There are two things, it seems, that everyone involved in education can agree on. First, we all know that teachers make a difference, and that all our ambitions and aspirations for Curriculum for Excellence depend fundamentally on supporting and challenging the practice of teachers. The second is that the way to do this is through good continuing professional development. But - and here's the rub - what is good CPD?
The answer of course is complex - what works for some will not necessarily meet the needs of others, and the traditional model of an annual catalogue of pick `n' mix events that teachers can dip into is no longer good enough in terms of offering personalisation, choice and flexibility. Teachers are looking for CPD which addresses their current situation, which is collaborative and which impacts on teaching and the learning of pupils.
Continuing professional development is changing. Teachers are taking ownership of their learning, and seeking new ways to learn. They need opportunities to update their knowledge and to develop the curriculum. But, increasingly, they are also seeking ways to build their capacity and confidence in terms of leading learning in their classrooms. In a time of economic difficulty, they are looking to make best use of the resources that they have ready access to and, in most cases, that will include the skills and expertise of their colleagues.
On our visits to schools, we have seen a big increase in strategies to support the idea of "teachers teaching teachers". Colleagues are undertaking peer observation and discussing what they have seen. In many schools and clusters, learning communities are being established, and teachers are exploring creative and innovative ways to make a difference to pupil learning. Many authorities have invested resources in developing a coaching culture in their schools and centres, and there are many different models of peer and team coaching being evolved.
What is clear is that real progress is being made in schools and clusters where staff discuss and explore key issues around learning and teaching. One example of this is the development of professional learning communities, to which Ian Smith referred in The TESS, October 23. PLCs create opportunities for staff to collaborate and learn together. They enable staff to meet in an organised but NOT prescriptive way. They move learning away from content mandated by others to content being defined by the learner's perceptions of needs.
In other schools, all staff are encouraged to assume whole-school remits. This leads to a backwash effect on learning and combats isolation. In these schools, leadership patterns ensure that people don't think of their responsibilities in terms of boxes but in whole-school terms.
Recently, the Learning Rounds programme has taken such thinking to a new level by involving a wide range of educators in discussing education systems, and how these can be changed to transform learning and teaching. By developing an evidence-based methodology, based on groups of colleagues observing practice together, new insights are emerging to shape future systems at school and authority level.
This system-wide change is not about change at the level of one or two teachers, but across a school and indeed an authority. The experience of focused, shared observation deepens at a stroke staff understanding about what makes good learning and teaching. More importantly, it accelerates consensus on what they as a staff will do to improve practice across the school. And let's not get caught up on it costing too much. There are times in the year when it can be done with little in the way of additional cover.
The development of Glow, the schools intranet, also offers a whole new world of opportunities to teachers. We are no longer constrained by the quality of what's on offer in our own wee part of the world; we can engage in dialogue, discussion and shared learning with colleagues from all over Scotland and, indeed, from other nations. Everyone has access to the best resources and, through Glow Meet and Glow Groups, they can also collaborate and share learning.
The best news of all, of course, is that many of these "new" kinds of CPD are free or, at least, less expensive than off-site training for individuals. Staffroom conversations, learning breakfasts, departmental and stage meetings, showcasing school or cluster practice - all of these are excellent continuing professional development opportunities which have the potential to make a big difference to the learning of children and young people at little cost. In the current economic climate, this makes good sense.
At the core of the national CPD team's work is a firm commitment to helping everyone across the school system to access good professional development, and to work with our partners to build capacity focused on the transformational change of Curriculum for Excellence.
In The TESS, October 30, former education minister Peter Peacock made reference to the fact that "sustained improvement will most likely come through better teacher quality and leadership". It is important that CPD enables every Scottish teacher to access the right opportunities to grow and develop to achieve this improvement.
Margaret Alcorn is national co-ordinator for CPD.