Book review: Transformational Professional Learning

This is a useful, if flawed, overview of different approaches to professional development and their relative strengths and weaknesses, writes Clare Sealy

Clare Sealy

Book cover: Transformational Professional Learning

Transformational Professional Learning: making a difference in schools 

Author: Deborah M Netolicky
Publisher: Routledge
Details: 160pp; £29.99
ISBN: 978-0367341749

The trouble with having the word “transformational” in a title is that you set yourself up for a fall. Surely, thinks the reader, if I read this, I will experience a deep – nay, transformational – shift in my understanding. The earth will move, the scales will fall from my eyes, my cup will runneth over. 

Inevitably then, with the bar set so high, this book disappoints. 

However, if we overlook the false promises inherent in that particular adjective, this book gives a useful overview of different approaches to professional development and their relative strengths and weaknesses. 

If the diagnosis of the problems is more engaging than the sections on possible solutions, that’s maybe less a criticism of the book and more a criticism of reality. For, as author Deborah Netolicky explains, the disappointing message from different researchers is that we simply do not yet know what helps teachers improve. 

Underwhelming conclusion

After surveying the research on several different approaches to professional learning, she comes to this underwhelming conclusion: “Professional learning that transforms teachers’ and school leaders’ beliefs and practices can happen in diverse ways and in a variety of sometimes unexpected contexts.” 

Still, if that is what the research indicates, then so be it; Netolicky has done us a service in reading the research and sharing it with us. Not liking the conclusion is not the same as not liking the book. The truth, however unpalatable, is preferable to false promises.

If she is slightly more optimistic than the research she cites, that’s because she describes herself as a “pracademic”: someone who straddles both the world of academia and school as a teacher and school leader as well as teaching classes and leading on professional learning in Perth, Western Australia. Her work developing other teachers lends her a gentle optimism that there are approaches worth trying. 

Most have some sympathy with Netolicky’s diagnosis of the problem with much that passes for professional learning. Within a climate of hyperaccountability, it is often reduced to a model of identifying teacher quality as the main barrier to improved student outcomes

Transformational learning

This is inevitably problematic, as anything involving humans tends to be. When both students and teachers are messy, idiosyncratic human beings, straightforward, mechanistic professional-learning solutions that over-rely on generic solutions and dubious data are bound to fail to deliver on their promises. 

What is more, Netolicky reminds us that you don’t change a teacher simply by giving them better information. What really changes people is not just informational learning but transformational learning, that is “actively changing how a person knows though shifts in cognition, emotion and capacity”. 

A teacher’s beliefs need to be engaged and altered if this kind of deep change is going to become a reality. Altering how a teacher acts involves changing their sense of identity, and this requires “critical reflection, dialogue with self and others, awareness of context and authentic relationships”. 

Which on the face of it sounds very uplifting, until you start to reflect on how, exactly, you help a teacher who isn’t very reflective become so, or guide someone who is reflective but ill-informed? What’s an authentic relationship? Does authenticity overcome shortcomings in knowledge about what might work better?

Discomfort and dissent

The chapter on collaborative professional learning is perhaps the most useful. It blows away any easy assumptions that if we all just did loads of lesson studies and collaborative learning, then everything would be fine.

Since this approach is often peddled as a panacea to top-down approaches, it is good to have a rigorous analysis of what needs to happen for this to be effective. Putting people together in a room to tell each other how wonderful they are won’t cut it. 

Netolicky stresses that feeling good does not mean learning is happening and that discomfort and dissent are an important part of the process. 

In the opening chapter, Netolicky cites research about what teachers want from professional learning. In the US, teachers want to learn more about the content they teach, classroom management, teaching students with special needs and using technology in the classroom. These are requests for knowledge, not directing oneself to understand how best to teach a child with autism or how to get the most out of Google Drive.

In the understandable repudiation of overly top-down, mechanistic and accountability driven models of professional learning, it is important we don’t go overboard and throw out any notions of an expert sharing evidence-informed or tested ways of doing things in the name of “owning solutions” or “self-efficacy”. 

Genuine self-efficacy floats on a sea of competence and prior knowledge: knowledge that experienced others should not fear sharing, albeit in an appropriate, respectful and empowering way. 

No silver bullet

Netolicky stresses that coaching is no silver bullet and needs people who are self-reflective to be effective. It also is one strategy among others, with the need for “the kind of expert feedback of the instructional coaching or consulting model”.

However, it was precisely the difference between instruction coaching, mentoring and the kind of self-directed coaching that could have done with more discussion. Instead, instructional coaching is subsumed in the section on coaching in general, despite very real differences in approach, which are touched on only briefly. 

The work of Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood on instructional coaching seems pertinent here.Sims and Fletcher-Wood argue that instructional coaching is highly effective because it takes into consideration that novice teachers need different kinds of guidance from more expert ones: something with which anyone with a passing acquaintance with cognitive science will be familiar. 

Novice teachers need modelling and scaffolding; experienced teachers learn better from opportunities to reflect on their extensive experience. I don’t think that Netolicky would disagree with this. 

It is a shame, however, that the different learning needs, and hence models of professional learning, are not specifically addressed within this chapter, and that instructional coaching, despite the evidence that it might be highly effective or even transformational, does not receive more detailed examination.

Clare Sealy is head of curriculum and standards for Guernsey

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