Dissonance between teachers’ beliefs and practice … and what that might cause

I was reading an edited collection over the weekend (Teachers Learning: Professional Development and Education, McLaughlin, 2012) and a connected pair of papers particularly struck a chord. Authored by Darlene Opfer and David Pedder, they discuss observations arising from the large-scale State of the Nation review of teacher CPD, and in which they explore teachers’ likelihood of change as a consequence of their orientation to learning. In particular, whether dissonance between teachers’ values and beliefs, and their experience and practice acts to stimulate or repress the need to undertake professional learning. This was precipitated by the observation that, though we know quite well now those features associated with effective professional development, we still find occasions where even when those features are present, some people don’t learn, yet at other times, in absence of those features some people still learn.

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“Evaluating Professional Development” – Guskey

This was a book I selected to see whether the ways in which we evaluate professional development might have something to bring to the table for my study of professional learning. A post outlining how we distinguish between professional development (PD) and professional learning (PL) will be forthcoming as I move forward in my understanding. My back of a beermat, pencil sketch of that is currently that PD is formal, top-down, target-driven activities designed to improve the knowledge, skills and practice of educators. Professional learning on the other hand is less-formal, self-initiated (and serendipitous) learning events which achieve the same ends. Guskey defines PD as follows:

those processes and activities designed to enhance the professional knowledge, skills and attitudes of educators, so they might in turn improve the learning of students. …

True PD is a deliberate process, guided by a clear vision of purposes and planned goals.

As a designed process with a manifest sense of intent, this is where I currently see the distinction from PL, however concede that I have yet to fully explore how others conceive it. Guskey summarises some of the ways PD can be organised and helpfully outlines the advantages and shortcomings which I’ve brought together here:

Model Notes Advantages Shortcomings
Training A presenter or presenters share their ideas and expertise through a variety of activities Efficient, cost-effective.

All participants will have a shared knowledge base and common vocabulary.

Little choice or individualisation.

Difficult to accommodate different levels of prior knowledge and experience.

Needs supplementary follow-up activities.

Observation/Assessment Uses collegial observation to provide educators with feedback on their performance. Provides benefits for observer and observed.Helps break down the isolation of teaching. Demands significant time commitment.

Care needed in separating observation/assessment process from evaluation.

Involvement in a development/improvement process. Educators brought together to develop or review new curriculum, plan strategies or solve particular problems. Increases knowledge and skills, whilst enhancing collaborative methods.

Establishes new cross-interest communities.

Closely linked in personal contexts.

Generally restricted to a limited number of staff.

Tradition or persuasively-argued opinions can force the agenda.

Study groups Entire staff (in groups of 4 – 6) work together to solve common problems.

(Powerful for facilitating curricular and pedagogical innovations)

Bring focus and coherence to improvement efforts.

Reduce sense of isolation by leveraging learning communities.

Emphasise ongoing nature of PD.

Potential that forthright individuals might dominate.

Owing to demands of time, study groups can lapse into decision- rather than research-based decisions.

Inquiry/action research Solving problems and finding answers to pressing problems. Helps educators become more reflective practitioners and more systematic problem-solvers. Requires significant initiative from those involved.

Can also require substantial commitments of time.

Individually guided activities Educators determine their own individual professional development goals and then select activities to help them achieve them. Flexible.

Offer choice and individualisation.

Potential for ‘re-inventing the wheel.’

Few opportunities for collaboration.

Notions of shared mission can be lost.

Mentoring Pairing of an experienced, successful educator with a less experienced colleague to discuss goals, ideas and strategies. Highly individualised.

Benefits both of those involved.

Can forge highly productive, professional relationships.

May limit opportunities for broader collaboration and collegiality.

He also outlines some of the principal models of evaluation, but emphasises that they crucially involve ‘the systematic investigation of merit and worth.’ Building on Kirpatrick’s (1979) evaluation model, Guskey offers five critical levels of evaluation, which are hierarchically arranged:

  1. Participants’ reactions
  2. Participants’ Learning
  3. Organisation support and change
  4. Participants’ use of new knowledge and skills
  5. Student learning outcomes.

