professional development of teachers

The highly risky business of cost cutting

In Victoria, the Australian Education Union has struck up a deal with the Andrews Government, and the cross-system adoption of a new workplace agreement is imminent. In what feels like good news in the face of a profession in crisis, the agreement promises significant improvement to support teacher workload. The proposed model, named ‘30/8’ sorts a 38-hour work week into 30 hours directly associated with teaching and learning (such as teaching, collaboration, planning, assessment, marking) and 8 hours for ‘additional’ activities – like yard duty, before and after school supervision, and attendance at meetings. Sounds fair, and in principle, sounds great.

The problem though, is the risk to maintaining a commitment to high quality and effective professional learning – and the devil is in the detail. See, of the 30 hours in the 30/8 model, there is time allocated for ‘teacher-directed professional learning and professional development’. Yet ‘employer-directed’ professional learning, and ‘whole school curriculum development’ fall under the 8 hours of ‘other activities’. 

We as educators regard effective professional learning as a critical factor in positive changes to teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes. Not surprisingly, learning – our own and our students’ – is a core value we share. In fact, it was confirmed in a recent large scale national survey that the top reasons teachers and leaders engage in professional learning are to improve their individual professional practice, to increase their school’s collective effectiveness for the betterment of students, and to help improve upon school identified priority areas. Perhaps most interestingly, though Australian teachers are mandated to complete at least 100 hours of professional learning over each 5-year term to maintain full registration, the survey revealed that a desire to fulfil administrative and bureaucratic requirements was way down the priority list.

A dangerous culture of ‘bean-counting’

Incessantly counting the hours of collaborative whole-school or whole-system professional learning and classifying it ‘other’ to the core business of teaching and learning is dangerous. School principals and administrators have begun keeping spreadsheets with each teacher’s name, and monitoring with precision the allocation of each hour and minute. I have facilitated school-wide professional learning sessions in recent weeks, and when the clock hands creep towards the hour, teachers are packing up, encouraged by their principals to walk out right on time, sometimes mid-activity, to avoid the owing of the dreaded TIL (time in lieu). Similarly, rooms previously filled with teachers before and after school, planning, learning, and reflecting together, are now empty – outside of compulsory meeting times.

Reducing the value we place on collaborative professional learning bears the greatest risk to the students we teach. When teachers are led to collaborate and learn together, the result is a sharing of knowledge and expertise for building a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Schools can then craft a base of pedagogical knowledge that is distributed among teachers within a school as opposed to being held by individual teachers. Other benefits of collaborative professional learning include improved teacher effectiveness, enhanced job satisfaction, shared accountability for student outcomes and greater creativity and innovation.

What we must hold onto

A wide body of literature supports the need for sustained, content focused professional learning. The learning must be designed with contextualised, job-embedded action – meaning time to trial strategies relevant to a given setting in the classroom, and then time allocated to reflect upon these. Providing teachers with models of effective practice is imperative alongside the offering of coaching, feedback and expert support. Collaborative professional learning communities are lauded as the most effective and supportive means of meeting these fundamental objectives, because as AITSL conclude, collaboration powerfully amplifies the benefits of high-quality professional learning. This emphasises the imperative for schools to design a culture, where teachers and leaders are supported to work together on their learning endeavours.

Teacher Agency Matters, too

In the new workplace agreement’s 30/8 split, the 30 hours includes ‘teacher-directed professional development and professional learning’. This element of agency is important, especially because we want teachers to have input into the professional learning activities they undertake, with the aim to realise impactful change on their own practice. It has been found that teacher agency is an influential factor for teacher professional learning, school improvement and sustainable educational change. Results from the aforementioned AITSL survey revealed that when teachers sourced their own learning opportunities, they were most likely to report that the professional learning better met the needs of their students; was tailored to their career stage; covered appropriate topics and offered a preferred mode of learning. Therefore, an important take away for school and system leaders is that when schools provide a choice in professional learning offerings, teachers will have more positive perceptions than when activities are compulsory. It suggests that giving teachers more agency in their professional development options can lead to more significant and effective learning experiences. 

Moving beyond dichotomies

So, back to that devilish detail in the wording of the new agreement, as related to professional learning. If we deem whole school curriculum planning and school-directed professional learning as ‘other activities’, and ‘teacher directed professional learning’ as ‘class focus activities’, the outcome is a perilous dichotomy. Research and lived experience together tells us that the balance between teacher agency and addressing school-wide initiatives is very important. When teachers connect their own learning goals with their school’s goals, it fosters a collaborative environment with shared purpose. To successfully grow in their professional roles, teachers should pursue professional learning aligned to their situational needs and with what they value in their practice, alongside school-wide collective aims.

