“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene II).
I have considered this quotation in a new light since hearing Vivienne Porritt’s presentation on Professional Learning and Development at the Evolve Alliance Visioning and Leadership conference. This is curious considering it wasn’t Vivienne that mentioned Romeo and Juliet, it was Andy Buck (he gave an example of a student’s exam response to the question: How does Romeo’s character develop throughout the play? Answer: It doesn’t, it’s just self, self, self all the way through). So why does Vivienne’s presentation prompt me to reconsider Shakespeare’s words? It is because she began by talking about the names we use to describe what is commonly referred to as CPD – and made me consider what they mean.
Vivienne talked about the C in CPD and revealed that it was used merely to distinguish CPD from the I in ITT (as opposed to a noble claim towards learning that is on-going). Who knew? She lamented that INSET sounds like something that happens in prison and lambasted ‘training’ as something you do when you want to run a race.
What I love about Vivienne (this is the third time I have seen her speak at an event) is that she challenges you to question what you think you know. She asked us all to describe what we understood by CPD (or whatever term we chose to use). When Vivienne asks a question, she asks it of the whole room. She pauses (you hold your breath) and then she demands an answer. It’s quite scary.
We stumbled for a response, and slowly, table by table, we offered up a range of definitions. The first three were about ‘improvement’, the fourth mentioned ‘children’. Vivienne, who is like a headteacher you’re desperate to please but frightens you to death, holds your words in the air and then bats them back at you in the form of questions that you are praying are rhetorical. It is unnerving, and not for the faint-hearted, but by God it makes you think. Why did it take us so long to mention children? Why is our default word ‘improvement’? What does ‘improvement’ suggest? Why don’t we ever feel good enough?
When we talk about teachers, the word we don’t use is ‘learning’, which is curious considering we do talk of students learning. Teachers and leaders cannot improve unless they learn, so there is no point in talking about improvement in isolation. It is not something that magically happens. The learning has to happen first. Again, we know this of students, so why don’t we apply this to ourselves? Words matter. As teachers and leaders, we need to decide on the words we use because language creates culture. A focus on improvement detracts from a focus on learning.
Vivienne’s vision is for PLD: Professional Learning & Development. The distinction she draws between learning and development is a game-changer. Learning is about opportunities and experiences (the easy stuff) whereas development is about application, practice, failure and persistence (the hard stuff). This is easier to understand in a table:
In her inimitable style, Vivienne asked us to offer a percentage for the time given to professional learning and professional development in school. The results will not surprise you. 90% / 10% at worst, 70% / 30% at best. How ironic. The process that could have the most impact, bring about the most sustained change and have a significant effect on children’s learning is marginalised. Instead, Vivienne tells us sarcastically, we’re having are “amazing experiences, and that’s all.”
It takes a very brave SLT to see professional learning and development in this way. Most SLTs will focus on ‘the easy stuff’. This is invariably through ‘sending’ someone on a course (“please don’t send anyone anywhere,” asks Vivienne) or by providing a menu of opportunities in schools/MATs/TSAs. Many of these experiences and opportunities will be very good, but they’re only truly meaningful if they are allowed to simmer and infuse into your practice.
The issue is that those in charge of teacher learning and development in school begin by creating or providing opportunities and then try and evaluate the impact. This is a noble trap that I have fallen into myself. It seems like a great idea, doesn’t it? You want your school’s CPD to be varied, personalised and engaging so you create a wide range of opportunities for your staff to access. You ask your staff to complete an evaluation form and you feel satisfied that you are doing a good job. Oh dear.
Did I feel that Vivienne was telling me off for being so short-sighted? Yes. Did I mind? No. Faced with a list of ground-breaking research papers about professional learning and development and the question, “how many of these have you read?” I admit I squirmed. Why had I, a Deputy Headteacher for 9 years who had responsibility for Teaching and Learning NOT read this research? Why did I think that I could design and implement a truly meaningful approach to teacher learning and development with NO background reading or research? What arrogance, what blindness, what folly.
We have a responsibility as educators to base our strategy for teacher learning on evidence-based practices, respected research and tried-and-tested approaches. This would help us to understand that what really makes the difference is not the opportunities and experiences that we offer to teachers, but the time taken to develop, practice and apply the learning gained. Vivienne summed this up beautifully when she said that what we want to hear from our teachers is this; “thank you for giving me that opportunity; I estimate that the time I’m going to need to apply that technique and achieve the impact we’re after is about three months, during which I will practise, probably mess it up, but keep trying and then, when I’m ready, can someone come and watch me in action and give me some feedback? When I’m confident it’s having the intended impact, I’ll help someone else with it.”
In a conversation like this, the impact has been decided first. The learning opportunity is chosen based on the intended impact AND what the research suggests is the best way of achieving that impact. This seems like a far more robust model than a ever-so-slightly cocky and probably-promoted-too-quickly deputy headteacher making it up as she goes along. Sigh.
Making the shift from an input model to an impact model and asking the impact question at the start, not the end, is a transformational approach as far as I can see. Prioritising the development time above the learning time is also revolutionary, albeit with implications for time and capacity that form the challenges faced by all school leaders. Vivienne talked about courageous SLTs who prioritise the tough stuff instead of being satisfied with the easy stuff. Vivienne talked about school leaders realising their own agency to pursue their moral purpose. Vivienne talked about knowing the difference you want to make first, and then being able to evaluate it meaningfully.
As she talked, Vivienne eyeballed us. She put us on the spot. She was compelling and terrifying all at once. Here she is doing her best Headteacher impression:
And so, because there is so much in a name (sorry Juliet), I am ditching CPD and adopting PLD.
And Vivienne, waving one’s arms around is a perfectly reasonable way to present at a conference (PLD does not stand for Porritt Looks Demented) especially if it has this much impact. Thank you.