By now most people have probably chuckled over the story of the many millions of dollars that were spent by the US in developing a space-efficient pen for use in manned space flights. They needed to be sure it would operate in weightless conditions, extremes of temperature, etc. They succeeded of course, after many prototypes, but in the meantime the Russians were using pencils.
The publication of the National Partnership Group's report to the cabinet secretary last month is to be welcomed with its renewed focus on teachers' professional learning. There is, however, a risk that in the search for consensus and shared values among the partners, the report, made up of 26 pages, 20 proposals and six annexes, could be viewed as overly complex.
Over many years working with authorities and schools, those of us in the National CPD Team came to the conclusion that good CPD can be described fairly simply. We learned that it is essentially collaborative rather than individual and takes account of research evidence that indicates that the strongest influence on teacher choice of content and approach is the guidance and support of other teachers. It acknowledges that the drive for change cannot be imposed externally but must be owned by teachers, and that the capacity to lead learning and develop improved practice already exists in every school.
It's as simple - and as complicated - as that. The hard bit is to embed that level of excellence as standard for every teacher.
Many schools can demonstrate the success that follows from focusing on simple actions that shape a learning culture. These might include opportunities to coach and be coached, and developing a shared commitment to valuing innovation and creative practice. In these schools, non-evaluative feedback builds teacher confidence in relation to pupil learning, and there is an expectation that teachers will develop, extend and strengthen their curricular and subject knowledge and understanding. This is combined with a strong focus on building expertise in teaching practice and pedagogy. In learning schools, teachers share the responsibility of providing better opportunities for inter-disciplinary, self-directed learning.
To achieve this culture of learning, a different approach to professional development is helpful - one that challenges many of the current ways of working that exist locally and nationally. For example, we know that deep learning occurs for pupils when they are given the chance to explore their ideas and thinking with others. How can we recreate this experience routinely for teachers?
We need to lead and guide colleagues to understanding, rather than giving them answers. To do this we need to move away from traditional "sheep-dip" CPD, when we bring teachers together to tell them what we think they need to know, provide endless examples of "best practice" and send them off with an expectation that things will now be different.
We need to evaluate all the "support packs" that arrive in school in terms of the impact they have on improved learning experiences for young people.
A genuine commitment to this "So what?" may mean taking some difficult decisions. For example, there is no doubt that the Scottish Learning Festival is a popular event for the thousands of teachers able to attend, but can we show evidence that it results in changed practice?
Should we not be thinking differently about how we can spread the opportunity to many more teachers in areas where access to the SECC is less easy? Can we begin to capitalise more on our investment in technology to develop what the Donaldson report described as "more local, team-based approaches that centre on self-evaluation and professional collaboration, and achieve an appropriate blend of tailored individual development and school improvement"? How about an SLF roadshow that uses social networking and our national intranet in new and interesting ways?
Over a number of years, the work of the national CPD network, and the national CPD team, illustrated the untapped power of some strategies that we already have in place in schools. For example, where schools have transformed professional review and development (PRD) from a monitoring exercise that results in a shopping list being given to the CPD leaders to an on-going, coaching relationship that builds leadership capacity and challenges teachers to take forward their own learning in new and innovative ways, this has led to real improved learning for pupils.
The Learning Rounds programme has enabled teachers to identify new strategies for shared personal and collegial development by creating opportunities for all teachers to observe each other regularly, to discuss teaching and learning and to share new ideas and practice. In addition, support for newly qualified teachers and the Flexible Route to Headship programme have contributed to the development of coaching cultures in many schools.
These strategies can deliver high impact on learning and be developed locally, by teachers for teachers.
There is a real task here for Professor Petra Wend and the National Implementation Board as they take forward this important work in making sure that we support teachers with clear and unequivocal messages of expectation, linked with a greater level of trust accorded to teachers in identifying the best CPD for their context.
We need better tools that support teachers in this task. We need models of evaluation of CPD that measure what's important and not what is easily measured.
Sometimes a pencil is all you need.
Margaret Alcorn is the former National CPD Coordinator.