School Conditions Can Support More Effective Teacher Professional Learning

Special Focus : Building an Efficient, Creative Teaching Force
Designing an Effective Training Program October 05, 2016

School leaders everywhere want to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their schools. Professional development for teachers is often seen as the best way to achieve these improvements. Yet much of the research on teacher professional development fails to demonstrate that it has an impact on teachers’ classroom practices or their students’ learning. How then can school leaders support effective teacher professional development?

In analyses I conducted using data from OECD’s 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS 2013)[1], teachers in most countries reported participating in two types of professional development activities: those taking place in their schools and those taking place outside. Seventy percent of the more than 200,000 teachers who took part in the survey reported attending a course or workshop outside their school for professional learning.  Significantly lower percentages (from 31 to 37 percent) of teachers reported participating in school-embedded learning activities such as teacher networks, individual or collaborative research, or mentoring and coaching. Participation in these types of learning opportunities seems to matter. Teachers who took part in school-based professional development reported higher levels of impact on their instruction than the others. In fact, participation in activities outside of the school was negatively correlated with teacher reports of instructional impacts: Teachers who participated in greater numbers of non-school based PD activities were less likely to report positive instructional impact.

It is not surprising teachers report that school-embedded professional development has a greater impact on their teaching, nor is it surprising that fewer teachers participate in these types of activities. Attending an event being offered outside the school is simpler than organizing activities at school, which requires a greater commitment and preparation time by the teachers and school leaders. However, school-embedded learning activities tend to have features shown to be more effective at helping teachers improve their teaching. School-based teacher PD:

  • is often sustained over time rather than delivered in ‘one shot’;
  • tends to focus on problems of practice that teachers are currently facing;
  • allows participants to apply what they learn; and
  • fosters timely feedback from colleagues as part of the activity.

But analysis of the data also highlighted the important role that school conditions play in supporting both the type of professional development that teachers engage in as well as the impacts they report from attendance. The analysis indicated that two important conditions in the school, 1) teacher cooperation and 2) instructionally focused leadership, were linked to school-embedded professional learning.

In my analysis of the data teacher cooperation was measured by a set of questions:

  • How often do you exchange teaching materials with colleagues?
  • How often do you engage in discussions about the learning development of specific students?
  • How often do you attend team conferences?

Given that school-embedded professional development involves working with colleagues, it makes sense that where there are higher levels of teacher cooperation there are also higher levels of school-embedded learning. What cannot be ascertained from this type of correlational analysis is which came first: Do high levels of teacher cooperation cause teachers to participate in school-embedded learning more often? Or does participation in school-embedded learning result in more cooperation amongst teachers in the school more generally?

To measure the presence of instructionally focused leadership, the principals of the teachers who completed the main survey were asked the following:
How frequently did you take action in supporting cooperation among teachers?

How frequently did you take action to ensure teachers feel responsibility for improving teaching skills?
How frequently did you take action to ensure teachers feel responsibility for learning outcomes?

As with the presence of teacher cooperation, when principals reported taking these actions more frequently, teachers were more likely to engage in school-embedded learning activities. Conversely, when principals reported less frequent engagement in these activities, teachers were more likely to report they had attended professional development outside their school –activities associated with less impact on instructional practices. And while we also cannot determine the direction of causation with this analysis, we might assume that without the support of school leaders, teachers are unlikely to attend PD in any form. Thus, it is not just the support of school leaders that matters but the type of support provided if we are to see more effective teacher professional development.

While teachers may gain new knowledge and skills by participating in any form of professional learning, the type of activity they engage in and the presence of supportive school conditions influences whether their learning will impact instructional practices and ultimately their students. Professional development that takes place in schools where teachers can work together over time on problems of practice is more likely to have an impact on instruction. These types of activities are more likely to occur in schools that are characterized by cooperation amongst teachers and instructionally focused leadership. Thus, if school leaders want to encourage more effective teacher PD, they should attend to the culture that exists in their schools by providing opportunities for teachers to collaborate and encouraging them to discuss problems of practice when they do so. They should also organize (or support teachers in organizing) teacher networks, collaborative research projects, and mentoring and coaching opportunities. Empowering teachers by sending clear messages that they can and should take responsibility for improving the learning in their classrooms is also important. By creating the conditions in schools that support effective teacher learning, school leaders can increase the likelihood that student learning will also be positively impacted.

[1] Opfer, D. (2016), “Conditions and Practices Associated with Teacher Professional Development and Its Impact on Instruction in TALIS 2013”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 138, OECD Publishing, Paris.