I have been asked several times in recent weeks about my thoughts on professional development for teachers, especially regarding preparing to work in what are being called 21st century learning environments. People have even written to me through this blog saying that really want their teaching to move forward but ‘don’t know how”.
Before I start I must emphasis that some schools and authorities are doing this absolutley brilliantly and really working with thier staff as a change team - it's just fantastic when this happens. It is not consistent across the country though I fear.
New learning environments typically feature fewer enclosed or ‘traditional’ classrooms, rather a variety of agile spaces where a variety of learning and teaching can take place. Areas include; breakout areas, large spaces for lead lessons, seminar areas, group work, research and individual work spaces, presentation and performance spaces and so on, all supported by pervasive computer technology firmly embedded within them.
What absolutely CANNOT happen regarding professional development for these spaces is to wait until they are built. The professional development of teachers AND students should be ongoing and certainly have started as the plans for the new schools begin to be designed. Teachers and students must know the ways they wish they could work now (and think about the future), contribute to the design debate and still allow buildings to cater for future learning styles that are currently unknown.
Many students are clear and insightful about how they learn best and can be a powerful ally in creating really effective learning spaces and approaches to learning but we frequently don’t ask them enough even now. I’ve had student panels say things to staff like “why don’t you blue tooth notes to us rather than us copy them down?” and so on and so on and so on… (unfortunately some of the teachers didn’t know what they were talking about!)
Professional development for new learning spaces and styles is not best undertaken by a series of ‘one off’ professional days listening to some perceived expert - although these do have their uses if the focus is right. Nor are mandatory after school CPD sessions particularly effective after what can be a gruelling day.
Most effective is working with teachers, in their room, with their students. 'Learning Leaders' (call them what you will) supporting teachers using and develop new learning and teaching styles can be really effective, working on ‘real’ work during a normal day. Usually most effective is to arrange this support working with every member of a faculty or department simultaneously. This allows real time modelling of good (and new) practice, team teaching, real time support, group work, mixed groupings, lead lessons, small group work with the whole team working, learning and gaining confidence together. This is not a one hour session – this takes some days to really embed in along with return visits. Real time evaluation and changes in approach can also be developed along with codes for students of expected behaviours and work habits. ‘Doing it to just one individual’ just is not anywhere near as effective and can be pointless.
Within a school then this group of teachers become leaders and the learning support goes to another faculty and develop their skills and so on. Staff from the second group can then compare notes and strategies with the first group and so the movement spreads. Approaches will vary depending on the subject and but can also really enhance cross curricular project work and make things much for interesting and enjoyable for teachers as well as students as they work in teams rather than the solitary ‘secret activity’ that so often happens. (All of this is done obviously maintaining a real focus on improving standards.) Developing this across schools then also allows other collaborations. And thats before we think about 14-19 opportunities, business links, community engagement, global connectivity and...and...
But just like teachers, students cannot just walk into a new environment and be expected to do things differently without any preparation. Lots of amazing and innovative learning takes place despite occurring in the most traditional of spaces. New environments do make a difference and allow even more flexibility and opportunity which many really benefit from.
Students need to be prepared over the years it takes to design and build / remodel new schools in a range of ways of working, supported by the appropriate technologies. They need to be able to work individually and in small groups, to research, to be trusted with technology embedded within lessons, to know how lead lessons work and be able to contribute to lessons. (Students have lived with this approach most of their primary school lives after all – dare I suggest that in some secondary schools we are deskilling youngsters in the variety of ways they can learn?)
Some schools and authorities are developing test beds within schools or in areas for teachers and students to be able to develop new learning skills. This is really good practice. Obviously these are best employed in schools so it does not become a ‘special day out’ for everyone , immediately losing some relevance. The rules for using these spaces is that who ever is in there ‘must do it differently’! If these exist there has to be a real programme of all staff using them, so they do not just become a ‘white elephant’.
I know someone will write in about challenging behaviour preventing all these things happening, but by combining groups (and hence more staff) and having students working in a variety of ways, those that can work will, without wasting time waiting for the others, the ‘audience factor’ reduces and greater focus can be put on those needing it.
Of course every school has its challenges and some are particularly tough – I totally accept that. All I am suggesting is that the approach to professional development needs to be really thought out much more carefully in some of the places I have visited here and abroad.
It comes down to inadequate professional development budgets and insufficient priority. CPD budgets are also often the first things cut in any saving programme. This is bonkers – the whole value of new buildings programmes can be severely compromised if people aren’t really confident of developing the learning opportunities that the spaces allow. How can NOT planning the really effective development of staff and students before they enter new environments be sensible?