Tags: Continuing Professional Development | CPD Coordinator

In this article Cliff Jones looks particularly at the part that the General Teaching Council for England is beginning to play in encouraging professionally significant research.

One of the stereotypes of teachers in British schools used to be that they despised research. These days that is an unjustified view of the profession but there was a time when it was not at all difficult to get a smile from a room full of teachers by asking them if it was more important to have an appreciation of the works of Paulo Freire than not to lose a free period on a wet and windy Friday afternoon during a full moon. Poor old Paulo never won.

Now research is all the rage. And it’s not all to be found in the library. Lets have a look at part of the research scene for teachers and related professionals. Try to keep in mind, however, how Socrates might fit in. As a colleague he would be the one always asking questions at staff meetings to the point where his life was in danger from all sides. And it would be no use persuading him to leave and apply for a job in HE: he never published so they, too, would show him the door. Could we cope with him today? We will come back to that.

The GTCE recently advertised the post of director of research (and evidence) at up to £63,000 pa. To give you an idea of the importance of the post, that is about £20k more than the top of the senior lecturer scale in a university. The job description makes it clear that this will be a significant, strategic post, reporting directly to the director of policy and leading a team. The GTCE sees itself as a ‘research and evidence-informed organisation’ and providing research services for teachers.

So, why should the GTCE devote such an amount of resource to research? The answer would seem to be that it recognises that research is crucial to policy and practice at all levels; that it cannot support the teaching profession without systematically acquiring and testing knowledge; that this has to be the way forward. The GTCE’s vision of educational research tells us a lot about its values. For example, they are not about reducing professional life to the attainment of targets largely set by government and its agents. In other words, despite pressure to confine the professional purpose of teachers to examination results, we let both children and ourselves down if we operate with such a diminished set of ambitions. At the same time, these values do not suggest that teachers and related professionals should hide in libraries, never to emerge until a work of scholarship that will be stunning in its irrelevance has been honed to perfection. My guess is that the GTCE sees research and a proper assessment and evaluation of evidence as crucial for a profession that takes itself seriously.

Nevertheless, the temptation to be instrumental is always there. In other words, we sometimes readily limit what we do to what we think we are required to do and measure what is easy to measure. And, when we do that, uncomfortable questions from Socrates might be what we need.

The Teacher Learning Academy

If we consider the core dimensions of the GTCE’s Teacher Learning Academy (TLA) we can see that there is a connection between the council’s strategic approach to research and how it sees teachers increasingly engaging in the process of making sense of, and progress in, their professional lives. Or, to put it more strongly, beginning to decide for themselves, based upon a thorough examination of evidence, what might be of value, what should be submitted to become a member of the TLA and what best indicates professional learning.

The core dimensions are:

  • engagement with an appropriate knowledge base
  • accessing peer support, coaching and/ or mentoring
  • planning of professional learning and change activity
  • carrying out a change activity
  • evaluating the impact of the change activity on practice and on own learning
  • disseminating what has been learned.

During the pilot stages of the TLA the GTCE has provided considerable guidance on the core dimensions (they have changed slightly during the pilots) and they have worked very hard with colleagues from schools, LEAs and HE to design support material for verifiers, the people who will look at evidence for membership of the TLA. As a CPD leader/coordinator you might be doing that but also supporting colleagues in seeing the process from a research point of view: adding a little value to the process.

Where, the CPD leader might ask, is the appropriate knowledge base for an individual teacher setting out to become a member of the TLA by engaging in professional development? Who has it? Will help be needed in finding it? Some of it will be among the regulatory and official documents without which a school cannot operate. These include inspection reports. Some of it will be among school policy documents, reports to governors and include work done by staff and pupils. Some of it will be in a university library or on the web. The point here is quite simply made. A colleague who is intending to systematically examine an area of professional life such as the impact of the introduction of a new GCSE specification for English will find it difficult to justify an action research proposal based upon the knowledge base for medieval French art. (Fascinating if they did, though.) The job of the CPD leader will, then, be to help colleagues select from a wide background of knowledge; to help them focus their efforts and to help them engage with knowledge rather than memorise it. This is almost a research-mentor role for the leader of CPD.