Taking steps to address the burgeoning workload of teachers is a welcome initiative. It is crucial to maintain our workforce and to attract new bodies to join us, and to stay with us. However, school leaders and those responsible for communicating the terms of the new workplace agreement to their teachers are urged to even out the ‘counting minutes and hours’ talk with a rational focus on what we know to be important. It is the work of school and system leaders to consider the nuance, to reflect upon the most impactful ways to ‘spend’ the allocated time. Leaders must provide opportunities and resources for teachers to set their own goals and take ownership of their professional learning. Of equal importance, though, is that leaders encourage collaboration and shared decision making, opportunities for teachers to work and learn together, to share ideas, and make decisions as a team. 

Dr Bree Hurn is a lecturer of language and literacy, a member of the Teacher Education Group and the Course Coordinator of the Master of Early Childhood/Primary at The Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne). Bree’s research interests include the ways in which teachers’ knowledge about language impacts their self-efficacy and pedagogical decisions in literacy teaching. Bree also has a special interest in the potential effects of professional learning for enhancing teacher knowledge and subsequent practice.

We all love a good story (and you can join in)

The role of story for humankind is a given: we live storied lives. Reading rich literature is always pleasurable (and sometimes challenging). But it is much more than a source of entertainment. Quality literary texts enable us to nurture our imaginations, understand who we are and what our place might be in the world, value different perspectives, develop empathy and compassion, question, laugh, cry, wonder and help us to heal. As Olivia Fialho (2019) writes:

the purpose of literature lies in the experience itself, in its power to prompt us to connect deeply and conscientiously with our emotions, deepening our senses of who we are, what we are in this world for, and how we are in a relationship with others.

Olivia Fialho

Opportunities to share our literary reading with others helps us grow together as a rich and diverse community and enables the envisioning of alternative possibilities and different ways of knowing, doing, being and becoming. Every child and young person is entitled to easy access to a rich diversity of literature in their homes and classrooms. 

Australia is privileged to have many talented authors, artists and illustrators, designers and publishers who create high quality literature for children and young people from birth to adulthood.  Rich literature should be a foundational resource in the teaching of talking, listening, reading, writing and viewing. Unfortunately, too much emphasis on overly contrived texts in literacy learning can fail to engage and nurture early learners’ imaginations and creativities and sustain their love of reading. If we want to nurture empathy in our learners so they can understand different perspectives and explore alternative ways of doing, being and becoming, we must ensure rich literature is at the heart of every home, library and classroom.

Thirteen peak Australian professional associations, organisations, foundations and councils representing thousands of English and literacy educators and community groups have partnered to develop an online, free Literature Symposium under the umbrella of We all love a good story. Sessions include short keynotes, conversations with authors, artists, educators and young learners and panel discussions to explore the power and pleasure of literature from many perspectives. Each highlights how and why rich and imaginative literature should be a central in both homes and classrooms.

Program dates, details and a once-only registration link can be found here.

The first of these presentations launches on Wednesday 8 June and the series will conclude in mid-November. After each presentation is released, it will be available on YouTube for use by teachers, librarians, school leaders, early years educators, parents, carers, and all interested in ensuring there is rich literature in every home, preschool, classroom and library.

The organisations are: 

Australia Reads                                                    

Children’s Book Council Australia

Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation     

Indigenous Literacy Foundation 

Australian Council of TESOL Associations        

Primary English Teaching Association Australia                     

Australian Literacy Educators’ Association                                     

Australian School Libraries Association            

Reading Australia      

Australian Theatre for Young People                

Sydney Theatre Company

Foundation for Learning and Literacy               


Robyn Ewing AM is formerly a primary teacher and currently Professor Emerita and Co- Director, Creativity in Research, Engaging the Arts, Transforming Education, Health and Wellbeing  (CREATE) Centre, University of Sydney. A former past president of ALEA and PETAA, she is Co-Convenor of the Foundation of Learning and Literacy.

Jo Padgham is currently co-convenor of the Foundation for Learning and Literacy, a former primary principal and system leader in the public education system and past vice president of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. Jo has been awarded ALEA Life Membership, ALEA Principal Fellow, Fellow of the Australian College of Educational Leaders, ACEL Award for Collaborative Practice and the ACT Women’s Honour Roll.

The evidence says teachers need more time and more money. Why is the government ignoring it?

Governments must stop telling teachers to scale up practice by copying strategies developed for another school’s context. The latest change in NSW education policy again confuses teacher learning from their own evidence-based practice with guidance from practice developed elsewhere.

