AEL Volume 37 Issue 2 May 2015
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AEL May 2015; 37 (2):
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Leading teaching and learning through professional learning

Prof Helen Timperley, PhD, Professor, Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland

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Leaders usually lead teaching and learning through their work with teachers, rather than interacting directly with students. From this perspective, leading learning means leading teacher learning in ways that support teachers to lead student learning. One way to think about this idea is for leaders to consider teachers as their ‘class’ of professionals, in the same way that teachers have classes of student learners. The composition of that class depends on the size of the school and the designated leadership position.  In large schools the senior leaders’ classes may be middle leaders. These middle leaders, in turn, have other classes. The leadership work is to promote the learning of their class in ways that impact positively on teaching and learning.
Just as teachers have members of their class ready and willing to learn and others who are not so keen, so do leaders in their class of teachers. Leaders expect teachers to engage all the members of their class by using a range of approaches and strategies. Leading teaching and learning means using a variety of strategies to engage all the professionals in leaders’ classes in ways that benefit students and achieve the strategic goals of the school.
The question I get asked most frequently by leaders is “How do we do this?” I am going to answer this question in two ways. The first is talk briefly about how people learn in order to provide a background for the second, which is about specifics related to professional inquiry.
What we know about learning applies just as much to teachers as it does to student learners. A great deal of professional development, whether school-based or external to the school, is driven by expectations of compliance and passivity rather than curiosity and agency. The teachers’ job is to implement someone else’s great ideas, preferably with high levels of fidelity.  To change compliance to agency and passivity to deep curiosity, I will draw briefly on the work of the OECD on innovative learning environments (Dumont, Istance & Benevides, 2012). These authors brought together world leading research on constructing motivating and productive learning environments for student learning. These ideas apply to professional learning as much as they do to student learning so I have highlighted and adapted a few of their key learning ‘transversals’ as they apply to teacher learning.
Firstly, emotion and motivation are the gatekeepers of learning. Teachers become motivated when they feel competent to do what is expected of them, they value it, and have a clear sense of purpose. They learn better when they learn together, which means that there needs to be common professional learning goals within and across groups that are aligned to the school’s improvement goals. It doesn’t mean everyone has to learn the same thing at the same time, because learning opportunities need to be differentiated according to the prior knowledge and skills of the learner. But it does mean a collective effort with everyone pulling in the same direction and helping one another because learning is collaborative.
Most Australian educators know about assessment for learning, another of the OECD’s transversals (Dumont, et al., 2012). Assessment for professional learning means every teacher has challenging professional learning goals that are developed from learning goals for students. Teachers know how they and their students are doing in relation to those goals and what they need to do to achieve them. Goals allow learners to answer the question, “Where are we going?” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). A second question “How are we going?” means learners, teachers and leaders need to know about the gap between the current situation and the goals in a non-blaming way so they know what to work on. A final question, “Where to next?” gives agency to those involved in creating change. These questions apply at all levels: the school, the leaders, the teachers and the students. The shift in thinking here is that any assessment information about students forms feedback to the teacher about the success of their professional learning efforts (Hattie, 2012). The same applies to leaders. Assessment information from students tells leaders what their class of teachers needs to learn to make a difference.

