Teaching is a complex activity, and the practices a teacher adopts are inevitably personal. But if teaching practice isn’t deeply informed by a wider knowledge about educational research, research based on direct observation of classroom activity, and the theory underpinning it, then teaching becomes a personal, rather than a professional enterprise.
Many teachers resist the need to understand educational theory because they perceive their job is about practice. But when they understand how theory informs practice and the two are intrinsically linked, they usually come to be more open to the possibility that theory really matters (Timperley, 2011).
Personal practice develops over time and for experienced teachers, this takes place over years, often without ever being challenged. Questioning practice could be construed as challenging what it means for a teacher to be an expert.
That’s why a top-down approach to professional learning and development isn’t very effective in engaging teachers – if the introduction to a particular professional learning focus begins with new approaches to teaching and learning rather than analyzing students’ needs, resistance is more likely to arise because competition between theories of practice immediately becomes an issue for many of those participating (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000).
Teacher engagement in professional learning is essential – by focusing on evidence about students in their class and the challenges they present, the need to find out how to meet these challenges becomes the motivating force. Professional learning opportunities that are perceived as immediately relevant to their teaching situation is an essential factor. Through an evidence – informed process, initial resistance mostly disappears (Timperley, 2011).
It’s already been mentioned that observation of classroom practice is the best way of finding out about student learning. Classrooms are complex places with multiple teaching and learning interactions occurring at once and it is difficult to determine what should be observed and how to decide. A few important principles to guide this decision- making (Timperley, 2011):
- What is observed relates directly to the professional learning area of focus and includes teachers’ learning goals that have been developed to address a specific problem of practice.
- The focus should be jointly decided by the observer and the person being observed. Learning partnerships should not have unpleasant surprises associated with them.
- The criteria for determining what constitutes effectiveness are determined through references to the research and professional literature agreed in advance by the observer and the person being observed. Having a learning partnership means everyone is on the same page as far as possible with the partners drawing on the best sources of information available.
Classroom observations provide evidence of individual or school-wide practices. School-wide observations using consistent criteria allow teachers and leaders to obtain profiles across a whole school and thus provide a picture on which to base professional learning. With guidance, teachers can then discuss the profiles to help work their focus for learning. This approach might be important in the early stages to develop collective understandings and focus. Through identifying the criteria for effective practice together and discussing the findings from the observations, these discussions can deepen collective understandings of particular practices, especially if students’ responses form part of the criteria.
Delving into students’ understanding of their learning provides immediate feedback to teachers about their next teaching moves. It is also important to assess progress over the longer term, such as a year or more, with more standardized evidence to ensure that the students’ progress is adequate (Timperley, 2011).
Having and using high-quality evidence (Timperley, 2011)
- Assessment information must be fit for the purpose of promoting teacher learning.
- Assessment instruments and processes selected must provide the information required to inform what needs to happen for students to reach the outcomes desired. It means using fit-for-purpose assessment tools. For example, if the goal is to improve student engagement, then as assessment instrument or process that provides profiles of situations associated with high and low engagement for different groups of students is more useful than a generic engagement index.
- Quality of information tends to improve as teachers and their leaders engage in iterative cycles of inquiry to build their pedagogical content knowledge, identify better questions to ask and seek more detailed evidence to answer them. As they become more sophisticated in analyzing student needs, the evidence sought becomes a search for answers to specific questions about specific puzzles evident in students’ learning profiles. Teachers are likely to draw on a mix of norm-referenced assessments, teacher designed assessment tasks, and more informal processes such as observing students and analyzing student work.
- Procedures are used to attend to issues of validity and reliability.
- It’s important teachers have confidence in the quality of evidence they are considering. Data collection and analysis need to provide information on levels and rates of progress plus diagnostic information (Timperley, 2011).
When teachers are given the opportunity to engage in action research on a sustained basis in a collaborative environment, three things happen (Timperley, 2011):
- Teacher researchers frequently (although not always) have a direct and measurable impact on student achievement, behaviour and educational equity as a result of specific practices during their research.
- Whether or not the teachers’ hypotheses are supported by their research, teacher researchers affect the professional practices of their colleagues.
- Participation in action research and the observation of and reflection on research results can lead to what Collins (2001) calls the flywheel effect. Effective professional practices are reinforced and repeated not only by the original teacher researchers but also by many other teachers who are influenced by these observations and practices (Timperley, 2011).