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The importance and value of professional learning and development

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

In this blog, Catherine Carden and Virginia Bower explore the importance of teacher development and professional learning. They highlight the barriers to engagement and suggest that teachers need to take ownership of their own learning and development in order to make the most out of their careers.

Teaching can be the most exciting and rewarding profession; each day is different and the interactions between you and the children are inspiring. Teaching is also incredibly demanding – physically, mentally and emotionally – and at times the workload can seem insurmountable. On top of this, we can, as teachers, be asked to enact and endorse practices, pedagogies and principles that are not our own; enforced through a top-down hierarchy emanating from often unseen powers. This can have the effect of diminishing our sense of autonomy and agency, leading to a feeling of disempowerment, ultimately affecting motivation.

Professional learning and development is crucial for re-igniting a passion for the job and for providing the opportunity to expand and deepen subject and pedagogical knowledge whilst interacting with like-minded professionals. In fact we firmly believe that everyone working within education has an unwritten commitment to their own development and learning and that this should be at the centre of a teacher’s professional identity. If this is the case, why do teachers engage so little in development and learning opportunities and when they do why are they often negatively evaluated or have limited impact?

There are 5 possible reasons as to why:

  • Teachers await permission or instruction from senior leaders or the governing body to engage in professional development and learning, rarely seeking it for themselves;

  • The professional development and learning is not relevant or suitable for the teacher or leader, or is not taking place at the right time in the academic calendar or indeed in their career trajectory;

  • The learning and development offered or available does not match the aspirations and interests of the teacher;

  • The ‘CPD’ sessions are instructional and mechanistic; a set of ‘you musts’ and ‘to dos’ rather than offering a space to critically engage, debate and think;

  • The development happens in isolation. Teachers receive input rather than having the opportunity to explore topics and create communities and networks.

It is important, therefore, that your professional learning and development is suitable, timely and relevant to you – rather than others deciding the agenda and what you ‘need’. The professional learning and development that you engage with must be of personal, professional interest, inspire you and offer the opportunity to change and challenge your thinking leading to developments and improvements in your own pedagogy and practice. At the same time your learning should consider varying perspectives and enable you to establish a network beyond your immediate school community.

All of the above is achievable but, at times, this might mean sourcing and self-funding your own professional development and learning (particularly if your setting does not have the budget to support you). Professional development should undoubtedly be an entitlement but, certainly in current times, this is often not a school priority. Whilst this is not an ideal, we would argue that time and money spent on germane and powerful learning experiences will always pay you back over and over again.

How do I select the right teacher development and professional learning opportunities?

The next thing to consider is what type of professional development and learning will best suit your current needs. Kennedy (2005) wrote an article entitled ‘Models of Continuing Professional Development: a framework for analysis’, where she suggests using the following questions to ascertain what type of Professional Development is most suitable and then being critical of the selection on offer:

  • What types of knowledge acquisition does the CPD support, i.e. procedural or propositional?

  • Is the principal focus on individual or collective development?

  • To what extent is the CPD used as a form of accountability?

  • What capacity does the CPD allow for supporting professional autonomy?

  • Is the fundamental purpose of the CPD to provide a means of transmission or to facilitate transformative practice?

Traditionally or most commonly, CPD centres around the delivery of information and is based on a training style model whereby material is presented by the facilitators or expert; the recipient playing a passive role with occasional opportunity for group discussion or sharing a response to a task. Of course, there are times when this approach is appropriate - when disseminating policy for example - but in the main this format of CPD is reductive and disempowering.

So what does effective teacher development and professional learning look like?

We believe that a model based on teachers exploring their own stories and narratives and engaging in collaborative learning directly relevant to their classroom lives, has the potential to empower, galvanise and re-energise, whilst promoting a commitment to lifelong learning.

Transformative professional learning and development creates a space to connect and think, the opportunity to debate, explore and challenge and is based upon research and evidence.

Here are some examples of professional development and learning opportunities which offer more personalised, relevant and transformative experiences:

  • Joining an association which offers chances to meet up in local groups or attend regional or national conferences;

  • Attending face to face or online discussion groups, focusing on specific aspects of pedagogy;

  • Accessing free/paid for courses run by professional development companies who have an ethos of offering bespoke, research-informed PD, accessible at times to suit you on topics that interest you.

Most importantly, take ownership of your own professional development and learning. Invest in yourself and your career by putting learning and development at the core of your professional identity.

Bowden Education offers affordable, high-quality, research and evidence-engaged teacher development and professional learning to all those working within education. The majority of these opportunities take place as webinars in the early evening and come with a range of relevant reading and links to useful websites and resources.

Catherine Carden is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Director of Learning and Teaching at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is also a Chair of Governors at a Canterbury primary school. Prior to working in HE, Catherine has worked within secondary and further education. Catherine is the co-founder of Bowden Education.

Dr Virginia Bower is a Senior Lecturer in education at Canterbury Christ Church University and an Associate Lecturer for The Open University. Prior to working in HE, Virginia was a teacher and senior leader in primary education. Virginia is the co-founder of Bowden Education.

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1 Comment

Joe Perryman
Joe Perryman
Jan 19, 2020

I totally agree. It’s great to hear professional development delivered with current research - around what we know about how we learn - in mind.

As a yoga instructor; within the yogi community we remain active practitioners and continuously top-up our knowledge base and skill set as we progress, and this is supported by and reflected in the many and varied add-on courses available to attend around the world.

As a distance learner, being able access my learning sessions at a time that suits my schedule is vitally important to my success.

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