The spiral of inquiry, learning and action
Now I turn to putting these ideas into practice. Linda Kaser, Judy Halbert and I recently brought together our collective understandings from the learning environments work of the OECD and our experiences with many different groups in Australia, Canada and New Zealand to develop a spiral of inquiry (Timperley, Kaser & Halbert, 2014). The spiral brings learning at all levels into a collective effort within a school in ways that both motivate the enthusiasts and engage the others over time. It focuses everyone’s learning on common challenges, and has the question, “What is happening for our learners?” driving the whole process. At all points it is focused on making a difference for learners, so a second question, “How do we know?” is just as important. The spiral is illustrated in Figure 1.
We have described the spiral in detail elsewhere (Timperley, Kaser & Halbert, 2012), so I will provide a brief synopsis here. The scanning phase opens up a wider view of learners because all educators know that learners are more than their maths or reading scores.  Emotion and motivation are the gatekeepers of learning (Dumont, et al., 2012). If learners are unmotivated and don’t feel they belong at school, for example, they will likely drop out either emotionally or physically. So this beginning phase of the spiral asks leaders and teachers to take a wider look before getting focused. Some of the most important information in this scanning phase comes from parents and the learners themselves. As educators, we can’t assume we know what is happening for learners without asking them.
Scanning may throw up many possibilities for focused efforts, but it isn’t possible to address everything. Focusing on one or two areas will make much more of a difference than tackling several areas at the same time. Indeed, the most common reason I have found for schools in Australia to make little difference in their improvement efforts is that their energies are too dispersed trying to improve in too many areas at once. When deciding what to focus on, consider three criteria. Focus on something that will make a real difference, make sure it is manageable, and that there is a reasonable level of commitment to work together on it. This last criterion doesn’t mean everyone has to agree, just that there is enough agreement to get started.
Having decided on a focus, most educators launch into some kind of professional development and treat the reasons why a particular situation exists as obvious but rarely discuss these reasons with one another. We avoid this discussion because we tend to believe that everyone else is creating the problem and we fail to look to ourselves. The phase of developing a hunch involves pausing and thinking how we are contributing to the situation. At this stage the evidence for particular hunches might be weak, but it is important to get all the myths and the realities out on the table. Then spend time checking out, with evidence, those hunches most likely to provide the high leverage explanations about what is leading to the situation. Once the dimensions of any problem are identified, solving it is relatively easy. The hunches to focus on and to test out are those that the learners, educators and families can work on together, not something that is beyond their collective control. Poverty is one such example. Poverty unquestionably impacts on learning, but there is not a lot the school can do about this.
Having defined the problem or challenge and what might be leading to it, then it is time to get into new learning. Actually the whole process, when driven by curiosity involves new learning but this is the time to get very deliberate about the learning that will make a difference. The question is what to spend time on. Two guidelines might help: it will make a difference to the student challenge identified in the scanning and focusing phase, and it is well informed by research evidence. Picking up a few helpful hints does not make a real difference to substantive problems of leading, teaching and learning. Knowing why is as important as knowing what and how.
New learning must result in doing something different or nothing will change. In reality, taking action is integral to new learning because we learn through trying things out. However, to make a real difference, the action must be deliberate, collective and focused on making a difference. It is not just about trying new things and hoping something works. Learning from action is the central point.
One of the most important, but frequently omitted phases of the spiral is that of checking if the collective efforts have made enough of a difference. Checking involves the collection of systematic evidence, not just relying on anecdotes and victory narratives. In reality, checking occurs throughout the whole spiral because those involved are continually asking, “What’s going on for our learners?” and “How do we know?” Every time something different is tried, informal checking finds out if learners understand some important idea more deeply or more quickly than they did before. Just as learners and their families were involved in earlier phases of the spiral, and should continue to be involved throughout, deciding if progress represents enough of a difference should include their views.
The inquiry framework has been designed as a spiral because “innovation floats on a sea of inquiry” (Timperley, et al., 2014). When driven by deep curiosity, it is never finished. Deep and systematic inquiry becomes a professional way of life.

Comparing inquiry with other approaches to in-school professional learning
Most educators know that the track record of external professional development making a real difference for students is not good. While teachers may enjoy the courses or feel inspired, most external courses are, by their very nature, too far removed from teachers’ everyday lives and challenges to have a direct impact. Unfortunately, much school-based professional development doesn’t make much difference either. The reason is that teachers do not engage with deep curiosity because there is an unspoken assumption that they are the problem. They have little agency in either defining what is going on for learners or what might make a difference. Their hunches are not treated with respect or tested, and so they go through the “motions of inquiry” without deep engagement.
I will finish this paper by describing how working through the spiral is different from some in-school approaches to professional development that I have seen in many Australian schools. These approaches often begin with an identified student-related challenge. In secondary schools, this might be low achievement in Year 12 examinations in those areas where answers require students to write extended text. In primary schools, it might be reading comprehension profiles on NAPLAN that show little growth between Years 3 and 5. In either case, teachers are often led through a process that is antithetical to inquiry and what we know about learning. In Table 1 I have contrasted a typical in-school professional development with an inquiry approach using a hypothetical scenario at the primary level in relation to poor NAPLAN results on reading comprehension.

Leading teaching and learning
If leaders wish to make a difference, there is no more powerful approach to leading teaching and learning than through creating a culture of genuine curiosity about what is happening for learners and a systematic process to engage in deep inquiry in ways that create agency to make the difference. The spiral becomes motivating because teachers are learning about new ways of doing things that are focused on the challenges they are experiencing each day. Not everyone will engage immediately. By making it a collective effort the reluctant members get drawn into the process and it becomes a culture throughout the school with accompanying expectations about how things can be different. Deep and systematic inquiry becomes part of being professional. The challenge for leaders is to develop the organisational conditions and agency at all levels within the school to make enough of a difference to student learning.

Dumont, H, Istance, D, & Benavides, F 2010, The Nature of Learning, OECD, Paris.
Hattie J 2012, Visible Learning for Teachers, Taylor and Francis, London.
Hattie, J, & Timperley, H 2007, ‘The power of feedback’, Review of Educational Research, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 81–112.
Timperley, H, Kaser, L & Halbert , J 2014, A Framework for Transforming Learning in Schools: Innovation and the Spiral of Inquiry. Seminar Series 234, Centre for Strategic Education, Melbourne.

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Fig. 2: A spiral of inquiry, learning and action

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Table 1: How an inquiry approach is different from typical in-school professional development