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What does effective professional learning – for teachers and school leaders – look like in the 21st century?

Written By: Grace Healy
11 min read


For secondary school teachers, I have always found the expression ‘professional learning’ somewhat vague and amorphous. It lacks the enchantment, essence and energy of what I know from my own experience of growing as a subject teacher and from supporting many others. It is a vibrant, energising, challenging but transformative experience. What makes it so is the serious matter that lies at its heart: my subject. Viewing the world geographically matters. It is a vital part of being educated. It requires geography teachers to read and discuss geographical scholarship, to rethink their own geographical lenses, to question the hidden values and assumptions that their teaching embodies.

Many studies have shown the ways in which this subject expertise is central to teachers’ identity and professional learning (Brooks, 2016). For schools to cultivate and nurture teachers’ subject expertise, leaders also need to be developed as senior curriculum leaders. Leaders need to understand this resource of a teacher’s own engagement with their subject discipline and the ways in which curricular thinking is a driver of professional learning (Counsell, 2020). In this article I explore how this subject-focussed dimension of professional learning is vital if students are to benefit. As Robinson et al. (2008) put it, ‘the more leaders focus their influence, their learning and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and the learning, the greater their influence of student outcomes’ (p. 636).


Investment in teachers’ subject expertise – why is ITE and mentoring so important for effective professional learning?

Many researchers, such as Burn (2015) have shown the ways in which a long-term, subject-led view of professional learning in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) can provide beginning teachers with secure foundations to engage in professional development throughout their careers. Despite this, we are still seeing a legacy within the school system of beginning teachers being treated ‘as apprentices, not as future members of a profession’ (Young, 2020, p. 22). Many practitioner-scholars have examined how this works in strong, highly subject-specific secondary ITE courses where trainees can feel their future agency as subject interpreters and enactors from day one (Fordham, 2015). Fordham shows that it is not just about gaining ‘some mastery over a body of professional knowledge’ but includes ‘identifying ways in which that knowledge base can and needs to be extended’ (Fordham, 2015, p. 148). Neither ITE nor early career development is going to be effective in realising the power of professional learning if mentors are not able to model collective agency of a subject community and induct new teachers into that subject community by using its published work, its debates and its passion for questing after better ways to solve the subject’s curricular challenges. The much stronger emphasis on assuring ITE partnerships involve and invest in mentors as part of this subject dimension within Ofsted’s (2020) draft ITE inspection framework may provide greater incentive for teachers and school leaders to play a role in this formative year of teachers’ professional learning. Such strong models of shared ownership across subject mentors already exist and provide plentiful exemplars. If the thought of increased involvement of school-based mentors is seen as a problematical burden for schools within ITE partnerships, I would argue that leaders need to reflect on its potential both to strengthen the professional learning of beginning teachers and provide enriching subject-specific opportunities for their experienced mentoring teachers to more fully be engaged with the entire course, and through doing so, be more active in shaping new teachers’ knowledge of their subject community’s history.


The power of subject communities – what is the role of collaborative professional learning for subject-specialists?

Young (2020) argues that it is not enough to consider teachers’ subject knowledge, but that we need to take account of how teachers understand ‘their role as members of a virtual community of specialists’ (p. 25). So, it is here we should pay more attention to ‘the way that teachers know their subject’ (Brooks, 2016, p. 11) and the way that practice remains in motion both individually and collectively for teachers within their specialist subject community. This echoes the sentiments of Darling-Hammond (2017) when she proposes that professional learning as collective rather than individual endeavour is ‘the next emerging horizon for teacher learning’ (p. 304). Teachers can be inducted into, draw upon and contribute to the repertoires of theory and practice within their subject community, which can in turn allow teachers to more readily achieve professional agency as subject-specialist teachers. Netolicky (2020) claims ‘much professional learning remains about peripheral teacher work rather than focussed on student learning, curriculum design, content knowledge and classroom pedagogy’ (p. 47), and I would add even when it has been focussed on the latter it has often been through a generic rather than subject-specific lens. Therefore, for some it might be a significant shift to place emphasis on how collaborative professional learning can be cultivated through different forms of subject community activity as a routine and essential part of teachers’ professional learning. However, we cannot afford for it merely to be a luxury for the few.

