I was in a Secondary school last Monday working with staff from that school and their feeder primary schools. It was great to feel the buzz and excitement people were generally feeling about the year ahead. Most staff I spoke to articulated how excited they were to get going again, and about the year ahead. I remember that buzz myself from when I was still in school, both as a teacher and headteacher. I never lost that throughout my career, and it is one of the things I miss most about not being in a school, especially at this time of the year.
As children returned over the rest of this week, the sense of excitement has only picked up, amongst staff and their learners I have passed numerous schools this week and have seen first hand smiling happy learners in school playgrounds and on their way to, or from, their schools. If we can't all feel excited and positive at this time of the year, will we ever?
One of the most exciting changes and developments I see happening across Scottish education at the moment is around our approach to professional learning. What I have witnessed and experienced this week, has got me excited about not only about the school year ahead, but also for the future beyond.
Since 2010, when Graham Donaldson wrote 'Teaching Scotland's Future', which looked at initial teacher education and professional learning within the profession, there has been a focus on how we prepare and educate our trainee teachers, as well as on how we support them to keep learning and growing throughout their careers. When he considered the GTCS Standards For Registration, as well as what research was telling us about the most impactful professional learning, with a focus on the impact for learners, he said that the GTCS should consider refreshed new standards which 'could include pedagogy, up to date subject knowledge and the use of inquiry-based improvement.' All of Donaldson's 51 recommendations were adopted in their entirety by the Scottish government.
He went on to say 'The most successful education systems invest in developing their teachers as reflective, accomplished and enquiring professionals...who have the capacity to engage fully with the complexities of education, and to be key actors in shaping educational change.'
The GTCS (General Teaching Council Scotland) reflected this when they re-drafted their professional standards in 2012. Amongst the professional values that they identified as important for all educators is one of Professional Commitment, with teachers at all stages of their career 'committing to lifelong enquiry, learning, professional development and leadership as core aspects of professionalism and collaborative practice.'
The new Professional Learning Model, developed by SCEL and Education Scotland in 2018, identifies three key areas for professional learning. These are learning through enquiry, learning through collaboration and learning in order to deepen knowledge and understanding.
All of these policy, standards and models agree that success of professional learning should be be measured in terms of impact for learners.
I think it is good that we have a policy framework and standards which support enquiry as a key aspect of professional learning. In my experience, policy can either support what we are trying to achieve every day in our classrooms or school, or it can hinder us. In respect to professional learning, I think we have the policy and structures in place to support what we are all trying to achieve. That policy, those standards, and the learning model all emerged out of engagement with research around the most impactful professional learning from across the globe.
That research has consistently shown that learning that is reflective, inquiring, collaborative and context specific, has the greatest impacts for learners at all levels. Professional Learning that increases teacher agency, teacher leadership and develops adaptive expertise, all leads to the development of self-improving teachers, schools and systems, which Donaldson alluded to and which has been called for directly by Fullan, Hargreaves, Timperley and others.
So we have the policy and structures that support a different approach to professional learning, which helps. However, I have always believed that improvement cannot be imposed, either by legislation or top-down direction. True, deep embedded, improvement, and the desire to do so, has to be intrinsic within individuals. What we require from systems and leaders, is to create the conditions and cultures which support and allow such intrinsic dispositions to flourish and grow,
Which is why I am so heartened by what I have experienced and witnessed in the short time that Scottish schools have been back since the summer holidays.The vehicle that we have chosen to connect all these elements of professional learning in Scotland is practitioner enquiry or collaborative enquiry. I was working with the cluster of schools in Falkirk on Monday because they have begun to engage with practitioner enquiry. Some are further down the road of engagement than others, and that is fine, but collectively they have agreed to use practitioner enquiry as the focus of their individual and collective professional learning, and they have committed to this for the long term, not just one school session.
When I returned from this session, exhilarated by what I had seen and heard, I saw on Twitter that other schools, clusters and local authorities were also engaging on their own journey with enquiry. Kate Wall, from Strathclyde University was at Stirling High School talking about how to make practitioner enquiry real in your practice. Fife Professional Learning Team tweeted about their practitioner enquiry professional leaning programme and there were tweets from the East Renfrew PEST team (Practitioner Enquiry Support Team) East and West Lothian have set up a TEN (Teachers as Enquirers Network)support network, to work with teachers in both authorities who are engaged in enquiry work. Mark Priestley and Valerie Drew, from Stirling University continue to work in schools using their Collaborative Enquiry model, and there is more work happening on the same them from Edinburgh University, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. Add to these the work to support enquiry from SCEL (Scottish College for Educational Leadership), Education Scotland and the GTCS, a head of steam is building up around enquiry across Scotland.
I also had another meeting later in the week with a lead officer for professional learning and Principal Education Psychologist at East Lothian as we spoke more about practitioner enquiry, and I heard about their own journey and their plans for supporting their schools further with enquiry. We agreed to explore further how we could help teachers and schools, and I could contribute from my own experience and practice.
I have been a long-time advocate, and user, of practitioner enquiry for individual, school and system development, even writing a book about my own experiences and insights. So, to see all this activity and genuine interest in Scottish schools and system is a delight for me.
This really promises to be a game changer in terms of professional learning and impacts for teachers and learners, and could shift the Scottish system towards my own personal Nirvana, which is the self-improving system, confident in its ability to know its impact and how to keep developing this further. All of this being done because we have a repeatable process that encourages the disposition of self-improvement, with individuals and a system that are intrinsically motivated to keep developing, with professional educators who's thinking and practice is research informed, and who understand themselves and their impacts well. That really would be a game changer!
Obviously we still have a long way to go, but I am encouraged by the road so many are travelling, and we must take the time necessary so that enquiry does not mutate into a lesser version of its original self and purpose. But if we get this right the ultimate beneficiaries should be all our learners, and Scotland itself.