Scaling up won’t work for improved learning outcomes. Here’s why.  The context of our schools is significant for developing evidence-based practice. Trotting out: “Here’s what worked in this A ranked school”  is as pointless as mandating protocols across subjects or year levels within one school.

And let’s not even get into the contentious lack of clarity on measures of the ‘most successful schools’. UNSW Professor Pasi Sahlberg told us this exactly three years ago. He cautioned teachers to ‘avoid urban legends’ in his 2018 book FinnishED Leadership. After decisive longitudinal research in Australia, the call for no more reform hangs on hope. 

But hope just won’t cut it with the latest proposed Successful Schools Model for NSW. The first point the model makes (evidence-based practice) and last point (scaling of practice) are counter-productive, counter-research and counter-teacher-led-inquiry in context. 

The hopes educators have for fewer administrative burdens and practical support are illusive. The government says it requires teachers to work from an evidence base yet overall policy selectively draws on the wording of research without a concrete offer of structural change. 

Governments must action the well-worn call for time and money for teacher professional learning (TPL) where it happens – in schools.

The complexity and time required for TPL are highlighted in the recent findings and recommendations from the independent Gallop inquiry Valuing the teaching profession commissioned by the NSW Teachers Federation. A case in point – will teachers have time to respond via survey on the recommendations of the report? The imperative for government is clear. TPL requires significant structural change to provide the allocated time and salary increases for the essential collective work efforts of the teaching profession.

The profession and the research literature tell us all we need to know. The Australian experience of TPL within a global perspective is outlined in my book Enacted personal professional learning (EPPL): Re-thinking teacher expertise with story-telling and problematics. The idea of EPPL is that teacher learning is complex, contextual, collectively driven, and takes time.

Now, complexity is not the same as difficulty. More difficult means that the understanding and skills become harder by building from the same basic level, that is, the examples become harder. More complex means that the understanding and skills require multiple relations or interactions within context. 

So for teachers, complexity occurs among individual learners in one class, between classes when teaching the same subject, or across different learner developmental levels. This complexity occurs throughout the teaching and learning process, which is why pedagogical models continue to be grappled with by both teachers and researchers. 

Teachers develop expertise together in dealing with complexity of practice throughout their career. However, teacher collective efficacy (CE) doesn’t come from being a ‘diva’. A diva school or teacher is inwardly focused on their own development and outwardly focused on achievement in competing with others. This undermines empowered teacher learning through a collective practice-based inquiry that meets all individual needs. Enacted personal professional learning (EPPL) requires approaches that develop professional trust in context with colleagues and enable collectively successful practice to flourish. Communities of teachers working in situ on longitudinal TPL programmes draw on teacher’s individuality to harness the collective learning. This work is both difficult and contextually complex – and ongoing. Articulating the thinking of teachers and their students is a continuing challenge in developing a shared language of learning. One of the positives teachers were able to take from the COVID-19 crisis is that it highlighted the difficulty and complexity of teacher work and learning to those uninitiated to the profession.

Challenges and achievements of teacher professional learning

One teacher professional learning (TPL) programme that was conducted across nine different school contexts enabled teachers to develop strategies through evidence-based practice. Cultivating a schoolwide pedagogy: Achievements and challenges of shifting teacher learning on thinking details the findings and recommendations. Various combinations of teaching teams from either a learning stage, curriculum area, or cross-curricular areas considered their own practice for cultivating a schoolwide pedagogy. The longitudinal time frame allowed teachers to trial a variety of strategies drawn from the formal and informal research literature. Teachers used a shared pedagogical model to understand the scope of learning thinking through an inquiry-based approach. Evident in the creation of pedagogical protocols was the need for teachers working together in context. The impact on learning outcomes was evidenced in the shared thinking on and language of learning for students and teachers.

The teaching profession needs allocated learning time and commensurate salary increases

Governments must make the overdue structural change for the teaching profession. Workloads need to allocate time for TPL and salaries of teachers need to be increased to recognise the increasingly difficult and complex work of the profession. This action is supported by the research and best-practice of TPL.

Teaching as the learning profession models the use of research to develop evidence-based strategies through inquiry into practice. In some jurisdictions internationally, TPL is included in the employment hours resulting in reduced face-to-face teaching hours and the use of agreed standards to progress individual development plans. In jurisdictions like NSW Australia, TPL is completed in addition to teaching loads with a government mandated approach to PD requirements. This does not allow for the potential achievements of changed practice through the collective work efforts of teachers.

