Assuming Responsibility: Teachers Taking Charge of Their Professional Development

Article excerpt

The paper reports on some of the findings of an extensive study undertaken in Victoria as part of a national Science, ICT and Mathematics Education in Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR) project. One of the significant findings of the study was the extent to which teachers in the schools where the study data were collected took responsibility for many aspects of their own professional development. This was not at the expense of, but rather was in addition to, their involvement in school- and region-based professional development activity. The study also identifies some of the challenges faced, mostly related to the location of their schools in a rural or regional setting.

INTRODUCTION

The importance of teacher professional development is universally acknowledged: so many studies on the topic have been completed, and so much has been written it would be reasonable to ask what else needs to be said about the subject. What is presented here is based on a detailed study of the professional development of teachers of science and mathematics, focusing specifically on issues for schools in regional and rural Victoria. In the study the topics for discussion were primarily determined by the teachers and principals interviewed, so the agenda reflects what is seen by these professionals as the real issues for them around professional development and what is happening on the ground in their workplaces. The authors believe therefore that the insights gained do provide a unique and current perspective on this important aspect of education within this specific context.

LOOKING AT TEACHER PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

There are numerous lenses through which researchers have looked at teacher professional development (PD). For example, researchers have looked at the impact of PD on the ability of school systems or schools themselves to implement specific curriculum change. Others have looked at the knowledge needs of teachers generally. For instance Shulman (1986; 1987) identified seven forms of teacher knowledge, and his pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) has been widely adopted as the province of, and focus for, subject-specific teacher professional learning and development (e.g. Appleton, 2003; Loughran, Mulhall & Berry, 2007). Others have looked at the knowledge and skills needs of specific groups of teachers. Tytler et al (1999) studied the professional development needs of primary science and mathematics teachers in Australia at different stages of their careers. Others (e.g. Meiers, 2009) have looked at the characteristics of schools which have successful professional development programs. Recent studies (e.g. Lyons et al., 2006) have identified problems with educational achievement of students, and professional support of teachers in rural areas. This issue will be a major focus of this study.

It is widely accepted that teacher professional development is most powerfully pursued within a learning context involving teams of teachers working together on a program embedded in their classroom practice (Joyce & Showers, 1995; Hill & Crevola, 1999; Hall & Hord, 2001; Luke et al., 2003). This principle underpinned the Victorian School Innovation in Science (SIS) research project (Tyler, 2007), one significant outcome of which was that science professional learning teams increased their discussion of principles of teaching and learning and their coordinated planning. Other studies have indicated potential limitations of professional learning teams that cross subject boundaries or the secondary-primary school divide (Tyler, 2008), and the importance of maintaining and energising subject cultures in accommodating the professional learning needs of teachers of subjects (Darby, 2008). This tension between generic and subject-specific PD is another issue emerging from this study.

This study arose within the context of a broader set of studies designed to illuminate education in Science, ICT and Mathematics Education in rural and regional schools in Australia (the SiMERR project) and so was focused on the situation in rural and regional schools with respect to teacher professional development. …