(Read more about these levels here)

Guskey also bemoans the fact that most evaluation of PD is currently done at Level 1, if at all and that it is rare indeed to find evaluations which move beyond Level 2.

These levels largely make sense to me, although I have some reservations about Level 3 and the organisational structures and practices which can have an impact on the professional learning. I’d argue that those ought to have been part of the process that took place in planning the professional development programme prior to commencement. After all what’s the point of, for example, improving your pedagogies to accommodate tablet technologies if your school doesn’t have, nor intends to acquire, said technologies?

I can see most of the aforementioned models of PD in certain aspects of (what I’m currently calling) professional learning, perhaps with the exceptions of observation and mentoring. What I see less of, and this may  be where my study comes in, is of evaluation. This could of course be because that evaluation is being undertaken away from where the learning is taking place, so remains hidden. What is sometimes more evident however is examples of self-reflection and, albeit based only on anecdotal evidence, I’d that some of that does take place at the higher levels. It will be interesting to see whether those impressions can be supported by more concrete evidence.


Guskey, T. (2000). Evaluating professional development. Thousand Oaks ; London: Corwin Press.

Kirkpatrick, D. (1979). Techniques for Evaluating Training Programs. Training and Development Journal, 33(6), 78.

“Theories of Professional Learning”

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/21460106882 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Aimed at teacher educators, this guide is intended to support those involved in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) by providing a critical overview of some theories of professional learning that influence ITE. Those chosen include some with which I’m acquainted (experiential learning, pedagogical content knowledge, communities of practice), some I’ve merely heard of (cultural history activity theory) and other which are new to me (clinical practice models, craft knowledge and apprentice models). Although the title offers us ‘Theories’, we clearly have some models in here, though in describing learning, perhaps they perform similar functions? (What precisely is the difference between a theory and a model anyway? My feeling is that the former provides a more robust description/explanation of a set of circumstances, supported by systematically gained empirical evidence)

As the author points out, the different theories can be classified according to their focus:

  • On the individual mental processes which learners use or the social context within which the learning occurs.
  • How we learn or what we need to learn.
  • Those driven by empirical evidence and those built from theoretical models.

Might another distinction be the degree to which the learning is externally mandated by our circumstances (professional development?) or internally driven as a result of our passion and desire for self-improvement (professional learning?). In each chapter Philpott considers the implications of each theory for ITE and in some instances we see a degree of tension where the theory has arisen to explain an informal situation (e.g. communities of practice), but is being deployed to design learning opportunities. All of which encourages me to ruminate whether theories/models which have descriptive or explanatory power can be used to design learning.

The one chapter I didn’t mention above is that given over to the work of Michael Eraut and how people learn in workplace settings. Eraut sees the knowledge that people bring to their professional practice being formed from different constituent parts which are developed in different ways. One significant aspect of this is how knowledge is transferred between practitioners and the circumstances needed to facilitate that. This might have something to offer in interrogating what is happening when teachers say they’re learning from each other on Twitter. I definitely want to follow up the Eraut references and explore his work more deeply. (Anyone who uses wave-particle duality as an analogy for knowledge has to be worth reading!)

In bringing the book to a close, the author acknowledges how complex a process professional learning is and contends that

To maximise the value of professional learning opportunities, we need to carefully design them and actively facilitate them.

Which generated in me a degree of tension I need to resolve. I have always associated professional learning as a less formal, more user-driven process, so when I see opportunities being designed or facilitated, that feels to me more like professional development. Either this is a manifestation of a bias I need to acknowledge, or I need greater clarity in distinguishing between professional learning and professional development … or the most likely scenario, I misinterpreted what Philpott is saying!

Philpott, C., 2014. Theories of Professional Learning: A Critical Guide for Teacher Educators. Critical Publishing Ltd, Northwich.