Defining Professional Learning – Learning From an American Approach

American School Bus / Education in the USA

This month in the state of Washington, USA House Bill 13451 titled ‘Teachers Professional Learning – Definition and Standards’ becomes effective. It makes for interesting reading as the Bill not only defines the term ‘Professional Learning’ but goes on to describe how the state, regional, and local education leaders will support the professional learning of teachers in order to advance student learning. It also aims to align professional learning with the goals of the individual institution, the district and the state and suggests a number of types of activities to enable this.


Of course such an approach to professional learning in schools raises questions considering the context of the UK and whether a similar approach could be adopted and welcomed. Would education leaders here appreciate an agreed definition of professional learning and suggestions of appropriate activities for their staff to engage with or would they prefer to ‘do their own thing’?


Professional learning is defined by the Bill as being “a comprehensive, sustained, job-embedded, and collaborative approach to improving teachers’ and principals’ effectiveness in raising student achievement” and not many would disagree with this definition. However, it is also clear that by defining and standardising professional learning  its outcomes have to become measurable leading to  accountability measures both academic (student learning, growth and achievement) and non-academic (health, behaviour and socio-emotional factors)being put in place to assure that there is impact.


There is much that can be taken from the Bill to increase understanding of professional learning. Any professional learning activity should be ongoing process and seen as an integral part of working life; one which is relevant to an individual’s context and is developed and sustained over time to positively impact upon practice. Collaboration is identified as a key factor in successful professional learning. Colleagues working alongside each other with a common focus and agreed shared goals are more likely to be successful in implementing ideas than those who work independently.


A ‘mixed model’ approach to professional learning is described in terms of the support by “external expert assistance or additional activities” as long as they meet the same definition and standards as that provided internally by schools. Suggested external support is listed as being: “…courses, workshops, institutes, networks, studio residencies, virtual learning modules, and conferences provided by for-profit and non-profit entities outside the school such as universities, educational service districts, technical assistance providers, networks of content specialists, and other education organizations and associations..”


There are some limitations by focusing purely on formal professional learning activities such as those listed above and not recognising the role of more informal engagements which can also help individuals develop and progress. Informal interactions, conversations, lesson observations and other activities members of staff experience day to day, shape and influence the way in which they approach their work and this should be equally encouraged and recognised as forms of professional learning.


The identification of what constitutes high quality professional learning is also highlighted. Planned activities should have objectives and goals clearly defined from a needs analysis process which takes into account both the objectives and the needs of the participants. Activities which model good pedagogical practice, are facilitated by someone who has knowledge of adult learning theory and makes use of relevant resources are also deemed to be of high quality. Professional learning activity should be an on-going process and a skilled facilitator will be able to connect sessions in order to provide what the Bill calls a “…coherent and useful learning experience.”


The Bill provides school leaders with some different perspectives on professional learning. Approaches in the UK differ enormously between schools; some only provide opportunities within their own school, in other situations groups of schools regularly come together; some offer sessions facilitated externally whereas others encourage staff to engage in activities outside of school. The models open to schools are almost endless; each able to set its own professional learning curriculum for staff. There is little doubt that defining and standardising professional learning in the UK would  lead to increased accountability measures,  but should schools be encouraged to offer a ‘mixed model’ approach to professional learning as advocated by the Bill in order to improve the skills of staff and ultimately student outcomes?

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