institutional ethnography

How useful are standards in helping teachers’ professional development?

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.