March 1998

Adjusting the Frame
Adjusting the Frame

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A New Focus on Professional Development

Teachers are using their classrooms as labs to better understand their own practice.

By Judith Millen and Jill Bell

A growing number of teachers are asking how professional learning can be improved and expanded to be more sensitive to teachers’ needs, especially in this era of change. Educators believe both professional and personal growth should be considered when contemplating additional qualifications programs.

The Ontario Teachers’ Federation and its affiliates, and some universities offering AQs, have gone back to the drawing board to see if there are ways that professional learning can be reconsidered and made more relevant to teachers. At the University of Western Ontario, for example, a different structure is being tested where teachers have the option of taking a series of shorter modules for professional enrichment.

The Ontario College of Teachers has a legislated mandate to address the issue of ongoing professional learning. Part of this mandate will involve the development of a professional learning framework.

Still, much of the new thinking about professional learning – no matter what structure the alternatives take – must assume these few basic considerations:

• professional learning should actively involve teachers as partners in their own learning. Active involvement makes teachers responsible for what they learn and is exemplified by the Adult Learning Model. This recognizes the vast experience and knowledge of all the people involved

• it should set the stage for teachers to work collaboratively on many levels. In this way teachers and academics are able to share their expertise inside and outside schools and to learn from each other

• it should be reflective if it is to become instrumental in shaping positive change for teachers’ working lives. Teachers need time to look at the ways that their work is constructed for them and how they construct it. These moments of understanding make change possible.

A New Approach to Professional Development

An interesting program based on this new model for professional learning is the one offered by three co-operatives that link York University’s faculty of education with school boards in the Greater Toronto Area. This model for AQs offers a dynamic and integrated structure for professional learning that has two key differences from other models in the province:

• teachers are asked to be actively involved in their learning. In this alternative approach, teachers engage in "teacher research" or "teacher inquiry" for approximately half of the 125 mandated hours of AQ study

• the model is offered over an extended timeline to allow for critical reflection.

Teacher Research

Teacher research is not new. It has been discussed in academic circles and education faculties since the early 1980s. However, the way these co-operatives actively practise teacher research on such a large scale is new.

The model is based on teacher inquiry and reflection. Teachers are asked to use their classrooms as their labs in order to expand their understanding of how and why they do what they do. It is a practice-based model that brings together the theory of good teaching with the actual practices of the teachers in the program.

The inquiry is generally initiated with a question that sets the focus for the teacher’s research and that is centred in the teacher’s classroom or schooling environment. For example, a teacher might choose to examine the structure and impact of her questioning for girls and for boys. Another might choose to work collaboratively with a secondary school colleague to look at reading with senior student assistants.

The data collected for such inquiry is the every day data of teachers’ lives and is complemented with secondary sources in pedagogical theory. The revelations of the research, then, set up the conditions for change and transformation as necessary. The research allows for focus and insight.

Any change that results comes as a self-reflective response to investigating some features of teachers’ own work habits rather than a top down directive. For instance, teachers might have the insight that they have to modify their questioning to include more girls or they might see how much more work on bridging between school panels is necessary for the sake of their students. Teachers become the agents of their own professional growth in an interactive and dynamic way and are, as they should be, the authors of the insights into their own professional practices.

They also become partners with the instructional leaders of their programs rather than empty vessels into which information is poured.

Extended Timeline

With all of these new expectations in place, the co-operatives were quick to realize that if the program was to have integrity, the process would take time. Teachers cannot absorb and integrate, reflect and share, with an eye to real improvement of their teaching practices if they don’t give themselves enough time to focus on the material.

Real and lasting professional change cannot be a quick fix. Consequently, the co-operative fashioned a timeline that usually begins with a one-week intensive session in August – five days, seven hours a day – and then reconvenes in the fall/winter for weeknight sessions every second week until February.

During the fall and winter, teachers are compiling their data and producing findings for presentation at the conclusion of the program. This structure does several things. It allows teachers to:

• address vital questions and to work with them without undue haste. There is time for false starts and reconsideration. There is time for people to change their minds and start again

• collect their data in a comfortable manner and in real settings, that is, school

• make significant connections with their peers in the program

• put together a presentation of their findings based on extended collaboration with their peers

• take the time to use the Adult Learning Model to share their expertise in a congenial environment of trust

• absorb the current theory and practices introduced as they become relevant to the issues at hand.

Positive Feedback

The response has been positive. Teachers are busy people and sometimes feel afraid that this new timeline will be too difficult. For many, however, their fears are allayed as they become interested in a critical analysis of their own classroom experiences as a result of the research.

They indicate that the habit of reflection stays with them even after the program is over. Some have commented that this is the best kind of example of life long learning.

While perhaps not for everyone, this new program is definitely enhancing the lives of teachers in positive ways.

Judith Millen taught high school English in Nipissing and Toronto and is now a researcher/consultant in teachers’ professional learning specializing in additional qualifications. Jill Bell is associate dean of York University’s faculty of education. She can be reached at