Thinking of doing some professional development for teaching?

Posted by: Thembi Mason, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

This post has been informed by the work in two learning and teaching projects led by Professor Barbara de la Harpe — an Office for Learning and Teaching project, Not a Waste of Space, and an RMIT Learning and Teaching Investment Fund project, Transforming teaching practice through PD for NGLSs. These projects explored professional learning for the future and also implemented a professional learning approach in the College of Design and Social Context. For more information visit the RMIT page on the project here.

logo for Developing Your Teaching DSC opportunitiesAlthough engaging in professional development to improve teaching has been shown to have a direct relationship on student learning outcomes (Hattie, 2009), as far back as the mid-80s, questions have been raised around the effectiveness of some professional development activities. As Webster-Wright (2009) points out, ‘…many [PD programs] remain as episodic updates of information delivered in a didactic manner, separated from engagement with authentic work experiences…’ Such approaches are generally ‘bolted-on’, often with a focus on compliance. They tend to be content heavy rather than learning oriented in their design and delivery.

What this can lead to is a kind of superficial accumulation of knowledge, layer upon layer, rather than an ongoing re-conceptualisation of educational practice (Boud & Hager, 2012; Cross, 2010; Feixas & Zellweger, 2010; Hart, 2011; Webster-Wright, 2009).

So the research supports approaches that look less like crash courses and more like maps or field guides for a learner to explore the territory. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to educators because we’re familiar with course and program design and most of the same principles apply. How do we then apply some of those good learning principles, those good instructional design principles, to our own professional development for teaching?

Here are some tips to make your own plan for a more sustained and long-term approach for your professional development:

1. Plan to try one new thing next semester in your class. Identify a learning and teaching goal or a ‘problem of practice’ that you want to address in 2014. This should be a risk or a proposed solution to your problem. It might be using a particular technology in your teaching, getting students to collaborate more or perhaps it is trying something that you have seen a colleague do successfully.  Simple activities like ‘Think, Pair, Share’ will enrich the discussion in your classroom as the thinking will encompass the views of all students and will invoke the prior learning of students.

2. Write it down! Write out your action plan. What will you do? What will your students do? What resources or knowledge do you need? How will you research the task? Who can you speak to for assistance? Give yourself some dates to meet your milestones. How will you design the activity so that it enables your students to do the work and to build up the strategies that you use to work through tasks so that they can use them in other contexts.

3. Put it in your workplan. Ensure you embed this idea into your teaching and work by writing it into your workplan next year. This also means that someone else, your line manager, will ask you how you are going and perhaps even suggest resources that might be useful. Articulating what you are doing not only makes it more explicit to you, talking about it enables another professional to build your idea and suggest other relevant avenues.

4. Make time in your calendar. Active learning over time is much more effective than learning in sporadic sessions. Set aside 5-10 minutes a week to read/talk to a colleague/watch a YouTube video. Try to keep your time aligned to your self-directed learning goal. Talking to someone else about what they are doing is a great stimulus for your own thinking.

5. Start your own professional learning network. Create a Twitter account and follow those whom you think you may find useful. Often people on Twitter who are exploring similar areas to you will post the latest papers, information and news to keep you up to date. Again, this collaborative approach leverages a community of learners and is a great example of the ‘just-in-time’ learning which will actively stimulate your teaching.

Comments from academic staff who undertook self-directed study as part of our LTIF project were very positive. While we still ran a model that included workshops, these workshops ran over a whole semester and not as ‘once-off’ sessions. We also encouraged sessional staff (a group of staff who can feel left out of the usual avenues and opportunities of professional development) to scope a small project and write a case study. Participants reported positive outcomes and an enthusiasm based on the fact that they had decided what their focus would be. Further results from the project will be available and disseminated at the project’s conclusion.

Share your thoughts about professional development in the comments!

Find us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/teachingtomtom and Twitter @teachingtomtom.

Boud, D. & Hager, P. (2012). Re-thinking continuing professional development through changing metaphors and location in professional practices. Studies in Continuing Education, 34(1), 17-30.

Cross, J. (2010). They had people called professors…! Changing worlds of learning: strengthening informal learning in formal institutions? In U. Ehlers and D. Schneckenberg, (Eds.), Changing Cultures in Higher Education (pp. 43–54). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.

Feixas, M., & Zellweger, F. (2010). Faculty development in context: changing learning cultures in Higher Education. In U. Ehlers and D. Schneckenberg, (Eds.), Changing Cultures in Higher Education (pp. 85-102). Berlin Heidelberg: Springer.

Hart, J. (2011). Social learning handbook synopsis. Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies. Retrieved from: http://c4lpt.co.uk/social-learning-handbook/social-learning-handbook-synopsis/.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learning. Review of Educational Research, 79(2), 702-739.

One response to “Thinking of doing some professional development for teaching?

  1. rebekhawrites 4 December, 2013 at 13:45

    Great tips Thembi, thank you. I particularly like your suggested use of Twitter to support teaching practice and the Think-Pair-Share concept, both of which I will try!

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