In a recent article in the Review of Educational Research , authors V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder draw on their review of the literature to construct a new framework for research in professional learning. They contend that past research in professional learning has taken a narrow process-product orientation that has produced mixed results and inadequate explanations about how professional learning influences teacher learning. Instead of the traditional process-product approach, they propose using complexity theory to understand teacher learning.
Specifically, Opfer and Pedder identify three systems that interact to influence teacher learning. One system is teacher orientation to learning. A teacher’s orientation to learning emerges from the teacher’s background, experiences with and beliefs about learning, and classroom practice.
Another system at work is the school-level system. This system encompasses the context of the school, the collective norms and practices prevalent within the school, the collective orientation to learning, the supports for learning, and the school’s collective capacity to achieve shared goals.
The third system the authors identify is the nature of the professional learning. This system includes the learning activities, tasks, and practices that constitute teacher learning.
Opfer and Pedder construct a view of professional learning as a complex act that varies across learners, schools, and learning activities. They also provide those responsible for planning, implementing, and researching professional learning a new framework to consider.
While the authors’ primary areas of focus were understanding the disparities that occur in research on professional learning and developing a more appropriate framework to guide future research, their work offers insights for those with responsibility for leading and facilitating professional learning, and for those with budgetary and oversight responsibilities. The authors state that teacher learning is “an important way” to school improvement and increased teacher quality and student achievement. Many efforts to use this pathway oversimplify or reduce professional learning to a process-product model, (knowledge in, change in practice out), without consideration of how the teacher, the learning they experience, and the school in which they are expected to demonstrate their learning interact to promote or inhibit teacher learning.
To benefit from a professional learning pathway to increased student achievement, those leading and overseeing professional learning might benefit from considering teacher learning as a complex process that requires attention to all three systems (and potentially more) simultaneously. Working on one system (such as changing the learning activities teachers experience without working to construct a collective efficacy within the school) may lead to minimal results and questions about the value of professional learning.
Opfer and Pedder provide a framework that has potential for both research and practice. Their framework offers a more authentic way of conceptualizing professional learning as the complex process that it is. As the Standards for Professional Learning suggest, professional learning that will change teacher practice and produce results for students requires a school culture of collective responsibility for shared goals, sufficient resources, strong leadership, varied learning tasks aligned to individual and collective learning needs, ongoing monitoring and evaluation, sustained support for implementation, and clear focus on teacher performance and student results. If the consensus perspective is that the quality of teaching matters in student success, and if professional learning is an important way to achieve goals related to school improvement and increased student learning, it may be time to focus on all the systems that influence professional learning to achieve results.
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward
The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.