Steps on a shared journey to ideals

18th August 2006 at 01:00
Professional development, reflection and enquiry. By Christine Forde, Margery McMahon, Alastair D McPhee and Fiona Patrick. Sage pound;19.99

Teachers aren't puppets for policymakers, they are individuals with the power and duty to make changes. But the best reflection is group reflection, Sara Bubb discovers

Wow, this book has some inspiring ideas. If you're looking for tips about professional development it will disappoint, but it has much food for thought on teacher professionalism. It comes at a perfect time as schools try to mesh school improvement with performance management, new standards for various career stages and staff development. For in looking at training and development it's all too easy to lose sight of the big picture: namely, seeing individuals in the wider contexts in which they function and thinking about what it means to be a professional. This shouldn't be seen as a purely academic debate but ought to be fundamental to everything we do.

The authors' research into how PGCE students develop a professional identity reminded me of a display board I saw recently in a newly qualified teacher's Year 1 class. It was separated into three headings - reading, writing, maths - with labels for the various national curriculum sub-levels, from "w" (working towards level 1) at the bottom to "2a" at the top. Each label had children's names stuck on to it, representing the sub-level they had reached. I was appalled to see five and six-year-olds so explicitly and publicly put into a pecking order, in the name of "assessment for learning".

When the new teacher justified it by telling me that it was school policy, I was even more shocked and disappointed that this intelligent, principled new teacher had acquiesced.

People come into teaching because they want to help young people, have a passion for their subject and want some degree of autonomy. But how do they hold on to their professional identity in the face of cultural, social and political tensions? Should individuals roll over and work with whatever policies come along? Or should they challenge things because - like the boy's thoughts about the emperor's new clothes - perhaps the fresh eyes of a new teacher can help spot stupidity? So many crazy things go on nowadays for spurious reasons such as "Ofsted wants it", rather than because it's good for children and therefore the right thing to do. If teachers are professionals, surely they should sit up and defend their principles?

So, this book gets you thinking. Well written, with an attractive layout and a consistently clear voice, it draws on wide and up-to-date research and writing from all parts of the United Kingdom. The explanations and critique of the professional and career development system in Scotland - the four authors are based at Glasgow University - is particularly fascinating. It's good to see soundbites from the TES online staffroom: a popular forum for the kind of professional debate that people in school staffrooms are too busy to have.

Reflection is given thorough consideration. As the late education philosopher Terry McLaughlin said, is a reflective teacher necessarily a good teacher? Reflection can be seen as an end in itself, but a self-indulgent stream of consciousness won't necessarily make a difference.

The authors remind us that nobody remembers accurately or fully, especially when recalling the stressful contexts that occur in the classroom, and so an individual's reflection may be flawed and confirm erroneous views.

Reflection through talking or solving a problem with someone may be more beneficial. For instance, observation can be a great opportunity for reflective discussion, with benefits for the observer and the observed if it's done well. But the big problem about focusing attention on reflection is that it suggests that change is easy. The authors recognise that it is not, as Jenny Reeves, director of continuing professional development (CPD) at the London Institute, and others have explored, concluding that individuals can't change "without the acquiescence, compliance and participation of others". It needs a whole-school approach to develop a professional learning community that makes a difference.

The authors describe how schemes such as the Scottish Qualification for Headship meet up to a handy three-score measurement of CPD: reflecting on practice, acquiring new skills and knowledge, and sharing practice and experience with others. That's what's good about initiatives such as Chartered London Teacher Status (see for details), because although it recognises that people reflect on teaching and learning all the time, it asks for reflection on a specific piece of work which is grounded in day-to-day practice at school and addresses something that needs to be improved or analyses why something successful works well.

There are no easy answers in this book, but plenty of powerful ideas that might help us ask useful questions about how CPD encourages a commitment to professional and personal growth, and increases self-confidence, job satisfaction and enthusiasm for working with children and colleagues. This is what being a professional is all about.

Sara Bubb works at the Institute of Education, University of London ( Her book Helping Teachers Develop, pound;15.99, is published by Sage in association with The TES

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