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Professional Learning in Effective Schools

DEECD Victoria

The current article is an abridged and edited version of the paper of the same name published in July 2005 by the Leadership and Teacher Development Branch, Office of School Education, Department of Education and Training Victoria.


This paper outlines a vision for professional learning in Victorian government schools, in which teachers engage in effective, ongoing professional learning to develop progressively higher levels of expertise. It builds on an earlier paper titled The Professional Learning of Teachers (Department of Education & Training 2004a), which identifies seven principles of highly effective professional learning (the Principles, Appendix A).

The Principles make explicit the key characteristics of effective professional learning and provide a common language for describing good practice. Central to the vision is recognition that, as professionals, teachers need to update their skills and knowledge continuously, not only in response to a changing world but in response to new research and emerging knowledge about learning and teaching.

Professional Learning in Effective Schools uses the Department of Education & Training’s Effective Schools Model (Appendix B) to illustrate the culture and conditions necessary to implement effective professional learning (adapted from Sammons, Hillman & Mortimer 1995). It unpacks the principles of highly effective professional learning and, through the lens of effective leadership, learning communities, professional learning teams and the concept of a performance and development culture, shows what the Principles look like in practice.

A vision for professional learning in Victorian government schools

The main aim of the Victorian Department of Education & Training is 'an assured future for all Victorians and a prosperous society through learning'. The Victorian Government's Blueprint for Government Schools  contributes to the achievement of this aim through a number of initiatives designed to support all young people to become creative, adaptable and self-directed learners. Professional learning for teachers plays a critical role in this endeavour by equipping them with the expertise, skills and knowledge they need to develop these capacities in students.

The seven principles of highly effective professional learning restated in this paper call for professional learning that is collaborative, embedded in teacher practice and aimed at bridging the gap between what students are capable of doing and actual student performance. Professional learning that is consistent with the Principles is ongoing, school-based and directly relevant to the daily work of teachers. Student outcomes data provides the focus of professional learning and is used to evaluate the impact of that learning on teacher practice and student achievement.

The Principles contest the effectiveness of professional development programs such as one-off seminars, conferences and workshops. Research shows that such events do not usually enhance the learning of teachers or their students appreciably (McRae et al 2001; Hawley & Valli 1999; Little 1999), although they may be of value when teachers need to learn specific knowledge and skills.

At a broader and more ambitious level, the Principles will lay the foundations for the development of a culture where schools are routinely and typically seen as places where professional learning is a normal part of every teacher's daily routine rather than something extra that teachers are required to do.

The skills and knowledge of an effective teacher

Effective teachers draw out and work with the pre-existing understandings that their students bring with them. Effective teachers teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge. Effective teachers focus on the teaching of metacognitive skills, integrating those skills into the curriculum in a variety of subject areas.

Effective professional learning focuses on developing the core attributes of an effective teacher. It enhances teachers' understanding of the content they teach and equips them with a range of strategies that enable their students to learn that content. It is directed towards providing teachers with the skills to teach and assess for deep understanding and to develop students' metacognitive skills.

Professional learning in a performance and development culture

A key initiative in the Department of Education & Training's reform agenda is Creating and Supporting a Performance and Development Culture (2004d). Through a flexible, transparent accountability framework based upon an accreditation process, the initiative's Self-assessment Framework articulates how schools can use their data to align teachers' individual learning needs with school priorities. The accreditation process comprises five elements:

  1. induction for teachers new to the school
  2. use of multiple sources of feedback on teacher effectiveness for individual teachers and teams of teachers
  3. customised individual teacher development plans based on individual development needs
  4. quality professional development to meet individual development needs
  5. belief by teachers that the school has a performance and development culture.

Effective schools and professional learning

Effective schools are distinguished by professional leadership which is motivated by the desire to build a vibrant professional learning community. Effective schools are defined by an agreed vision and goals, purposeful teaching and high expectations for student learning. They have rigorous systems of accountability, a focus on teaching and learning, and stimulating and secure learning environments.

Very importantly, an effective school has agreed expectations and coherence around the quality of teaching required to impact on student performance.

Leading professional learning in effective schools

An extensive research base supports the view that leadership is the most important element of an effective school (Sergiovanni 1984; Elmore 2000; Stoll 2004).

Effective leaders engage their staff in professional discourse, drawing on external ideas and research. Effective school leaders encourage sharing, trust, risk-taking, experimentation, collaborative inquiry and self-assessment. They also continuously evaluate the impact of professional learning on the basis of the effect it has on student achievement.

In effective schools, leadership is expected to be a quality of all staff.

Professional learning teams

Professional learning teams are an effective means of developing a culture of collaboration and collective responsibility in schools. In professional learning teams teachers remain accountable for individual students. However, they also take responsibility collectively for improving instructional practices to achieve gains in learning for all their students.

Effective teams use research-based information to develop teaching strategies matched to the learning styles of their students. Teams regularly collect and analyse data at the student, teacher and school levels to evaluate the impact of their work. They meet regularly for an extended period of time so they have the opportunity to learn, reflect, refine and re-apply their learnings.

Any significant change that is likely to improve teachers' expertise and enhance student learning will be gradual and often difficult. The time and effort that is needed to learn how to work as part of a team may increase teachers' workloads, especially at first. Developing the trust and confidence to take risks, experiment and work collaboratively requires perseverance because it is in conflict with the norm of autonomy that has historically characterised the work of teachers. Nonetheless, when implemented effectively a team approach can reduce variations in learning outcomes between classes.

