Teacher professional learning and the role of universities

The 2010 Donaldson Report on teacher education (Teaching Scotland’s Future – http://tinyurl.com/kl8opeg) reaffirmed the central role of Scotland’s Universities in the lifelong professional learning of teachers. Subsequently, there have been protracted negotiations with the goal of establishing university/local authority partnerships. Such policy stands in contrast to the situation in England, where there has been a sustained attack on university education departments, as initial teacher raining has been increasingly moved into the ‘real world’ environment of the school, and as the role and the funding of university Schools of Education have been cut. Thus, ostensibly, Scottish Universities seem well placed to continue to participate in teacher education, both in formally accredited programmes within the university, and in teacher professional learning activity out in the community. And yet, there remains, in some quarters, scepticism about what the universities can offer. Aren’t they full of ivory tower academics, divorced from the real world? Isn’t there truth in the old adage, ‘those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers’?

In the light of the current popularity of teacher learning communities, for example Learning Rounds, I would argue strongly against such notions.  I wish to illustrate why drawing upon an example of a recent collaboration with a local authority. The initiative in question brought together 20 teachers, from 4 schools, with two academics (both ex-teachers, now involved in research). The project lasted for a year, seven sessions (one full day introductory session, and six half day workshops). The focus was curriculum development through collaborative professional enquiry (see, Reeves and Fox, below). This twin focus allowed teachers to work collaboratively from the ground up, to address practice issues, but at the same time sought to avoid a problem with many such programmes: namely that the participating teachers simply developed small scale initiatives, in their own classrooms, that quickly became divorced from the big ideas of the curriculum. This goal was achieved as follows:

  • The first session included substantial input on school-based curriculum development, introducing a process to make sense of the big ideas of the curriculum (curricular goals and purposes), then to develop practices (content and methods) that were fit for purpose.
  • Each of the participating schools was represented by a group of teachers from across the career range, including senior managers. This helped to keep the focus on whole school issues.
  • Subsequently, the teachers were encouraged to justify their innovations in relation to the big ideas of the curriculum, helping to ensure that practices remained focused on being fit for purpose.

The initiative was extremely successful and highly regarded by the participating teachers. For example, one participant (a secondary teacher) described her school’s involvement in these terms:

“Collaborative professional enquiry has given us the confidence to work on something we really believe in, knowing that there are other staff working on the same thing. It provides a structure to ask and investigate important questions about education, with the knowledge that our primary focus is on the learning experience for our pupils”.

Innovations included the developing of questioning by pupils across the age range in a primary school, the development of metacognitive skills through the use of SOLO taxonomy (http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/solo.htm) and the introduction of common approaches to data handling skills across a number of subject departments.

So what did university academics add to this process?  It might be argued that schools should be running this sort of process themselves, or at the very least Education Scotland can or should fulfil this role. I would suggest that university researchers are better placed to act in this capacity, due to their grounding in research findings and research practices. Arguably, the most important facet is what might be described as evidence-informed ‘interruption of practice’. Teacher learning communities, such as that described above, can tend to be inward looking and circular, leading to the unreflective continuation of existing practices, the application of yesterday’s answers to today’s problem, and even reinforced ignorance. In the project described above, the researchers brought new perspectives, as outsiders. These perspectives were rooted in multiple, international research projects looking at similar issues being addressed by the teachers. The researchers sourced relevant research literature to inform the projects pursued by each group of teachers. And they provided, and facilitated a process of engagement which was new to these teachers. In short, they helped the teachers to look differently at their working practices, and to develop new and innovative approaches.

Could the teachers have done this without the impetus provided by the researchers? Possibly! Would the project and its outcomes have been so successful? I would argue not.


Reeves, J. & Fox, A. (eds) (2008). Practice-Based Learning: Developing Excellence in Teaching. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press.

CfE and bureaucracy

It has been fascinating to watch the recent media coverage of the debates about the increase in paperwork and bureaucratisation within Curriculum for Excellence. First, we saw a piece in Times Educational Supplement, reporting that Ken Muir of Education Scotland was suggesting that CfE has become weighed down by excessive paperwork (http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6334965). Now, Education Secretary Mike Russell has weighed into the debate, saying that CfE should engender “clarity” and that schools, head teachers and councils should not distort the new curriculum with “a smokescreen of bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork” (see the Scotsman http://tinyurl.com/l5ktbmk ).  Accompanying this media coverage of the bureaucratic demands of CfE on teachers, was an interesting letter in the Herald, presumably from a teacher, saying that CfE has also become a relentless paper chase for pupils (http://tinyurl.com/lbw5f93).

I agree wholeheartedly with these observations, and am saddened that such a promising policy is not yet living up to its potential.  However, it is unhelpful to blame teachers. Instead we should be asking why we have come to such a situation, and how we might remedy it.

Some of these themes emerged in our research. We found, for example, that many primary teachers clearly perceived curriculum development to consist mainly of assessing, recording and reporting against outcomes. Such views are likely to derive from assessment driven philosophies encouraged under the former 5-14 system, but have clearly been magnified by the trajectory of CfE as a policy. I believe that part of this derives from a fundamental design fault in CfE, highlighted in 2010 by Walter Humes and me. This relates to the structure of CfE, an inherently developmental curriculum framed initially around big ideas and an aspiration to encourage open practice, but then articulated as pre-specified outcomes. Such policy encourages, in my view, a convergent approach to curriculum development, as many schools seek to tick off the outcomes (see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/2110).

This tension has, I believe, been exacerbated by the subsequent development of CfE since the early days. Early documentation demonstrated a sensitivity towards the dangers of assessment driving the curriculum, however more recent developments reveal a shift in emphasis, making clear an expectation that the Es & Os are assessment standards. The 2007 overarching cover paper for the draft Es & Os was explicit that this should not be the case, stating that they ‘are not designed as assessment criteria in their own right’. However, subsequently, this situation has changed, BTC5 (2010) describing them as ‘standards for assessment’. It is difficult, therefore, to see how they are different to the previous 5-14 attainment targets, which came to be used primarily for assessment purposes. The situation has been further exacerbated by the decision in many local authorities to assess against not only each E & O, but to utilise a three level scale within each level: 1] Developing; 2] Consolidating; and 3] Secure.  Such developments reveal a continued preoccupation with assessment, recording and reporting, which potentially both increases teacher workload and limits the aspirational scope of CfE to broaden education through school-based innovation. And of course, schools and teachers continue to be subject to accountability systems that value attainment above other measures of success – inspections, local authority audits, comparator league tables, etc.

So, is it surprising that CfE has become bogged down in paperwork and bureaucracy? I would welcome response to this question (as comments replying to this post).