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December 1999

Teachers Pursue
Professional Learning

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A recent survey of Ontario teachers shows that teachers are actively searching out formal and informal professional learning opportunities.

By Lois Browne

A new survey by the College of Teachers reveals that an overwhelming majority of teachers take part in formal and informal professional learning programs – despite hindrances created by cost and family responsibilities – but there is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the quality of many formal programs.

The professional learning survey was conducted last spring. The data on participation and priorities for learning showed that over the past two years 92 per cent of respondents had participated in at least one formal learning activity.

"That is a gratifyingly high level of commitment to their professional practice," says College Registrar Margaret Wilson, "but the College is anxious to address the issues of program quality that our members raise."

The survey consisted of a questionnaire sent out to 800 English-speaking and 70 French-speaking College members in March 1999; 510 teachers responded. This quantitative research with a large number of respondents was conducted to provide additional hard data to the body of research the profession can draw on as it develops a professional learning framework. A second survey on professional learning activities will be completed by February 2000.


Although over half of the teachers rated the quality and usefulness of the formal learning programs as "consistently high" or "generally high", only 40 per cent said they could use "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of what they learned "almost immediately" in their teaching.

Linda Grant, co-ordinator of the College’s Professional Affairs Department, says those results should indicate a higher standard. "We know that the higher the quality of the program, the more teachers learn – and that has a direct bearing on what their students learn," says Grant. "To have only 52 per cent of respondents praise the quality of the programs suggests a lot of disappointed teachers and wasted resources. That’s not good enough for the teachers, for the College, or for students and the rest of the Ontario public. We’re very concerned about program quality and will definitely be pursuing this issue with the institutions that offer these programs."

Somewhat surprisingly, teachers did not indicate that the uncertain quality of some of the formal programs was a deterrent to enrolling. However, the cost of programs was discouraging to 64 per cent of teachers and almost half – 46 per cent – said that family commitments "strongly discouraged" them from participating in
professional learning activities.

"Costs are also a concern," says Clarice West-Hobbs, chair of the Council’s Standards of Practice and Education Committee. "Additional Qualification courses are expensive, considering the time – and sometimes away-from-home costs, too – that members have to bear," says West-Hobbs.

Most of the respondents – 81 per cent – who had enrolled in formal programs reported they had had an opportunity to share their ideas and experiences with other teachers. "That’s a very positive statistic because we know that collaboration with one’s peers greatly increases the effectiveness of a professional learning situation," says West-Hobbs.


The survey questionnaire was designed to gather information on formal and informal learning activities and the resources that teachers need to support their professional growth. It asked College members to report on their professional learning activities over the past two years, starting with the summer of 1996. Professional learning was defined as any learning activity undertaken with the intention of gaining additional skills, knowledge and understanding related to teaching.

Respondents reported taking part in formal learning activities such as one-day and half-day programs, one or two-day conferences, Additional Qualification and university courses, train-the-trainer programs and Principal’s Qualifications and Supervisory Officer’s Qualifications programs.

Informal learning included reading magazines and books on general and specific education-related topics, working with school and other committees or groups related to teaching, researching in libraries or via the Internet, overseeing practicums, mentoring students or pre-service teachers and organizing conferences and other educational events.

In comparing the importance of formal and informal learning, two-thirds of those who responded said that what they learned in each case was equally important. Only five per cent thought that formal learning was more valuable than informal learning to their overall professional growth.


Informal learning, which was largely self-motivated and self-directed, covered a wide range of activities, "which is in line with the kind of proposals we’re putting forward in Consultation: Professional Learning Framework for the Teaching Profession," says Grant.

Curriculum issues were at the top of a list of topics covered in informal learning. Over half of the teachers said that implementing curriculum was their first, second or third learning priority. Other topics included teaching strategies, assessing and reporting student progress and computer technology. Over 75 per cent agreed that as they became more experienced in the classroom, what they wanted to learn about became more focused.

Eighty-six per cent of respondents said they read books on specific issues or subject areas related to teaching, 82 per cent regularly read a journal or magazine for educators and 63 per cent read books on more general themes in education.

Seventy-five per cent of respondents had served on some committee or body at their school, 58 per cent on a school body dealing with issues of curriculum, assessment or other issues of teaching and learning.

Nearly half of the respondents had served on a committee dealing with issues that were not directly related to teaching, such as school administration, student discipline or budgetary matters. Others were involved in educational issues with groups outside their school, served on the local school council or other governance committee or took part in an exchange program or study tour.


The survey results show that the use of computer technology to enhance professional learning is growing steadily among Ontario teachers. Almost half the respondents – 46 per cent – communicated with other educators through computer conferencing and e-mail, and 94 per cent have access to the Internet either at home or at school. Over half – 52 per cent – have both.

More teachers worked with others on informal learning activities than on their own. Ninety-five per cent spent some time each week on informal learning on their own, 66 per cent spending up to five hours. Six per cent of teachers spent more than 10 hours a week, on their own, in informal learning activities. Of those who took part in informal learning activities with other teachers, 73 per cent spent from one to five hours on these activities; 11 per cent spent between six and ten hours.

The wide-ranging and rapid pace of change characteristic of teaching today is reflected in the survey responses. Thirty-two percent of respondents experienced a substantial change in their responsibilities in their current job, and 29 per cent have taken on some managerial responsibilities.

