that when professionals critically reflect upon their own practice they discover that they have achieved far more than they realised. Even the process of looking systematically at what might be thought to be failure seems to shrink problems, restore self-esteem and point a way forward. So all CPD, whether it is accredited or not, should be critical: ‘critical professional learning’.

16. Evidence can be intangible as well as tangible.

Much of the evidence for professional learning is to do with self-esteem, self-confidence and feeling motivated. Just because this evidence is difficult to present or to describe does not mean that it should be discarded or disregarded in favour of more tangible evidence, such as examination results.

17. Planning for evaluation is essential.

If you leave evaluation to the end as an exercise to be tacked on as a last-minute activity you will not extract all you need to know, although it might deceive you into thinking that you have. The better the thinking from the outset and throughout the professional learning process the more useful will be the evaluation. It is a key part of the role of the leader(s) of professional learning to make this happen.

18. Defining the impact of professional learning must involve the professionals.

The mark of a professional is having the authority, confidence and capacity to join other professionals in discussing, debating and deciding the value of what they do. This is not the same as the government’s new professionalism, which is heavily dependent upon using national standards to shape CPD that leads to higher pay and promotion.