The end of the 2020 school year for teachers was difficult whilst still coping with the constant changes to COVID-19 protocols. In NSW, instead of a steady start to the 2021 school year, teachers were faced with understanding new teacher professional development (PD) maintenance requirements. Teachers now have limited choices with the drastically reduced accredited courses through the decimating de-registration of providers. The NSW government’s action has resulted in the economic damage experienced by many de-registered providers. TPL once offered by these providers is no longer available to meet the diverse needs of teachers and the required re-engineered approach for a blended online and face-to-face environment. Significantly, the bureaucratic approach to PD belies the complexity and time required for long term sustainable TPL that impacts teaching practice and results in improved learning outcomes for students.

What can the time and money do for teacher learning in context? 

Below are three identified areas of teacher influence on their own practice and that of colleagues for improved outcomes.

1. Individual and team thinking built through teacher collective efficacy (CE)

Developing new efforts with collective thinking to influence schoolwide improvement is challenging. The constraints on teacher’s time have developed practices of cooperatively dividing the work effort. Teacher collective efficacy (CE) is often misrepresented as collaborative task generation or cooperative marking or reviewing of student work. CE entails the work of teaching teams to garner collective contributions for:

  • developing understanding of observations on learning,
  • critiquing task requirements,
  • assessing student work samples,
  • creating reasoned strategies to implement and evaluation in context,
  • expanding and clarifying individual teacher thinking with colleagues, and
  • collectively developing practice in context.
2. A pedagogical model to support evidence-based inquiry and performance predictions

TPL that offers a pedagogical model enables teachers to predict performance and map progress of learning thinking. Trialling new strategies in classrooms requires allocated time and structural support to overcome various challenges. This is evident for teachers who struggle to change entrenched routines, as well as teachers currently working out of their curriculum learning area or with a new stage level, or those early career teachers still resolving the theory-practice divide.

3. Teacher and student language and thinking on learning

TPL situated in context gives meaning to teacher’s practice and enables shared findings to address what mattered to teachers. Over a longitudinal implementation time frame, teachers are able to track changes in the collective thinking on the influences of student learning and identify changes in practice school-wide. Developing student reasoning and a language of learning in context requires dedicated time for TPL. 

The essential call to action for governments is clear. Reward teachers for their collective efforts in learning and teaching through salary increases and allocated time in workloads.

Carmel Patterson, PhD, is Director of Professional Learning and Pedagogy at Stella Maris College Manly and an Industry Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She has published in her research areas of teacher professional learning and qualitative methodology. Carmel consults on professional learning courses provided by schools, universities, and private enterprise and has a wide array of professional networks.

Teacher learning, not student test results, should be a national priority for Australia

Ongoing professional development of teachers is vital for the successful education of our children. At present, teacher learning is not given the sort of attention it deserves by governments in Australia. Our teachers are finding themselves increasingly reacting to a plethora of national, and other, tests. What they are ‘learning’ in the process is that tests and testing matters because school results have to ‘look good’ at school and system level. This can narrow the focus of the development of teacher professional skills and knowledge across a whole school, and, indeed, whole systems.

Substantive teacher learning (that is teacher learning that contributes to student learning) is essential for fostering students’ academic and social development and learning. Much is known and has been written about the sorts of ongoing professional learning that are necessary to cultivate productive learning on the part of teachers, for students. Such learning should be ongoing, systematic, shared with other teachers in a public but supportive context, build upon teachers’ understandings of students’ current needs (not just academic but also socio-emotional and personal needs) and designed to extend students’ understandings in robust ways.

However, teachers’ learning is also influenced by the broader political and policy conditions within which they work. Some of these influences, such as having to constantly respond to standardised test results, can be counter-productive. They make it difficult for teachers to sustain attention to more long-term approaches focused on students’ actual work. This actual work includes students’ bookwork, extended assignment work, and extended responses in curriculum-based tests and other forms of assessment.

In Australia, the problem is most obvious in relation to national literacy and numeracy testing practices associated with NAPLAN (National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy). On the recent 10th anniversary of NAPLAN, we witnessed debates at the highest levels of government about the efficacy or otherwise of the program. Education Minister of NSW, Rob Stokes, (NSW is Australia’s most populous state) criticised the value and benefit of the national testing program, arguing for it to be replaced. The criticism was timely because reforms to schooling recently recommended to the Australian Government emphasised smaller, more ‘low-key’, modes of assessment in schools. Minister Stokes’ criticisms led to the federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, defending NAPLAN as a necessary vehicle to inform parents about students’ progress.

