The power of professional conversations
Guest Blogger, Dr Deborah Netolicky, Dean of Research and Pedagogy
Teachers and their teaching make a difference
A burgeoning body of literature tells us that a teacher’s teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. While student learning and achievement are influenced primarily by many factors beyond a school’s sphere of influence (such as students’ abilities, socioeconomic advantage, parents’ education and peers), what each teacher does in their classroom matters to the learning of their students. Teachers and their teaching make a real difference.
Focusing on the team, not the superstars
The global push for improving the quality of teaching, based on the significance of teachers’ impact on student achievement, has led to some focus on the individual teacher. When we think of an excellent teacher, we might remember a teacher we had at school, or we might imagine a heroic teacher from films like To Sir With Love, Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds and Mona Lisa Smile.
Many scholars would tell us, however, that schools and education systems benefit most from focusing on building the collaborative expertise of the group, rather than on championing select individuals. As Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman tell us: ‘A collection of superstar teachers cannot produce the results of interdependent colleagues who share and develop professional practices together’ (2013, p.16). Teachers improve their knowledge and practice by engaging with research, evidence and each other (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009).
It is through working together to talk about current practice, best practice, and next practice, that we can incrementally improve. As Charlotte Danielson says in this video, no matter how good a lesson was, it can always have been better. Even the most experienced and masterful teachers are constantly working to improve their teaching in order to best serve their students
Teachers as positive connectors and effective collaborators
Wesley’s strategic impacts, including ‘positive connector’, apply not only to our students but also to our staff. Schools are relational places and education is a human endeavour. Professional conversations are one way in which teaching staff at Wesley College connect with one another and build collaborative expertise and professional capital.
Through intentional and robust conversation, we connect with one another and build an internal professional learning culture that:
- improves classroom practice;
- develops our capacities for reflection;
- depersonalises and opens classrooms; and
- develops a common language and shared understandings around what constitutes good teaching.
Professional conversations at Wesley College
Professional conversations at Wesley consist of using data, engaging with standards, and being deliberate about the type and purpose of the conversations we have.
Analysis of data is an essential part of our professional conversations. For teachers, we use what we call ‘non-inferential lesson data’. These data are, as much as possible, purely informational, consisting of observable facts rather than the opinions or judgements of the observer. They might be records of teacher and student classroom talk, tallies of information, video footage or audio recordings, and are used for the teachers’ reflection, self-assessment and next-step planning.
Well-evidenced standards are used to guide and focus professional conversation. The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers provide us with the overarching standards of our profession. At Wesley College, we additionally use the Danielson Framework for Teaching as a tool for teachers to develop the depth and precision of their reflections on practice. Grounded in research, the Danielson Framework identifies a comprehensive range of teacher responsibilities and identifies what these look like, in practice, at different levels from basic to distinguished.
At Wesley, we are intentional in our professional conversations, deliberately using different types of conversation for particular purposes. Consulting is used when a manager, mentor or consultant offers ideas or information, or proposes the next steps for a colleague to follow. Collaborating involves colleagues working together to co-analyse, co-create and come to mutual agreement. In coaching, the type of conversation most often used in our performance development processes, the coach uses pausing, paraphrasing and questioning to mediate the coachee’s thinking. Coaches, who at Wesley are trained in Cognitive Coaching, do not offer advice or solutions, but help the coachee to draw on their own resources, develop their own solutions and build self-efficacy. As a service to the coachee, coaching, is about ‘unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their performance’ (Whitmore, 2009, p.8).
Focus on growth
Wesley College is a growth-focused organisation. Rather than adopting deficit models of professional learning aimed to ‘fix’ teachers, we base our professional growth processes on a belief in the capacity of everyone in our community to grow and improve. We know that professionals need to trust each other and feel trusted if they are to feel safe to be vulnerable, experimental and engaged in reform (Bryk & Schneider, 2002).
Professional conversations are a vehicle for developing a collaborative professional learning culture. A focus on rich conversation can heighten teachers’ professional self-awareness and self-efficacy, help us to make evidence-informed decisions, increase our understanding of what good teaching might look like, and improve what happens in classrooms in order to positively influence student learning and achievement.
Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2013). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (2nd ed.). Plymoth, England: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hattie, J. (2015). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. London, England: Pearson.
Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2013). The power of professional capital: With an investment in collaboration, teachers become nation builders. Journal of Staff Development, 34(3), 36-39.
Hargreaves, A., & Shirley, D. (2009). The fourth way: The inspirational future for educational change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Whitmore, J. (2009). Coaching for performance: Growing people, performance, and purpose (4th ed.). London: Nicholas Brealey.