The 2010 Donaldson Report on teacher education (Teaching Scotland’s Future – 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 ( 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.


5 thoughts on “Teacher professional learning and the role of universities

  1. Just a comment on teacher learning communities. I have been “trained” as a TLC facilitator by my authority and I would agree that they are indeed very insular and very much focused on the immediate challenges as you describe. I wouldn’t argue with the philosophy of TLCs as colleagues getting together in a community of learning; furthering/sharing their knowledge of pedagogy, curriculum development or whatever but all too often, in my experience, the learning is only about addressing an immediate situation. Very often, it is little more than internal housekeeping. Little is done to research current thinking or any engagement with wider issues beyond their school. I would agree that there is a role for universities in the professional development of teachers because there would then be the essential element of deeper and broader exposure to a wider community of learning and current research than there may be at present. With the added bonus, of course, of an academic on hand to keep the learning focused. Just a thought.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It is worth adding (from my perspective) that academics also gain considerably from working in this way with teachers. Reminds me of the real reason I came into this game!

  2. I have been heavily involved in writing material for a N4/5 Chemistry course. I decided to try to in-build skills, literacy and numeracy so that they were not add-ons to be ignored when time was tight and to try and allow pupils the opportunity to make wider connections as well as linear ones.

    Being out of the comfort zone, this led to comments at a DM such as…
    -but this will reduce attainment
    -it’s not the same format as the worksheets
    -we’ve all just copied, pasted and added to our existing worksheets, why do you have to be different?
    -I can’t teach that way.
    -the pupils don’t learn if they don’t get a set of notes.
    -you’re confused: this isn’;t the BGE phase, this is the Senior Phase.

    I would support the thread above when there is a hint that schools and authorities subvert new methodologies of working to their own end.

    It was a very revealing exercise. If interested, I’ll tell you how a form of resolution was reached!

  3. The resolution was to spend a few hours ‘spacebarring’ a gap after each question to give a bit on the worksheet for the pupil to write on!

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