The ‘problem’, however, is not just isolated to practices around NAPLAN. Australian schools use other forms of quantified, standardized measures of learning such as Progressive Assessment Tests (PAT-tests) in reading, mathematics and vocabulary. There is also increased use and reliance on various ‘levelled’ readers as markers of students’ achievement. (Levelled readers are a series of reading books written to a formula of increasing difficulty usually from level 1 to level 30, with level 30 considered appropriate for students around 12 years of age). Schools often use these readers as a ‘quick’ way to ascertain whether students appear to be reading at year level, although they can be very limited in their content and foci, and do not necessarily serve as the best resources to inform teachers about students’ actual comprehension and reading fluency.

Of course all of these forms of data can be useful to indicate where students need further assistance and opportunities for development and learning. However, in a broader context in which national testing practices are simultaneously deployed for accountability purposes (most obviously through the ‘MySchool’ website), the more educative functions of using the data can be significantly reduced.

Increasing concerns about performance for performance sake can effectively cruel the potential of this array of tests and instruments to be genuinely educative.

Nevertheless, teachers are constantly creative in their efforts to learn from such markers of student learning. My research shows how teachers endeavour to use standardised data in conjunction with a much broader and more substantive array of student ‘data’ they collect during their everyday practices. This broader array of data includes extensive examples of students’ work, including various samples of students’ bookwork, as well as responses to formative and summative assessment tasks. Formative assessment tasks are designed to check on students’ understanding on an ongoing basis in class. Summative tasks are used to measure students’ understandings, often at the end of a unit of work, and for more formal reporting purposes.

Useful data can also include teachers’ notes about student academic progress more generally, their level of attentiveness in class, as well as about their well-being and social engagement with their peers, and other adults in the school. Seeking to work productively with a wide and deep array of data, beyond simply standardized measures, is the key to fostering substantive teacher learning for student learning.

So what can school authorities and teachers do about this?

First, school system administrators and school principals should actively talk about the need for teachers to collect and collate a wide variety of data, beyond simply test scores. They need to ‘give permission’ to teachers to be doing more than simply responding to the latest set of NAPLAN scores, and areas in which students fall short.

This will help build cultures in schools that ensure data are diverse, rich sources of evidence of students’ learning. If we are serious about encouraging the sorts of complex skill development and empathetic social capacities and understandings that are often promoted as the necessary 21st Century skills of the future, we need to encourage teachers to look for and promote the development of a wide array of understandings about student learning. This, in turn, will assist teachers to provide learning opportunities to help ‘future-proof’ students for an increasingly fluid job market, and cultivate the sorts of civic capacities so necessary in and for a genuinely inclusive, sustainable and global world.

Teachers can help to bring such a system of rich diverse data into being by insisting that principals, system administrators, parents and members of the wider community take a much more active role in thinking about what successful student learning actually looks like. Success includes the ability to communicate with others from backgrounds and cultural groups different from one’s own, having the confidence and resilience to keep striving for improvement and success in the face of adversity, and developing a sufficiently robust moral compass as a bulwark to avoid potentially exploitative circumstances in which students of today – citizens of tomorrow – might find themselves.

Such capacities are reflected in what the Australian Curriculum refers to as ‘general capabilities’, which were strongly supported in the recent Gonski school reform recommendations (Through Growth to Achievement). The capabilities include and emphasise strong literacy, numeracy and ICT capabilities, but significantly are not limited to these alone.

Governments need to more actively refocus policy upon a much richer conception of teacher and student learning. We need to move away from constantly reporting and comparing test results to providing and advocating for a wide range of substantive teacher professional development opportunities for all Australian teachers. Our children’s futures depend on us getting this right, just as we will surely depend upon them for our future well-being.

If you’d like to read more about these issues, please see my paper Governing teacher learning: Understanding teachers’ compliance with and critique of standardization in the Journal of Education Policy.

Teachers might also be interested in an associated article I recently wrote for the NSW Teachers Federation Journal of Professional Learning: Is Standardisation Governing Teacher Learning? Understanding Teachers’ Compliance and Critique

Dr Ian Hardy is Senior Lecturer, and Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. Dr Hardy researches and teaches in the areas of educational policy and politics, with a particular focus upon the nature of teachers’ work and learning. As an ARC Future Fellow (2015-2018), Dr Hardy is currently undertaking full-time research into how policy support for curricula reform influences teacher learning in Queensland, within a broader global policy context. At the same time, Dr Hardy is exploring how concurrent policy reform in Scandinavian (Finland and Sweden) and North American (Ontario and Connecticut) contexts is currently constituted, and influencing practice.