We're interested in the notion of incidental professional development in open learning spaces where teachers are working collaboratively. Does the very fact that we are teaching alongside colleagues have an effect on our own professional formation? To what extent are we influenced by the way our colleagues teach, interact with students and cause learning? Is it an assumption that this incidental learning is going on in our learning hubs, or is it in fact a reality? And in which case, what is the nature of it?
I spent some time this week listening to teachers as they described how they’ve been influenced by colleagues in their learning hubs. I wasn’t concerned with the more traditional notion of professional development that tends to happen at set times outside the teaching day but with the anecdotal and ‘incidental’ (for want of a better word), things they had taken on as a direct result of sharing a learning and teaching space.
I was surprised at the extent of what had occurred in such a short time. The teachers cited numerous examples of how they had learned from their colleagues and how they had adapted and adopted new practices themselves. And it wasn’t just surface level management and organizational strategies that they were absorbing.
Teachers described a real depth to their professional learning. They often commented on picking up on the way their colleagues questioned learners, how they pushed children’s thinking to a deeper level, and extracted as much ‘learning juice’, as Guy Claxton would say, from a particular learning situation. They discussed how their ability to give timely feedback was growing as a result of watching and listening to each other teach.
There was talk of the way colleagues introduced learning tasks, how they captured reflection during and after learning, and picking up on new strategies for developing critical thinking in reading. They spoke about how they observed each other utilizing our learner qualities- a language of disposition- to engage children in the learning process, or their observations around the use of the inquiry model and how it was being utilized across the curriculum areas.
There was other evidence too; teachers talked about how their colleagues modeled the use of e-learning and multi-modal artifacts, how they observed each other building assessment literacy in learners, or encouraging the children to problem solve.
All this learning sits outside the more usual frameworks for delivering professional learning. On top of this again, is the dialogue and ‘bounce’ that goes on before, during and after teaching as well as the more planned reflection sessions during the week.
The common thread that ties the teachers’ observations together is the idea of teaching in an open learning space being extremely ‘visible’. There is, as I was reminded, no-where to hide. This is nothing new to our colleagues in Early Childhood Education but it is for many in the primary sector. And it’s a rich thread of learning for teachers.
Villa et al (2008) suggest that “people who co-teach are in an ideal situation to spur their own professional growth through dialogue with their co-teachers” (p. 138). They suggest that co-teachers can also engage in more structured approaches to observation and feedback as part of their professional growth.
York-Barr et al (2007) reflect on the, “learning boost that transpired when teachers taught side-by-side, sharing the same students and instructional space. Teachers indicated the ability to observe one another while teaching was a means by which they expanded their own instructional repertoires” (p. 320). This is certainly congruent with what I found.
Interestingly though this is not a new idea. 74.5% of teachers working in open-plan spaces in New Zealand in the 1970s felt that there had been greater opportunities for professional growth and development than for those teachers in more traditional settings (Department of Education, 1977).
This idea of ‘incidental’ professional development is certainly one worth exploring more. I know that we will be back again listening to the teacher voice in this area.
Department of Education. (1977). Report on open plan education in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Education.
Villa, R. A., Thousand, J. S., & Nevin, A. I. (2008). A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.