Final words on a boost for professional development - Open letter

4th January 2013 at 00:00

Dear Michael,

The ideas which I have put to you in previous weeks have been derived from a wide variety of sources. But the central messages are probably best summarised in the work of the US educator Richard Elmore.

Here are some extracts from a paper by Professor Elmore. Perhaps ask yourself two questions. One, do you agree with what is being said? Two, how much of this already happens in Scottish education?

"In order to progress from reforms ... to changes in student performance, one has to assume that changes in policy and organisation will result in a different kind of teaching, which will in turn result in a different kind of learning for students, who will in turn demonstrate this learning by doing better on measures of performance. One key element missing in this formulation, however, is the knowledge required for teachers and administrators to engage in a different kind of teaching and learning. Policies, by themselves, don't impart new knowledge; they create the occasion for educators to seek new knowledge and turn that knowledge into new practice. Hence, professional development is the main link connecting policy to practice ...

"We know a good deal about the characteristics of successful professional development: it focuses on concrete classroom applications of general ideas; it exposes teachers to actual practice rather than to descriptions of practice; it involves opportunities for observation, critique, and reflection; it involves opportunities for group support and collaboration; and it involves deliberate evaluation and feedback by skilled practitioners with expertise about good teaching ...

"In District 2, professional development has a very different meaning from (the) conventional model ... Professional development is what administrative leaders do when they are doing their jobs, not a specialised function that some people in the organisation do and others don't. Instructional improvement is the main purpose of district administration, and professional development is the chief means of achieving that purpose. Anyone with line administrative responsibility in the organisation has responsibility for professional development as a central part of his or her job description ...

"A third reform of professional development in District 2 is a heavy reliance on peer networks and visits to other sites, inside and outside the district, designed to bring teachers and principals into contact with exemplary practices. Intervisitation, as it is called in the district, and peer consultations are routine parts of the district's daily life."

Cabinet Secretary, some of this goes on in Scotland. But not enough: we do not have sufficient education authority staff who are immersed in the culture of District 2. We should learn from Professor Elmore.

And so my letters to you stop, Michael. If you have enjoyed reading them even half as much as I enjoyed writing them, it has all been worthwhile.

Yours sincerely, Iain

Iain Smith was at one time a dean of education in the University of Strathclyde. He writes in a personal capacity.

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