Courses are one way to fill your CPD hours, but research shows teachers learn far more from each other. Close professional networks offer beneficial avenues for sharing good practice and materials, writes Matthew Boyle
Everyone knows that continuing professional development does not just mean going on a course. Yet my experience of visiting schools over recent years suggests that, despite this, CPD budgets are almost all spent on courses which tie in with a teacher's annual needs review (or sometimes just availability).
The cartoonist Scott Adams, who writes Dilbert, pokes fun at the course culture by having one of his characters return from a course saying he'll put the binder with all the others as a permanent, living monument to temporary knowledge.
There is a little bit of truth in this joke. Research indicates that teachers do not tend to learn anything like as much from formal courses as they do from each other.
Learning researchers Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger describe "communities of practice" in which a workplace develops its own way of working and talking, and newcomers are slowly admitted from the periphery as they become more like the well established practitioners. This model holds true in many workplaces, and staffrooms are no exception.
When I interviewed people recently about their learning in schools, only one mentioned (briefly) a formal course that explored how they thought they had become good teachers. The rest mentioned only mentors, great teams they had been in during development, great headteachers or principal teachers.
Courses are very important. They give us fresh views and material to prevent us becoming insular, but the bulk of our learning comes from working together.
In England, under the National College for School Leadership's Networked Learning Group, set up in 2002, the learning culture has been fostered in small school networks which adopt their own names, learning themes and mission to learn from each other.
The Department for Education and Skills has funded this generously, and even before the four-year project has been completed, the successes are so obvious that the Government has announced all primaries in England have a right to be part of a small, network. What has been learned about how to make this happen has been distilled into a pack of guidance materials available to all.
These networks are a revelation to see in practice. They proudly declare themselves to be "gift cultures" in which people want to share what they have learned with each other, and so teachers are challenged and supported by ideas from partner schools in a non-threatening way.
They have embraced the idea that we learn best in relationships with other people. If the relationship is mainly with others from your own school, there are not enough new ideas; with five or six partner schools forming networked learning communities, there are always enough new ideas to provide challenge, along with the comfort of belonging to a group that is trying to grow together and look out for each other. The most successful networks often use a critical friend to push and support them, such as a local academic or a retired head.
So what are the actual practices they use that we could adopt?
Recognising the power of relationships, many people with ideas to share are being trained as coaches to help others develop. This could even be to deal with difficulties such as classroom indiscipline or time management.
"Learning walks" have been adopted, whereby a teacher or a group of teachers (sometimes with pupils) visit each other's schools to learn about a particular topic, such as classroom displays or how science technician support works best. After the "learning walk", a report, often with photographs or work examples, will be disseminated so that everyone can share in the good ideas.
Sometimes teachers or managers will swap jobs for a few days to talk to different people and see how different approaches are working, and then return with a wealth of new thinking and a wider network of professional friends to help solve problems when the need arises.
Sometimes a teacher may choose to research a challenge, such as integrating more physical activity into the school day, and to produce a report from a combination of school visits and library or internet research. After the paper is disseminated, discussion groups meet prior to implementing ideas.
As a result of close networking, there are more opportunities to form professional working groups. Headteachers meet more regularly, a network co-leadership group is formed, principal teachers meet regularly and special interest groups, such as information technology development groups, meet regularly. The networks have conferences and staff training together and share costs.
Cynics may suggest this is a way to reduce budgets, but CPD budgets will be spent just as completely on a healthier mixture of courses and networked learning. And perhaps it will create more people-centred learning experiences to fulfil the needs of learning teachers in learning schools.
Matthew Boyle is a CPD quality improvement officer for Argyll and Bute and former consultant on thinking skills and school improvement.'Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation' by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (CUP, 1991)National College for School Leadership, www.ncsl.org.uk