Bowe and Gore (2017, p. 353) suggest that there is considerable consensus about effective professional development approaches that ‘involve teachers as both learners and teachers (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995), are needs-supportive (Aelterman et al., 2013), take place within the school day (Garet, Porter and Desimone, et al., 2001), are integrated into practice (Garet et al., 2001), are coherent with school and system policies (Desimone, 2009; Ingvarson, Meiers and Beavis, 2005; Penuel, Fishman and Yamaguchi et al., 2007) and are focused on transforming practice, rather than accountability (Kennedy, 2005)’. However, Bowe and Gore (2017) go on to propose that it remains unresolved as to how these principles can be realised in practice. I would suggest that both the nature and scope of subject community activity could allow these principles to be realised – not just in a generic way – but grounded by teachers’ subject-specialisms. Subject community activity can take place across ‘communities of practice’ and spaces involving teachers, teacher educators and academics; for example, through the work of formal subject associations (e.g. Association for Science Education, Geographical Association), through a common endeavour (e.g. subject mentoring for an ITE partnership, teachers undertaking a subject-specific Masters course) or between teachers working collaboratively on curriculum development across an LEA, local network or MAT.

In the context of collaborative professional learning, we need to remain attentive to teachers’ (and ultimately students’) relationships to knowledge (Charlot, 2012). Timperley et al. (2007) highlight the significance of engaging with the beliefs and values of teachers as part of professional learning. Within subject community activity, it is not enough to have a focus on curricula and pedagogical practices without consideration of the purposes underpinning these practices; this allows teachers to grapple with and reflect on the effectiveness of such practices for their own subject teaching. Taking this a step further, we need to acknowledge the role of adaptive expertise – this is where professionals are able to use their knowledge and professional learning effectively in novel situations (Fevre et al., 2016). The notion of adaptive expertise for subject-specialist teaching is significant, as it is through building this deep conceptual understanding that subject teachers can be well placed to draw upon theory and practice from within and beyond their wider subject community and be able to transfer it to their context.


Senior curriculum leadership – what role do leaders play in cultivating subject-specialist teachers and leaders?

Subject-specialist teaching and subject leadership can be strengthened through the professional development of leaders as senior curriculum leaders. Senior curriculum leadership provides a means to move beyond proxies that conceal the curriculum and subject expertise of teachers, so that leaders can better value and nurture the work of subject specialists (Counsell, 2020). Senior curriculum leaders can then attend to how their day-to-day interactions and the school structures and processes they preside over enable subject leaders to be developed, supported and empowered. It is through routine conversations between senior and middle leaders that the relational trust that Robinson (2011) highlights is ‘essential for doing the hard work of improving teaching and learning’ (p. 17) can be developed. When curriculum is foregrounded, such conversations can provide a powerful basis for nurturing subject leaders and improving the quality of education, as senior curriculum leaders are engaged by the subject in question and can preserve a focus on what is being taught and learnt by students (Counsell, 2020).


Linking theory and practice – what is the role of research for subject specialists?

The role of research, and capacity to draw upon both theory and practice, is significant to all aspects of professional learning here. If teaching a subject is a specialised activity, we must enable subject teachers to be able to draw on research in ways that are meaningful within the context of their subject. Research can provide both a means and object of professional learning. For example, teachers can learn from and contribute to the repository of subject and subject education scholarship; this can ultimately lead to joined-upon discourse within subject education communities, combining research, development and debate in sustained subject teacher voice (e.g. Foster, Counsell and McConnell et al., 2020).We also need to consider more deeply the kinds of work that will sustain the foundations for this form of professional learning. What role can and does practitioner research (Fordham, 2015; Brooks, 2018; Carroll, 2019), subject education scholarship (Lambert, 2018) curriculum research and theorising (Deng, 2018; Priestley and Philippou, 2019) and close-to-practice research (Hordern, 2020; Wyse et al., 2020) play in subject-focussed professional learning?


The future of profession learning with subject at its heart

In thinking about ‘What’s next?’ for professional learning, it seems sensible to return to what professional learning is for. If we want to develop subject-specialist teaching for its educational significance for students (Lambert, 2018), we must reflect on how we can move beyond the subject-focussed dimension of professional learning being a peripheral concern within schools. Ultimately, we must ask: how can school culture, rhythms and processes better enable collaborative professional learning of subject-specialist teachers throughout their careers, and what can the wider education system do to serve this endeavour?



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Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How would you define effective professional learning and what is its purpose?

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