Think about CPD together

29th May 2009 at 01:00

A lot of column inches have been devoted to teachers' concerns about staff development in this paper over the past months. Both the quantity and the quality of the CPD to support teachers in implementing A Curriculum for Excellence has been criticised.

The headline on May 8 read: "CPD `woefully inadequate'", which reported on a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland that suggested the curriculum reforms could collapse because there is not enough quality CPD for teachers. In the same edition, a teacher criticised its quality generally, saying he had spent days being "read to, patronised and angered by various `experts' who failed to engage with anyone in the room".

Experts "who have chosen to escape classroom life" had already come under attack from another correspondent on April 24, who rubbished ACfE as the "epitome of everything that is wrong with education", arguing that "learning to learn is not an essential skill" and "children are in school to learn the knowledge that teachers impart".

It would be easy for me to devote the rest of this column to fight back in defence of the significant role that outside experts can play in CPD, the importance of learning to learn and the need for curriculum change. It's been claimed we all have "noble certainties" - beliefs we hold onto at all costs. And these are certainly three beliefs I want to defend.

Better still, I could go on the attack against the anonymous correspondent as others have done. I could point out that he or she rubbished outside experts but quoted one to make their case - Chris Woodhead.

But what if I were to suggest that we need less heat and more light on teachers' continuing professional development, less debate and more dialogue on ACfE? As a profession, I might also suggest, we need to find a better way of thinking together about learning and teaching in general and ACfE in particular.

We need to do so because a lot of staff development isn't effective. But also because, over the next few years, economic realities will mean there will be fewer opportunities for teachers to get together at authority level, let alone national level. A contact told me recently that their authority normally runs over 200 courses a year; next year, less than 50 will be on offer.

This can be an opportunity, not a threat. Schools can use it to provide better quality development in-house by taking a different approach, which is less reliant on outside experts and which encourages teachers to think together about the complexities of learning and teaching.

But what do I mean when I talk about "thinking together" and "less debate and more dialogue"? For example: is there not some truth in the idea that much in-service is not effective and why is it that so many teachers feel that ACfE is being driven from the top down? Hardest of all for me: is there not actually some truth in what Chris Woodhead says, that children come to school to learn knowledge from teachers?

My current work on professional learning communities has taught me that, although debate is important in times of complex change, it can be counterproductive. We need to learn to enter into dialogue more often and more effectively, and that will not be easy.

Teachers are very good at argument, perhaps too good. We have our own taken-for-granted rules about learning and teaching, and about how classrooms should be run. We defend our own positions. Instead of listening to the views of others, we "reload".

A noble certainty I hold is that it is the extent to which teachers are able to learn to think and talk together that will determine the effectiveness of ACfE.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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