Notwithstanding the stressful environment, many of the respondents said there were a number of ways in which their environment supports their professional learning. The vast majority receive strong encouragement to learn, either from their supervisors or their colleagues.

Eighty-two per cent said that they have a space – a staff room or lounge – suitable for small discussion groups, and over three-quarters said they had an effective means of publicizing professional learning opportunities. Only 15 per cent of teachers surveyed, however, thought that professional development days provided most of the professional learning they needed in a
typical year.

"We’re really pleased with the quality of information this survey has provided us," says West-Hobbs. "These results support the direction we’re taking in developing a professional learning framework that values both formal and informal learning. And the survey has highlighted some important issues, such as program quality, that we will address."

For the complete survey, click here.

Teachers’ Interest Revealed by Unusually High Response

A subcommittee of the College’s Standards of Practice and Education Committee, which included classroom teachers, worked with Doug Hart and Nancy Watson, currently with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and York University’s Institute of Social Research, to carry out the survey of professional learning activities among Ontario teachers.

David Northrup, Associate Director of York University’s Institute for Social Research, who helped the College develop implementation strategies for its professional learning survey, says the unusually high response rate "increases our confidence that we have a good sample of Ontario’s teachers."

"It’s much more common to get a return rate in the 50s, so we are very pleased that 68 per cent of those who received the surveyed responded," says Northrup. "It tells us how important the issue of professional learning – formal and informal – is to teachers."

Northrup was also surprised at the number of respondents who included additional comments with their surveys. "Usually about 25 per cent of respondents would have taken the trouble to add comments. In this survey, 43 per cent provided additional comments. That also tells us how important this is to teachers, and that they want to help the College understand their concerns."

The first mailing was done in March 1999, with three subsequent reminders for non-respondents, ending in June 1999. In the end, the response rate for the larger survey was 68 per cent.

The College drew on expertise from leaders in the field of educational research to design, implement and interpret the survey on professional learning among Ontario’s teachers.

A pre-test questionnaire was sent out to 69 members in June 1998; 42 per cent responded. The
pre-test provided excellent feedback that enabled
the College to make improvements to question
sequencing and clarity.

Using the College’s registry system, the College chose a random sample group of 1,200 members which was used as a foundation to select 870 members (800 of the College’s 161,500 English-language members and 70 of the 11,000 French-language members).

Surveys Confirm Ontario Teachers’ Learning Activities

Ontario teachers’ participation in professional learning activities, highlighted in a College survey earlier this year, is confirmed by a similar survey by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) conducted in 1998.

The College survey indicated that 92 per cent of Ontario teachers who responded engaged in professional learning activities over the previous two years. This is slightly better than the national average reported in the CTF survey, carried out in 1998. It showed that 85.5 per cent of Canadian teachers completed one or more formal learning courses or workshops in the previous 12 months.

Curriculum Issues Dominate Teacher’s Learning Activities

Curriculum issues top the list of professional learning priorities for Ontario teachers over the next two years, says a survey of 870 College members across the province.

The College survey was conducted last spring. It asked survey participants to indicate from a list of 13 items their first, second and third learning priority for the
next two years.

More than half of the respondents chose "implementing the new curriculum into student programs" as the first, second or third most important learning priority for them. Thirty-two per cent ranked it as the first priority; 16 per cent of respondents said that "dealing with curriculum materials" was the single most important learning priority.

"Clearly, teachers are preoccupied with issues around the new curriculum," says David Northrup, Associate Director of York University’s Institute for Social Research. Northrup worked with the College’s Standards of Practice and Education Unit to design and implement strategies that would ensure a high rate of teacher participation in the survey.

The survey showed that all the teachers surveyed, no matter how much experience they had or where they taught, had the same concerns about the curriculum.

For example, 54 per cent of teachers with less than six years teaching experience named implementing the new curriculum as the first priority; 57 per cent of teachers with more than 20 years experience said it was their first priority.

"Even more importantly, where responses were slightly different, there was no strong pattern in the variations. Whether teachers are in rural areas or the downtown core of big cities, whether they teach at the elementary or high school level, their responses were essentially the same," says Northrup.

"It is a very strong statement about how much teachers care about what they teach and how well they teach," says Clarice West-Hobbs, chair of the College’s Standards of Practice and Education Committee, which oversaw the survey. "The rate of response to the survey was 68 per cent, which in itself is quite high. Coupled with the consistency of the responses on curriculum issues, the survey clearly underscores the concerns that teachers feel about meeting the challenges being posed by the new curriculum."

Informal Learning Programs

  • Read books on specific issues/subject areas related to teaching
  • Regularly read a journal or magazine for educators
  • Researched a question through library search or Internet
  • Read books on more general themes in education or educational theory
  • Participated in informal study or staff discussion groups
  • Made a presentation to other staff members

Other Informal Learning Activities

  • Communicated with other educators
  • Took on mentoring role, for example-orienting a new teacher to the school
  • Helped organize a conference or event such as a job or science fair
  • Took a recognized mentoring role toward students and/or served on a student advisory committee
  • Made a presentation at a conference or other setting outside of school
  • Were involved in peer review