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Contemporary education settings in Australia are seeking to improve student


outcomes through the advancement of teacher quality (AITSL, 2013).

Research

literature affirms teaching quality as a key determinate of variation (DarlingHammond, 2000) in student achievement and consequently engaging teachers in high
quality professional learning is the most successful way to improve teacher
effectiveness (Department of Education & Training [DET], 2005; Hawley & Valli
1999; Robinson, 2008). Specific conditions are identified to ensure professional
learning is advantageous and impacts student learning. Furthermore, processes
relating to individual teachers engaging in quality professional learning include
reflection and self-evaluation, mentoring and coaching, an effective format of
professional learning and focused leadership. Professional learning teams and the
inquiry cycle are two techniques for implementing high impact professional learning.
Overarching components exist to ensure professional learning is a valuable and
successful enterprise. Effective professional learning is collaborative, embedded in
teacher practice and aimed at bridging the gap between what students are capable of
doing and actual student performance (DET, 2005, p.4). A dramatic shift has
occurred in understanding of professional development and a focus on student
learning has emerged; results driven improvement process now exists (Pfeffer &
Sutton, 2006). In practice, this results in ongoing professional learning that is
evidence based and driven by student data in a constant endeavour for maximum
impact (Hattie, 2012). 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 (DET, 2005, p.4). Models to assist in the process of analysing
and reflecting on this impact include action research, examination of student work,
study groups, case discussions, peer observation and lesson study (DET, 2005). In
addition to these models, contemporary research is utilised during professional
learning to inform and create a rigours academic curriculum (Robinson, 2008).
Reflective teaching practice and self-evaluation is critical to influencing effective
professional

learning.

Developing

excellent

pedagogy

involves

continuous

examination of actions and critically analysing alternative approaches (Barber,


Whelan & Clark, 2010). Critical questions to promote reflective teaching practice are

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identified by Timperley (2011) as Where am I going?, How am I doing? and
Where to next? (p. 5). A framework is provided for teachers to systematically
extend and inform their knowledge of students learning through reflecting on these
questions (Little & Horn, 2007; Timperley, 2011). Powerful reflection and selfevaluation compels teachers to challenge their current beliefs, justify and evaluate
strategies, and develop their own theory from practice (Ghaye, 2010; Little & Horn,
2007; Stoll, 2012). As professional learning regularly occurs in a group environment,
engaging in reflection regarding emotional intelligence is imperative to being a high
performing team member (Dofour et al., 2010). Essentially, reflection and selfevaluation can be instruments for engaging in the process of professional learning
both individually and in a professional learning community context.
Engagement in evidence-informed professional learning requires high levels of
support; mentoring and coaching are two formalised strategies. Mentoring programs
provide structured support for graduate or less experienced teachers from an
experienced and competent educator (DET, 2005). Alternatively, in many cases
coaching involves two experienced members; this can be composed of teacherteacher, teacher-lead teacher and teacher-principal (AITSL, 2013, p.3) and involves
these professionals working and learning together. A principal concept in both
partnerships is feedback. Feedback related to teaching practice that is constructive,
objective and actionable is vital in identifying areas critical to improved performance
and can be utilised when designing relevant professional learning goals (Robertson,
2009, p. 12). Support structures are an essential aspect of professional learning from
which individuals of any experience level can engage with and obtain insight.
A plethora of research has been conducted regarding both the leadership required to
implement professional learning and the most effective format. The Victorian
Government has synthesised this research and conclude professional learning with the
most profound impact is ongoing, school-based and directly relevant to the daily
work of teachers (DET, 2005, p.4). An abundance of research studies have
demonstrated that experts delivering one-off sessions with prescribed practices has
little effect on teaching practice and student outcomes (DET, 2005; Hawley & Valli
1999; Little & Horn, 2007; McRae et al., 2001, Timperley, 2011). Effective
professional learning alternatives include anchoring professional learning in the
school-based work of teachers, sourcing an expert to enrich school-based programs
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and if attending external learning opportunities there should be an explicit, schoolbased process for feeding the learning back into the school and the practice of
teachers (DET, 2005, p. 11). Additionally, research has demonstrated the most
significant effect was derived from school leadership who promoted and participated
in teacher professional development (Timperley, 2011, p.2) and integrated teacher
learning into the management and culture of the school. Therefore, both the
configuration of the programs and the support of effective leadership, are essential to
worthwhile and productive professional learning.
Professional learning teams are a powerful approach to the ongoing professional
development of a teaching practitioner, and collaborative practice can have profound
impact on student outcomes. The Victorian Government defines the professional
learning team model as teachers sharing their experiences, ideas and expertise with
each other and engaging in an ongoing process of inquiry that promotes deep team
learning (DET, 2005, p.9). The goal of the professional learning team is explicitly
linked to the fundamental intent of achieving gains in student learning (DET, 2005;
Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, Many, 2010). In response to this goal, effective professional
learning teams collaborate in a systematic manner and operate interdependently to
rigorously examine the correlation between current teaching practice and student
achievement (Ball & Cohen 2002; Griffin et al., 2010; Robinson & Lai, 2006). In
professional learning teams teachers remain accountable for individual actions,
however all members of the teams are collectively responsible for enhancing teaching,
learning and ultimately results (DET, 2005; Dufour et al., 2010). Vulnerability basedtrust has been identified by research as a crucial factor to creating and maintaining a
cohesive and high-performing team (Dufour et al., 2010, p. 120). Once this
mentality has been established, a plethora of advantageous qualities emerge; teaching
practitioners share teaching and learning strategies, collaborate to remove barriers to
student learning and create a supportive environment focused on student success
(Ladson-Billings & Gomez, 2001; Little, 2006).
A technique for professional learning and development, focused on the constant
enhancement and refinement of instructional practices, is the inquiry cycle. The
University of Aucklands Professor Timperley (2011) elucidates the evidenced based
professional learning cycle as involving teachers collectively and individually
identifying important issues, become the drivers for acquiring the knowledge they
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need to solve them, monitoring the impact of their actions, and adjusting their practice
accordingly (p.3). Student learning is at the center of the inquiry cycle and acts as the
reference point throughout the cycle of inquiry (Grampians Region DEECD, 2011).
To engage in the inquiry cycle successfully, a commitment to research engagement is
vital as this informs the actions taken within the inquiry cycle and aids professional
learning (Rickinson, Sebba, & Edwards, 2011). Furthermore, valuable professional
development utilising the inquiry cycle approach requires building a culture of
inquiry. Inquiry culture comprises of relationships of respect and challenge, inquiry
habits of mind, using relevant evidence and accessing expert knowledge (Grampians
Region DEECD, 2011; Lyons, 2010). The inquiry cycle is a tool to support and
scaffold individual practitioners or Professional Learning Teams in the professional
development process of significantly modifying practice to enrich student
achievement.
The conditions and elements for professional learning that has a high impact on
student achievement have been explored.

Research demonstrates effective

professional learning is ongoing, collaborative, school-based, and driven by student


data. Engaging in reflective practice and being formally supported by peers and
school leadership enhances a teachers professional learning trajectory. Professional
learning teams and the inquiry cycle are two techniques implemented to create
dynamic and successful professional learning. Professional learning informed by
current research has the power to create quality professional learning that transforms
teaching practices and improves education outcomes.

References
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