Leading professional learning teams

Professional learning teams need leaders with a deep understanding of effective professional learning and how to work with team members. Leaders may need to act in the role of coach or mentor; model good practice; help with the provision of resource materials; and facilitate and make available research into effective learning and teaching. They may organise visits to other schools to observe innovative practice; facilitate problem-solving activities; encourage risk-taking; link team members with each other; contract outside expertise when necessary; and engage in advocacy for projects across the school community. Leaders also need to assist in evaluating the impact of the professional learning team.

Leaders also need knowledge of effective professional learning models. The following models can be used to help teachers analyse and reflect on the impact of their practice and generate ideas for improvement.

  • Action research is a strategy for learning more about the teaching and learning process. Teachers decide what questions are important to examine. It involves teachers selecting a focus, collecting, analysing and interpreting data and then taking action.
  • Examination of student work. Within this model, teams first identify a clear focus for their work and what outcomes they expect. The most fruitful discussions result from using examples of student work that are varied in nature and quality. An example would be written work from several students in relation to the same assignment that includes students' explanations of their thinking. The team then reflects on the implications of what is learned for teaching.
  • Study groups engage in regular collaborative interactions around topics identified by the group. Groups can also read and discuss educational research publications in a collaborative and supportive environment, over an extended period of time. The study group model can include the entire staff of a school in finding solutions to common problems.
  • Case discussions provide teams of teachers with the opportunity to reflect on teaching and learning by examining narrative stories or videotapes depicting school, classroom, teaching or learning situations or dilemmas. They are usually brief, rough-and-ready evidence of what students have done, said or written in class.
  • Peer observation. One of the most effective ways to learn is by observing others, or being observed and receiving specific feedback from that observation. The most effective observations are well planned, focused on specific issues and with follow-up to document improvements.
  • Lesson study. A small group of teachers meets regularly to plan, design, implement, evaluate and refine lessons for a unit of work. One member of the team conducts the lesson while other members of the team observe it. In concert with their observations and reflection, the lesson is modified and may be taught again by another member of the team.

Other pathways to learning in a learning community

Formal professional learning also takes place through structured mentoring in which experienced and competent practitioners are partnered with less experienced or beginning teachers, or through coaching, which involves two experienced teachers working and learning together. A coaching partnership can be a particularly effective means of helping teachers to implement significant changes in the classroom, for example to trial a new teaching strategy or a unit of work.

In a learning community, professional learning is anchored in the school-based work of teachers. However, sourcing expertise from beyond the school can enrich school-based programs with knowledge, ideas and an outside perspective.

The role of the school system

The central office and regions of the Victorian Department of Education & Training are working in partnership to translate the research base into effective professional learning opportunities for teachers and school leaders through a coherent and integrated set of initiatives. The system continuously collects and analyses student, school and system data in order to assist schools to monitor their individual performance and develop the capacity to manage their own self-improvement.

The system plays a critical role in raising awareness and encouraging debate about what teachers and school leaders need to know and do to improve student learning.

Investing in professional learning is the key to ensuring that schools become learning communities where teachers work together, learn from each other and share best practice on effective teaching and learning. It is only through the collective work of teachers and by creating a shared professional knowledge that sustained school improvement will be secured.

References for the abridged article
An extended reference list is available online with the full paper.

Department of Education & Training 2003, Blueprint for Government Schools: Future Directions for Education in the Victorian Government School System, Melbourne. http://www.det.vic.gov.au/det/resources/pdfs/blueprint/Blueprint_complete.pdf

—2004a, The Professional Learning of Teachers, Melbourne. http://www.sofweb.vic.edu.au/blueprint/pdfs/The_Professional_Learning_of_Teachers.pdf

—2004b, Principles of Learning and Teaching P–12 Unpacked, Melbourne. http://www.sofweb.vic.edu.au/blueprint/fs1/polt/unpacked.asp

—2004c, Performance and Development Guide – Teacher Class, Melbourne. http://www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/edulibrary/public/hr/perform/PerformDev_Guide_Teachers.pdf

—2004d, Creating and Supporting a Performance and Development Culture, Melbourne. http://www.sofweb.vic.edu.au/innovations/pandd/index.asp

Elmore, RE 2000, Building a New Structure for School Leadership, Albert Shanker Institute. http://www.shankerinstitute.org/Downloads/building.pdf

Hawley W & Valli, L 1999, ‘The essentials of effective professional development: A new consensus’, in Teaching as the Learning Profession: Handbook of Policy and Practice, L Darling-Hammond & G Sykes (eds), Jossey Bass, San Francisco, pp. 151–80.

Little, W 1999, ‘Organising Schools for Teacher Learning’, in Teaching as the Learning Profession: Handbook of Policy and Practice, L Darling-Hammond & G Sykes (eds), Jossey Bass, San Francisco, pp. 233–62.

McRae, D, Ainsworth, G, Groves, R, Rowland M & Zbar, V 2001, PD 2000 Australia: A National Mapping of School Teacher Professional Development, National Curriculum Services, Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra.

Sammons, P, Hillman, J & Mortimer, P 1995, Key Characteristics of Effective Schools: A Review of School Effectiveness Research, Office for Standard in Education and Institute of Education, London.

Sergiovanni, T 1984, ‘Leadership and Excellence in School’, Educational Leadership, vol. 41, pp. 4–13.

Stoll, L.2004, ‘Leadership learning: Designing a connected strategy’, IARTV Seminar Series Paper, no. 135, August, IARTV.


Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Educational planning
Education policy
State schools
School culture
Teaching and learning
Professional development