Learning to Teach: Teaching to Learn

by Kristen Weatherby
Senior Analyst, Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)

If you are a teacher, chances are the scene in this photo looks very familiar to you. You’ve probably spent quite a few hours in a room similar to this as part of a professional development conference, course or seminar. You’ve listened to the speakers, possibly done some group work with other teachers in the room and then returned to your school. Perhaps you’ve come away inspired and have been able to apply some of what you’ve learned in your teaching. Or maybe you have found it difficult to transfer the content from the course back to the unique context of your school and classroom.

One thing we have learned from surveying teachers around the world as part of our Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is that teachers everywhere want more professional development. On average across countries, 55% of teachers are telling us this. In some countries, continued professional development is an integral part of teachers’ yearly objective-setting and evaluation process. Yet in others the opportunities for teachers to take advantage of professional development may be dwindling – particularly in these difficult economic times. In 2008, teachers told us that the main barriers preventing them from participating in more professional development activities were a conflict with their work schedule (47%) and a lack of available and suitable programmes available (42%). In today’s difficult economic times, schools facing budget cuts might also be less willing to let teachers leave for development opportunities, as these entail considerable cost, not only in fees, travel expenses, and any teacher stipend that might be provided, but also in finding a substitute teacher to cover the classes. What can be done to help give teachers the support they need?

The latest Teaching in Focus brief, “Fostering Learning Communities among Teachers”, discusses how teachers can create and participate in co-operative professional development activities. These are different from the traditional conferences, workshops or seminars that might be held in a hotel ballroom. They includes activities that can often be achieved within the teacher’s own school, such as participating in a teacher network, mentoring, coaching and observing other teachers. On average, only about a third of teachers who reported receiving professional development described it as co-operative professional development.

TALIS asked teachers to report whether they participated in certain activities at school that could indicate the presence of professional learning communities in their schools. A professional learning community can be defined as a school-wide community “aim[ed] at continuous improvement of teaching practices by involving staff in in-depth, systematic, collaborative activities of professional development at the school level.” (Hord, 1997) TALIS found that in many countries, basic forms of co-operation among teachers are common, but collaborating on the core of their professional activities – as professional learning communities require – is much less common.

A professional learning community within school can offer support for teachers where and when they need it.  However, according to TALIS data, such communities are few and far between. Giving teachers access to more professional development opportunities within their own schools might benefit individual teachers while providing the first step toward a professional learning community for the school as a whole.

To learn more about this topic, check out this month’s Teaching in Focus brief. Look for further Teaching in Focus briefs on topics relevant to the experience of teachers in the coming months.
Follow TALIS and Kristen Weatherby @Kristen_Talis
Photo credit: Interior of a Congress Palace, conference hall / Shutterstock

Leave a Reply