Professional development (PD) is about learning in all kinds of ways. It is not about the occasional seminar or workshop. It’s thinking about our work, improving what we do, challenging each other to address old and new issues in innovative ways.
I recently had the privilege of being involved in running a number of PD sessions as part of an EU-funded Train the Trainer Programme. These participants are looking forward to the possibility of becoming professional developers whose aim is that of supporting educators to implement the Learning Outcomes Framework.
I thoroughly enjoyed the time with some of the most motivated participants I have ever come across. We actively and eagerly engaged in addressing a variety of issues but here I want to focus on just one of them, namely the way we view adult learning at the personal, collective and systems level. It also helps to reinforce the point made by the Times of Malta editorial of November 25 for the need for “practical and relevant courses” for teachers.
Those who have been involved in education as much as I have have seen a thorough evolution in the way educators are being provided with learning opportunities. When I first started running PD sessions in 1987, professional development was a relatively new phenomenon and, to my surprise, no provision existed for those in the teaching profession.
My recommendation to do so was well received and I started running PD sessions for our school leaders. In 1988, we set up an INSET Centre within the then Education Department with the intent of organising courses for teachers.
The response to our training needs analysis was phenomenal and education officials started running courses for hundreds of teachers.
Since then we have seen ‘learning’ being institutionalised. Educators have a variety of learning opportunities they can avail themselves of run by various institutions. Opportunities are limitless.
Here I want to focus on the school as a context for learning. Schools have a substantial amount of hours dedicated for professional learning, which include 12 hours of INSET (July and/or September); CPD sessions (one day per term and another two hours per term); and 90 minutes of curriculum time for meetings at primary level or 40 minutes for departmental meetings at secondary level.
However, we have enough research and anecdotal evidence to show deep concern being raised not only in relation to the effectiveness of some of these sessions and the impact they have, but also concern raised when sessions can’t take place for logistical reasons.
A simple mathematical exercise shows that Maltese educators can avail themselves of roughly 56 hours at secondary level and 80 hours at primary level for PD purposes on an annual basis at the school site. This excludes potentially other sessions that may be called from time to time, or else sessions that teachers pursue throughout the year. This is on the low to average level when compared to provision in other European countries.
If we want to turn our schools into professional learning communities, then we need to allow educators to create their own models of learning rather than having a standard formula on a national level
My concern, however, is not with the amount of hours dedicated to PD but the way learning is conceptualised and put into practice. The current approach to learning is highly structured and formalised. The system of ‘learning’ is an imposed one; it is State mandated and regularised through collective agreements. This conditions the type and level of learning that can actually take place. Learning, instead of liberating individuals and groups, conditions what can actually take place.
During the Train the Trainer sessions, it came out quite strongly that if we want to turn our schools into professional learning communities (PLCs), then we need to allow educators at the school site to create their own models of learning rather than having a standard formula on a national level.
We need to start conceptualising learning in a different manner and allow schools the opportunity to explore PD in a systematic way that is meaningful to them. I argue strongly for the development of a policy that directs professional learning, one which is carefully managed and monitored at the school level. Learning needs to convey meaning to individuals, bring people together, emphasise relationships and modify behaviour.
We do not need to lengthen the school day but we do need to liberalise learning and give schools responsibility to manage their own learning. At the moment we have educators merely reacting to State-mandated change. There is no ownership, no time to internalise as we move in a context of turbulence.
Acknowledging that establishing a dialogic context can be complicated, difficult and frightening, especially when we are so used to bureaucratic systems that have nurtured a dependency culture, we need to become PLCs consciously pursuing quality improvement.
The leadership of PD demands additional psychological, practical, organisational and emotional openness to others and this cannot be State-mandated. For educators, to manage change rather than being overcome by change, they need to be empowered and responsibilised to take ownership personally and collectively.
It is high time that learning is given its due. It is no use talking of lifelong learning unless we allow educators to manage it according to identified needs. If we adopt such a perspective, leadership itself takes on an added dimension. Leadership for learning becomes central to the PD discourse. This is what we need.
It’s high time for policymakers to ensure that learning is conceptualised differently, allowing for ownership at the school/college level, one that sees leadership strongly linked to staff development, which in turn impacts on student learning.
It is not an impossible task but one that requires a belief in our profession, a commitment to trust the people that matter in creating PLCs that take learning seriously.
Christopher Bezzina is professor in educational leadership and head of the Department of Leadership for Learning and Innovation, Faculty of Education, University of Malta.