What we don’t know (but want to learn) about professional learning
Professional learning can play an important role in supporting teachers and educators to develop the skills and knowledge needed to improve outcomes for children. AERO is particularly interested in professional learning approaches that will encourage teachers and educators to successfully adopt evidence-based practices. But we’re yet to fully understand the critical features that make professional learning effective.
One reason we don’t know this is because quality evidence on the causal impact of professional learning on child and student learning is relatively limited, particularly in the Australian context.
To date, much of the research has focused on large-scale, highly-structured professional learning programs that address specific content areas (see, for example the MyTeaching PartnerTM program tested in this study) or the effect of general forms of professional learning, like teacher coaching (see this meta-analysis). Recently, rigorous research from the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation has moved beyond examining forms of professional learning (for example, coaching, lesson study) to focus on understanding the mechanisms or building blocks that make professional learning effective (for example, goal setting, peer support, action planning). This work provides a robust framework for understanding mechanisms to include in the delivery of professional learning.
However, more work is needed to nuance our understanding of how such mechanisms can be implemented in professional learning to improve teaching practice, and ultimately improve outcomes for children. For example, while we know that modelling, rehearsal and targeted feedback work well when used as part of teacher coaching, we don’t know how they can be best implemented to support increased use of evidence-based practices. And how should they be delivered? Under what conditions will they work best?
What we’ll do
AERO will partner with professional learning providers (including school systems, early childhood education and care services and private organisations) to undertake rigorous studies that identify and test various mechanisms within existing programs. This may include testing the dosage and delivery of mechanisms through coaching, exploring the implementation of modelling and feedback processes and examining the importance of an external facilitator in delivering professional learning.
Building the evidence base on what makes professional learning effective is important because:
- it can help policymakers improve professional learning at scale
- it can help schools and early childhood education and care services to develop their own, in-house professional learning
- it can help schools and early childhood education and care services make more informed decisions about external professional learning programs.
Better professional learning means better support for teachers and educators to use evidence-based practice, which means better outcomes for children.
Causation is when one element, factor or event is known to cause another (for example, a particular teaching practice is known to lead to improvements in student test scores). To prove causation between two things (let’s call them A and B), researchers need to show: 1. that there is an association between A and B; 2. that A happens before B; and 3. that B is not caused by a third thing (that is, C or D). In education settings, proving causation is often challenging because of the many influences on teacher and student outcomes.
Evidence is considered rigorous when it proves that a particular approach causes a particular outcome. Rigorous evidence is produced by using specialised research methods that can identify the impact of one particular influence. The most common research method used to produce rigorous evidence is the randomised controlled trial. However, there are many other methods that can produce rigorous evidence, whether qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods. What is important in producing rigorous evidence is that the research method can rule out the effects of as many other influences as possible.