2.3 Teacher learning and professional development
School change and improvement literature seems to have reached a common understanding that teachers play an important role in creating better schools (Borko, 2004; Lieberman & Mace, 2010). Therefore it is not surprising that professional development opportunities—spaces for teachers to learn—are systematically created within school jurisdictions with the intention of helping teachers to “enhance their knowledge and develop new instructional practices” (Borko, 2004, p. 3). While professional development opportunities can take different forms, the more typical school in-service or single day convention format common to many jurisdictions in Canada, remains a dominant model despite the fact that such one shot training sessions “are not likely to facilitate teacher learning and change” (Mesler, Parise & Spillaine, 2010, p. 326). Webster-Wright (2009) completed a comprehensive scan of professional development literature and reviewed more than 203 studies; they made an important observation about the nature of most teacher professional development by noting it had a “focus on programs and content rather than learning experiences” (p. 712). This finding reflects the current context and the emphasis of most Canadian educational jurisdictions.
Some scholars are now thinking more about the importance of teacher learning and the importance of examining professional practice. For example, Stoll et al (2006) shared international evidence that “educational reform’s progress depends on teachers’ individual and collective [teacher] capacity and its link with school-wide capacity for promoting pupils’ learning” (p 115, emphasis added). Stoll (2009) also detailed how these processes of developing capacity through shared efforts at questioning one’s practice can lead to much deepened form of professional sense making, a process she describes as knowledge animation: “by surfacing tacit knowledge and challenging existing assumptions… conversations that make presuppositions, ideas, beliefs and feelings explicit and available for exploration helps to promote knowledge creation” (p .3).
Knowledge animation differs significantly from other forms of professional development focused on “best” or “promising practices”. An important point here is how such processes of professional inquiry lead to the production of innovative or novel approaches or ideas. It is the ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ of inquiry, enhanced by dialogue, and questioning intentions and beliefs that brings the discussion or professional idea to life. This goes well beyond knowledge sharing; it is a social and professional learning process built on trust and a shared commitment to enhancing personal and professional learning that is central. Levin’s (2012) UNESCO report makes a similar finding: he highlighted how teachers who learn in context and through collaboration have contributed significantly to recent school improvement efforts in Ontario.
These two authors highlight the shift among professional learning scholars to think more deeply about how teachers learn and apply such learning to their teaching practice. In what follows, I briefly summarize several seminal authors in this more contemporary terrain of professional development and teacher learning.