How useful are standards in helping teachers’ professional development?

By Debra Talbot

Teachers are forever learning. The complex world of schooling today means that teachers need to keep learning so they can respond to the diverse needs of their student learners. At the same time teachers need to meet the regulations or ‘standards’ imposed on them by the ever-changing political landscape. Often these regulations are designed, in part, to make teachers engage with professional learning.

I decided to look at how important the standards are in supporting teachers with their professional learning. I wanted to unravel if and how teachers’ work is reshaped and reorganized by standardisation. Canadian sociologists Dorothy Smith and Alison Griffith highlight the importance of understanding the influence of the ‘new public management’ on what actually gets done at the ‘front line’ of public service industries, including education. I wanted to explore the ideas proposed by Smith and Griffith that “the managerial ‘boss’ or governing texts” play varying roles in the ‘governing’ of people’s front line work depending on how such texts are ‘activated’.

The conundrum of standards

As we know there is a rise in the use of various national standards – from teacher professional standards to quality standards in early childhood and student achievement standards – as a means of governing teachers’ work. The development and maintenance of these systems of standardization requires massive infusions of both time and money. These investments are justified because they purport to ensure teachers are more efficient, accountable, and effective.

A lot of teachers’ work is shaped by meeting documentation requirements or to ensure students meet prescribed benchmark standards. As many see it, these practices appear to be at odds with the claims that imposing standards improves teacher efficiency and teacher quality.

Governing texts such as national professional standards and a national curriculum can have the unintended effect of constraining opportunities for teachers to learn about their work. This occurs when they are interpreted in ways that encourage coverage of individual standards. However, I believe, when teachers are supported to engage in authentic, contextually appropriate professional learning that is focused on their learning needs in relation to the learning of their students, they can transform their practice.

The problematic

How can we know that a teacher’s learning has transformed their teaching work and how is support for such transformative learning coordinated?

What my study involved

I interviewed 8 teachers, including both primary and secondary teachers from the public, catholic and private sectors. Each teacher had participated in a variety of forms of professional development that previous research has identified as having the capacity to transform practice.

I asked them to talk about a time when they knew they had really learned something about their teaching work. What they had learned? How did they know they had learned? Just tell the story. Then, with guidance, they selected and demonstrated evidence of the learning they had spoken about. Finally, teachers were asked to reflect on the ‘fit’ as they saw it, between the learning they had spoken about and the evidence they had demonstrated.

I used institutional ethnography as a method of inquiry to explore research conversations and demonstrations of evidence, together with a mapping analysis to bring the ‘spaces’ or ‘gaps’ in which teachers learned about their work at the ‘front line’ into view.














(Source: Talbot, 2015 )

What I found

All of the participating teachers were able to turn their energy to engaging with learning about their teaching work as the creation of an ‘everyday utopia’ – alive to the imaginative, sensual and affective possibilities of interactions with their students.

Learning something about their teaching work began for each of the teachers in this study as a response to the learning needs of the students in front of them rather than as a response to the governing texts of recent educational ‘reform’. The learning happened in ‘spaces of possibility’ that existed because of the unique coordination of local social relationships by school-based ‘professional learning architects’ such as the school principal.

The role of the ‘professional learning architect’ in creating the possibilities for such learning to occur has ongoing significance as we move towards the mandatory accreditation of all teachers against national professional standards. The ‘professional learning architects’, especially the principals but also the teacher ‘professional learning architect’, have a clear vision of how all the individuated, differentiated, inquiry-based, externally provided bits of professional learning for the teachers within the school fit into the overall plan of providing learning experiences that meet the needs of the students.

While the ‘professional learning architect’ and some classroom teachers referred to the standards, they were only useful in a peripheral way to most classroom teachers. Their professional learning was more driven by engaging with the needs of their students.




Dr Debra Talbot is a Lecturer in Education and Co-director of Professional Experience at the University of Sydney. She has more than 20 years experience as a classroom teacher, head of department in government and independent sectors, and professional learning consultant. Debra’s research interests are in teacher education, curriculum, pedagogy, and social justice. She continues to work with teachers in schools in these areas. Read more about this study here.


4 thoughts on “How useful are standards in helping teachers’ professional development?

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you Debra,
    I wondered what your question involved: “How can we know that a teacher’s learning has transformed their teaching work and how is support for such transformative learning coordinated?.” — It certainly involves the system and the individuals in the system to learn from mistakes. We could say then that there is no such a thing as a bad mistake: all mistakes are good if they contribute to the overall learning. I then wondered how the system makes room for learning from mistakes. I am not sure that gathering “evidence” of good practice supports this form of learning. Identifying “what works” depends on the question one asks. Is it to be is assessed against the question (a) “Did the students do well?”, or (b) “What did the students do?” While (a) invites evidence affirming our expectations, (b) calls for a genuine self-reflection. I would think that only (b) supports a genuine transformative learning. So, following this line of thought, for “transformative learning” to occur the system would need to expect teachers to be connected to academia at all times (not through ad hoc grants only), for everyone to benefit from this kind of reflection.
    with very best wishes for your work

  2. Bruce Lyons says:

    I was a school principal and Superintendent of Schools. I was never referred to to as a “professional learning architect” but tried to be a leader who inspired teachers to become better at what they do. My experience demonstrated to me that one of the most effective forms of teacher development is when teachers talk together about the syllabuses that they are going to implement. It is talk about what the syllabus statements mean and what evidence will be acceptable that a student has mastered this or that learning outcome. The teachers learn from each other and can be led by one of their number who is confident in interpreting syllabus detail. This is distributive leadership in action and an effective principal will create opportunities for it to occur. Teachers go off into their classes in full knowledge of what their peers understand about the syllabuses. They are all on the same page as it were.

    The pressures for Australian students to measure up on the international stage are being used by our politicians to somehow imply that teachers are not up to the mark. Teaching is a profession and one of the marks of a profession is that it governs its own standards. We are capable of doing this as education professionals and I would have all teachers believe and feel confident in that they are professionals who know what they are doing.

    I have no extensive hard evidence, but have a strong feeling that teachers are being forced to move students on through the prescribed syllabuses regardless of whether the students have mastered the building blocks for the new learning. The year level structures of the Australian National Curriculum syllabuses are acceptable provided teachers are prepared to ensure that at least in communication and mathematical knowledge, skills and understandings, students are not moved on to new learning without mastery of the foundations for that new learning. I wonder how free teachers and their principals feel to adhere to such a policy when the political pressures are so great even though ill founded.

  3. Debra Talbot says:

    Bruce, I believe your concerns about teachers’ and principals’ freedom to make the best choices for the learning of their students and for their own learning is well-founded. My study was conducted prior to the mandatory accreditation of all teachers against professional standards. At this time, principals and other middle managers had not had to develop and deal with processes to ensure all staff were meeting these accreditation requirements. It will become increasingly important for ‘professional learning architects’ within schools to understand how they might ‘backward map’ from high quality, transformative professional learning opportunities to the reductive statements of the professional standards for the purposes of accountability.

  4. Bruce says:

    Thanks Debra for your reply. Love what you are doing but with the absolute greatest of respect the last sentence of your comment contains a complexity of language that tends to be pervading research these days. I understand what the sentence means but long for more straightforward language from the researchers. Principals in the field need you and in my experience are often frustrated by materials that are difficult to read. As you know they are very busy people dealing with matters from multiple directions.

Comments are closed.