The TLA is looking for evidence of planned professional learning. This does not mean that teachers will not be considered to have developed unless they have a plan that worked to perfection. Plans are good things to depart from. And change happens anyway. The point here, I think, is that TLA evidence must be based upon a more systematic approach to making something happen; later on there will be opportunity to critically reflect upon how plans worked. At the outset it is important to have a plan that is feasible: one in which relevant resources such as time have been taken into account and in which a balance of priorities has been established. After all, it is better to have a plan that complements other commitments than one that conflicts with them. As the leader of CPD you are in a good position to see the relationship (not necessarily a marriage) between the plans for professional development of colleagues and those of the school. And plans that have research approaches built in may help to bring about the ‘thinking professional in the thinking school’: a key part, you might think, of a CPD policy.

Socrates might, however, raise a doubt about research that did not question strongly adhered to orthodoxies. Words such as ‘improvement’, ‘effectiveness’, ‘change’ and ‘impact’ would not be allowed to go unchallenged. As the leader of CPD your role might be to inject some Socratic questioning at the critical reflection stage.

If, for example your colleagues have tended only to look for evidence that fits in with the intentions and expectations of the research you might encourage them to examine all the evidence generated by it. Some evidence may be clearly tangible: evidence that can easily be identified and measured, such as examination scores. Other evidence may be intangible and not easy to identify and measure, such as a more positive approach to learning by students. Then again, some evidence may be so strong that it is irrefutable while other evidence looks so weak that it is tempting to consign it to the waste paper basket.

One key to critical reflection, and the role of critical friend, is to find ways of establishing the significance of evidence. Try not to discard or disregard evidence because it is difficult to explain or present to others. This is not easy and nobody wishes to look as though they are presenting problematic evidence. The answer is simply to be honest and, when disseminating, explain the basis upon which conclusions are built. At the same time, a supportive challenge from a CPD leader to a colleague should be about the strength of evidence. Just because something is strong does not mean that it is significant. A survey that shows that every child in the school would like longer holidays is scarcely significant. A survey showing that only 10% of children welcome a particular change may appear weak. But, when examined more closely, you might find that this 10% represent a specific group.

In the June issue of CPD Update we outlined how to put together a professionally useful research project. There is no one way of doing this but the key components that we presented were as follows:

Taking such an action research approach to CPD is not that far away from what the GTCE’s Teacher Learning Academy values as evidence of professional learning. It is relatively straightforward to map across from the six core dimensions to the eight components of a plan for action research, not that the numbers of components matter that much: they are only guidelines. If, however, the coordinator of CPD is to become the leader of CPD, helping colleagues adopt a more rigorous researched approach to their development as professionals, we have to ask what is being done to support the supporters? No one supported Socrates, hence the hemlock. So who, or what, is supporting you?

And where does this emphasis upon research in CPD fit into what else is happening?

Last month we looked briefly at the SEF and how a rigorous approach to the evidence generated by CPD can endorse self-evaluation. Where else might we see attention being given to the research carried out by teachers (and others) as part of CPD? Try looking at the websites of the following. They are not, by the way, an exhaustive list.

Questions

  • Who is setting the agenda for this research? Is it simply about getting through an inspection? Or about avoiding closure or the sack because the examination results have not been so good two years in a row?
  • Is it possible to persuade inspectors that challenge and criticality are good for the soul: that simply aiming at targets set by government is a sterile activity?
  • Do you fancy playing the role of Socrates with the risk that if you are really good at your job and ask challenging questions you will be forced to drink the hemlock?

Finally

What would you like to share with fellow readers of CPD Update? Is the word ‘research’ written into your CPD policy? How is systematic professional learning organised in your school? How are the results of the learning disseminated and acted upon? Is the evaluation of the impact of CPD feeding into the SEF? Is your school ready for the Teacher Learning Academy?

This article first appeared in CPD Update – Oct 2005

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