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Are we all on the same page with professional learning? Exploring the relationship between organisational cultures and teacher professional learning in secondary schools

Written by: Kathryn Taylor
6 min read
Kathryn Taylor,  EdD candidate, IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society, UK

Effective teacher professional development (PD) matters. The question is: how can high-quality, transformative PD be realised in schools? Relationships between organisational cultures and teacher learning are complex. I suggest that a clearer understanding of how the language surrounding PD is used and understood offers a route to achieving more ‘hit’ than ‘miss’ in the planning and delivery of PD within schools and beyond. The analytical framework that I am developing may be useful to those who have oversight of PD in their contexts. 

It is long established that putting students in classrooms with effective teachers improves their outcomes (Slater et al., 2012). As Wiliam (2011) argues, a bad curriculum taught well is better than a good curriculum taught badly. Since evidence suggests that teacher effectiveness can be improved through appropriate and effective professional development (Kraft and Papay, 2014), ensuring that PD translates into improved teacher practices is essential. Teachers value high-quality professional development opportunities (Fletcher-Wood and Zuccollo, 2020). Nevertheless, PD sessions can have a bad reputation with teachers. Getting everyone in the hall for a dryly delivered session on the ‘latest fad’ leaves some teachers mentally writing a ‘to-do’ list or surreptitiously marking. Many of us have seen (or been!) the teacher sitting back, arms folded, eyes rolling, waiting to get back to our ‘real’ work. De-contextualised strategies presented without the depth needed to be fully understood – or where the value or practicality of a strategy is unclear – pose barriers to teacher professional learning (McChesney and Aldridge, 2019).

Always time-poor, and often experienced, some teachers simply switch off; PD rejection is the last refuge of the unempowered (Eteläpelto et al., 2013). Tick the box on the ‘happy sheet’ evaluation (Lambert, 2012) and move on. In this model, PD sessions often fall short of the desired impact, and teacher practices remain largely unchanged (McChesney and Aldridge, 2019). In contrast, high-quality, transformative PD opportunities are characterised by longer-term projects that extend over at least one or two terms. These are supported by ongoing opportunities for sustained review and reflection (Cordingly et al., 2015) in order to embed the learning and develop reflexive practice in teachers. They may be designed and delivered in-house or through an external provider. What matters is the openness and capacity of teachers to learn. 

Despite evidence-based knowledge of the relative efficacy of professional development delivery models (Sims et al., 2021), many will recognise the former bleak description. Such experiences can inhibit the openness of teachers to future professional learning. Teachers have long memories and professional identities are formed from past experiences (Eteläpelto et al., 2013). Poor PD experiences leave a challenging legacy. The analytical framework that I am developing offers a mechanism for encouraging professional conversations about the cultural conditions that promote teacher professional learning. Promoting reflective opportunities between colleagues at all levels mitigates some of the barriers that I have described, enabling organisations and individuals to move forward.

Why focus on organisational culture? 

Professional development initiatives do not always lead to teacher professional learning, but when they do, organisational culture appears to be key. Alignment between organisational and teacher values and dispositions underpins teacher thriving (Everitt, 2020; Lee and Lee, 2018). Individual perceptions of personal and collective efficacy (Gray and Summers, 2015), collegiality (Hargreaves and O’Connor, 2018), trust (Day et al., 2011), resilience (Gu, 2014), agency (Biesta et al., 2015), autonomy (Wilkins, 2011), reflection opportunities (Keay et al., 2019) and logistical arrangements (Wolthuis et al., 2020) all appear to have an impact on teacher professional learning. Conversely, promising initiatives can falter when teachers are closed to change (e.g., Anthony et al., 2017); reality falls short of expectations. 

Conducting a literature review is essential in developing academic research. While exploring these aspects of optimal cultural conditions described above, divergence in the ways in which terms such as agency, efficacy and other key cultural conditions are used and understood has become clear. Some terms are used uncritically without definition, assuming audience understanding. Sometimes, grammatical definitions are offered; sometimes descriptions; sometimes examples and case studies. I have been inspired by Marton’s (1986) work on phenomenography, which postulates that concepts can be understood in identifiable and distinctly different ways. This provided a useful framework through which to explore this issue. If the language surrounding these key cultural factors is used and understood differently among stakeholders, then misunderstanding seems inevitable. Shared understanding promotes the possibility of alignment of vision and values, which appears to underpin the cultural conditions where teachers (and, by extension, students) can develop and thrive (Everitt, 2020). Engaging with this analytical framework will enable school leaders to incorporate this new insight into their future PD planning in order to tailor it to their teachers’ needs and dispositions.

How is the language of organisational culture being used? 

To unravel this puzzle, I categorised each different usage of the language that I had identified on the issues in question found in the literature. There were 32 different ways of using ‘agency’ across 88 sources. ‘Efficacy’ yielded 42 usages across 56 sources. Indeed, the language of each cultural condition related to fruitful PD is used in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways in academic educational literature. To reduce the large numbers of conceptualisations, many of which seemed intuitively connected, a pilot survey was undertaken, and the results analysed statistically to identify themes. To extend the examples already given, the 32 ‘agency’ items were grouped into five broad themes, and the 42 for ‘efficacy’ were reformed into eight. My analysis reveals that divergent understanding of the concepts at the heart of organisational cultures increases the likelihood that stakeholders are talking at cross purposes, potentially undermining their PD ambitions. It is unsurprising that the success of PD initiatives remains patchy. I argue that acknowledging and understanding the landscape of conceptual understanding within an organisation provides a foundation from which to move towards mutual understanding and coherence.

Healing and reinvention

Some conceptual understanding is deeply rooted in teacher identities and is difficult to unpick; past experiences may be impacting the reception of PD opportunities now. Without increased understanding of concepts such as ‘agency’ (which can be understood as enhanced ability to notice and change practice responsively and the ability to resist reforms), progress will be challenging. Action is required to find common ground. Failure to do so means that some teachers remain closed to PD opportunities and their professional learning is inhibited. The eye-rolling continues. Failure to address these issues disregards the evidence-based relationship between teacher practices and student outcomes (Slater et al., 2012), which effective PD supports. Developments in understanding of what works mean that experience alone is no longer sufficient. As educators, we all have a professional duty to update our knowledge and skills for our students’ benefit (Collins, 2018). 

The analytical framework developed in this research aims to provide a tool through which this important conversation can be facilitated. Insight is anticipated at both the organisational and the individual level. Participants in the pilot study report their experience as an engaging process, helping them to consider areas for personal and professional development. It has also, in follow-up interviews, facilitated theoretical discussions – for example, on the difference between agency and autonomy, the need to deliberately build the conditions for trust and how ‘professionalism’ can be understood. In this respect, the process of engaging with the survey appears to constitute a valuable reflexive PD opportunity (Amott, 2017).

Next steps

Through this study, I seek to contribute to a deepening understanding of the relationships between organisational culture and teacher professional learning. The development of this analytical framework offers a practical tool to bring these issues into the light, synthesising complex and sometimes divergent understandings of concepts into an accessible and user-friendly survey tool. The use of this tool aims to engage teachers and school leaders in professional conversations that promote a deeper conceptual understanding of the factors of organisational culture, which facilitate increased professional learning. The process of refinement of the survey instrument continues to confirm reliability and develops user experience. I anticipate that a version will be available for wider use in due course. My future aim is to explore whether, by engaging with this survey and results, professional conversations focused on creating a culture where professional learning can thrive can become grounded in evidence-based research and academic theorisation. Will it change the way in which professional development is planned and delivered? This is the next phase of my doctoral thesis research project.

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