Professional Learning That Contributes to Student Outcomes

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How is the relationship between staff professional learning and improved student outcomes aligned and evaluated in your school? Through what processes does your school select, design and develop professional learning programs that contribute to identified and prioritised student outcomes, and how is their effectiveness evaluated? The aim of ensuring that staff professional learning directly contributes to the development of student outcomes can be attended to through the following four related processes:

  • Identifying what improvement in student outcomes is needed or desired, and what can be measured to indicate this improvement.
  • Determining what knowledge is required to select, design or develop the best program to meet the identified need.
  • Deciding on the professional learning strategies necessary for staff to address the identified need. This requires an understanding of the correlation between the professional learning and the identified need.
  • Developing mechanisms to facilitate continuous improvement to the program.

Identifying what improvement in student outcomes is needed or desired, and what can be measured to indicate this improvement

E.g. In our school we desire student development in the area of… and the data we require to indicate improvement includes…

The first process in aligning professional learning and development with improved student outcomes involves the determination of what improvements are required and a corresponding consideration of how this improvement will be measured. This process may be large scale, involving the whole school community, and could be articulated in the school’s mission statement, strategic plan, or Executive reports. Examples of such large-scale initiatives include a determined and publicised priority to raise the academic performance or the introduction of a whole school emotional intelligence program. Alternatively the improvement agenda may be formed in response to performance in external examinations, reviews and stakeholder surveys, for example if a trend of underperformance in mathematics is observed compared to students in like schools. It may also emerge from day-to-day interactions with students and the awareness that a particular aspect of their development could benefit from some assistance, for example consistent behavioural problems in Year 6 classes.

Once an area of improvement has been identified the determination of the types of data that could be gathered to indicate improvement must be assembled. As with student performance, what is to be assessed and measured determines where significant energy and attention is expended. Data sources can be qualitative and quantitative. They should also reflect the whole area under consideration. An improvement in academic attainment is not just indicated by an improvement in grades and examination scores. It is evidenced in student engagement levels, their use of higher order thinking skills, and their ability to respond and deal with academic problems where they have to develop approaches to previously un-encountered tasks.

Determining what knowledge is required to select, design or develop the best program to meet the identified need

E.g. In our school the best way to address the identified need is… because…

Once student outcome measurements have been decided, the best approaches to meet these have to be determined for your particular context. There will be many different ways in which these outcomes can be achieved, however there will be some strategies that are better suited to your school than others. In addition there will be strategies to address the learning outcome that are not yet known by the school and its staff.

Determining what knowledge is required to best address the identified need is essentially the research component of the implementation program. The questions to consider could include: What are the best ways to improve maths grades in our school? How do staff positively impact adolescent behavioural issues in this community? Those who have responsibility for determining professional learning have the interesting task of seeking out the best research and data to address these needs in your school.

If those responsible for professional learning can address and involve the whole staff with a well-constructed rationale and a considered response for potential approaches to improvement then this will contribute to staff confidence in the initiative.

Deciding on the professional learning strategies necessary for staff to address the identified need, and the correlating factors between these strategies and the desired student improvement

E.g. In our school we are going to offer the following professional learning opportunities… These strategies contribute to student improvement through… and we will measure this by…

Professional learning and development opportunities are many and varied. Each type of opportunity offers a particular outcome: a one-day training course can develop an individual staff member’s skill level in a particular topic; a visiting scholar can address the whole staff in a particular area and be available for mentoring, coaching and evaluation of practice; three-day conferences can build an awareness of a contemporary area of educational research; a staff retreat can enable the development of collegial relationships, shared language of approach and develop individual and group ability in areas of practice.

In order to effectively align professional learning and development to school outcomes a whole system approach needs to be taken that builds competence in the desired area across and through the school community. Such a PLD plan will attend to the variety of types of learning required and the events and opportunities that facilitate this.

In a fascinating chapter of his book Flourish, Martin Seligman recounts the careful way that The Geelong Grammar School introduced positive psychology to its staff. Using staff retreats, resident mentors, staff training, curriculum development processes and on-site evaluation, the whole staff were trained and became experienced in the practices of the approach.

As schools develop alignment plans between staff PLD and desired student outcomes, professional learning requests will become less piecemeal, less driven by individual agenda requests and more integrated with the school’s strategic direction. This in turn allows for a greater understanding and measurement of the ways in which each element of the professional learning and development plan contributes to the desired outcomes.

Developing mechanisms to facilitate continuous improvement to the program

E.g. As this program is implemented we will undertake the following processes… to ensure that it improves in the following ways…

Professional learning programs can develop in the light of feedback from participants. Feedback can be generated and gained through surveys, collegial conversations, professional reflective practices and communities of practice. It can also develop through the input of teams established especially for this purpose. In one school investigating online learning practices, a group of staff was formed, from volunteers, to investigate best practice in online delivery of education.

This group gave regular input from their research regarding strategies that had been useful in other educational contexts and the practices adopted from these made a demonstrable improvement to the project. In another school interested staff looked at classroom observation practice and contributed to the development of a whole school resource.

Mechanisms that will be used to generate continuous improvement should be well considered at the beginning of the project because they are a powerful way to demonstrate a contextual and collegial foundation to, and understanding of, the project. If staff are aware that their professional input into the program is not only valued but is an intentional part of the program’s design and operation then they are less likely to see it as an imposition from above and instead to recognise it as a practice that is owned and contributed to by them. Similarly if input is sought as to ‘what works in our school’ then staff will know that the specific character of their community and their place within it is an integral part of the improvement process.

Well thought out continuous improvement processes contribute vitally to staff morale because they allow for the celebration and acknowledgment of staff insight, professionalism and dedication.

Summary

The New Zealand Education Review Office report into Professional Learning and Development in 2009 lists the following characteristics in schools with high quality PLD management:

  • The use of relevant educational research and student achievement analyses to inform their PLD program
  • The alignment of their PLD goals and the outcomes sought in the school’s overall planning
  • A supportive professional culture where practice was shared and critiqued

Through the identification of desired student outcomes; the determination of the best approaches to realise these outcomes in your school context; a decision making approach to professional learning and development that systemically aligns and defines professional learning with the desired outcomes required and which is related to the evaluation of their effectiveness; and a continuous improvement cycle that allows for the collegial iteration of these strategies − a PLD environment that contributes directly to improved student outcomes can be enabled.

Key Considerations

1.Consider publicly identifying and prioritising your key areas for student development among staff and indicating that professional learning requests should be aligned with, and contribute to the improvement of, these areas.

2.Consider forming staff research groups to investigate best practice strategies in areas of student improvement.

3.Consider developing a PLD plan that identifies the variety of professional learning and development opportunities that are aligned to your desired student outcomes.

This article originally featured in CSM, May 2014 Edition. It was written by Marcus Edwards and published by CIRCLE.