`Don't plough your own furrow'

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
National CPD coordinator says the profession needs shared endeavour

Teachers in Scotland too often just "plough their own furrow" with little thought of what happens in neighbouring classrooms, according to one of the country's most influential figures in continuing professional development.

National CPD coordinator Margaret Alcorn told a coaching and mentoring conference that attitudes to sharing learning had not progressed enough. This was one of the biggest barriers to progress in Scottish education, she warned.

She believes teachers should be spending more time with each other, and drew a parallel with research showing that deaths were significantly reduced when heart surgeons observed each other at work.

Her own time as a principal teacher of English provided a model of what not to do.

"I wanted to be the best department in the school," she said. "If other departments weren't doing well, I thought, `Hey-ho, it makes me look better.' That culture is still alive."

The kind of shared endeavour that was standard in countries such as Finland still "doesn't really happen" in Scotland.

"I believe that's one of the biggest barriers to progress," she said.

Most people agreed on who were the best - and worst - teachers in a school, she added. But "we don't then say, `What is that great teacher doing?'"

Mrs Alcorn, who now works within Education Scotland, drew on observations of schools she had visited recently, such as one where staff in a new building did not speak to colleagues in an old building.

"Where is the focus on learning in that context?" she asked.

There was a danger of teachers losing sight of the point of their job.

One had told Mrs Alcorn: "I'm a very good teacher - just because the children don't choose to learn doesn't make me a bad teacher."

That teacher had put together "brilliant resources", Mrs Alcorn said, but had "forgotten that the measure of success is that children are learning".

Similarly, Mrs Alcorn had concerns about a modern studies teacher who told her: "I love my subject. I wish I loved my kids as much as my subject."

She would like schools to have a "coacherly disposition", a term she credited to the University of Edinburgh's emeritus professor Pamela Munn.

That was hard to define, but would involve plenty of "creative activity", and no culture of blame; teachers would observe one another regularly and jointly delve into professional learning.

"Professional learning is utterly essential if you're talking about pupil learning," said the University of Glasgow's Christine Forde at the same event. "For me, professional learning is a tool to enrich pupil learning consistently."

Teaching had to be a profession that "asks critical questions about ideas and theory", said the professor of leadership and professional learning. "If we are not critical we are not professional," she added.

Professor Forde cited University of Auckland professional learning expert Helen Timperley (see panel) in stressing that teaching must be "theoretically underpinned".

"If you focus only on experiential pedagogies, you miss a trick," said Professor Forde, who also saw advantages in "problem-based learning" as practised in the medical profession.

She underlined, too, that "we shouldn't shy away from more didactic functions" in teaching: these were sometimes necessary.

The conference, which was held in Ayr, was organised by the International Professional Development Association and the University of the West of Scotland. Delegates came from beyond Scotland and from backgrounds other than teaching, including health.


Working together

Professor Helen Timperley's essential points for "substantive change" in teaching:

  • extended time for opportunities to learn;
  • access to external experts;
  • participation in professional learning communities;
  • supportive policy framework;
  • effective school leadership, with professional learning at heart of what one does as a leader.
    • Original headline: Teachers told not to `plough their own furrow'

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