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Moving Beyond Cynicism:
New Ways of Looking at Teacher Staff Development

by Darron Davies

This article appeared in the February 2003 edition of Prime Focus Magazine: a national magazine for Australian Primary School Principals.

How a school engages its teachers is a reflection of how it engages its students.

Schools, I believe, need to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of staff development if they wish to engage teachers and have an impact upon the daily routine.

Many teachers, I feel, are tiring of staff development. It too often comes in the form of adhoc workshops and professional development days. Folders find their ways onto shelves. Ideas do not get integrated into the classroom.

It is about time that schools further embraced workplace-learning models akin to those within the VET sector e.g. the Reframing the Future Projects. Here teachers have an opportunity to enter into workbased learning, within real time, and a cycle of action, reflection and re-application. This results in deeper learning as it is connected to workplace and teachers can see immediate successes and challenges.

Theorists despair

One only has to read or hear recent comments by the likes of Howard Gardner, Guy Claxton, Edward DeBono, John Ralston Saul or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. These researchers are not at all happy with the way educational ideas are marketed in schools. Middlemen package ideas – often from the U.S. – and present watered down fads. At one end we have the theorists pulling their hair out in despair. At the other end we have teachers being offered very questionable pop psychology. And don’t teachers know this! Teachers read this very well and as a result often bring cynical and understandable responses to imposed professional development.

What messages are we sending?

If we are to address the real concerns of teachers we need to go directly to the teachers and work with their skills. Professional development should connect with teachers in similar ways that teachers connect with students. What messages are we creating in schools if professional development is seen as unproductive? What message is this creating about lifelong learning? A teacher’s engagement in his or her learning should be a model for how students should engage in theirs. Whenever we fail to address these issues we are saying quite dramatic things about how we view the process of learning.

There have been literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of applications of my ideas educationally, both in this country and in the world. I say that with as much mystification and embarrassment as pride, because I have had almost nothing to do with it; these are things other people have done. But one thing that struck me is how incredibly superficial most of the applications have been, and one obsessive thought that's stimulating me through this current work in education is this: I don't want to be part of the trivialization of education. - Howard Gardner

Gazzaniga who worked alongside alongside Roger Sperry on split-brain patients said in 1985 "How did some laboratory finding of limited generality get so outrageously misinterpreted?" - Quoted in Guy Claxton’s ‘Hare Brain Tortoise Mind.’

Learning is a much wider, richer concept than is captured within current models of education and training. - Guy Claxton in ‘Wise Up: the Challenge of Lifelong Learning.’

Focus on Teaching Skills

A starting point for a deeper model of professional development is a focus and celebration on the skills of teachers. Teachers possess quite remarkable skills and these are shown in their depth of planning, the dynamics of delivery, varied assessment and the ability to chop and change during the course of the day to meet varying student needs in and beyond the classroom.

Very few teachers teach as they did at the start of their career. Teachers are constantly adapting and changing how they teach – often in subtle and quite unmeasurable ways – and this is a great starting point for professional development. Start with what is real and what can have an immediate impact in the workplace.

In a recent project at Glen Waverley Primary School I introduced many teachers and students to new classroom strategies. This was a process of foregrounding the practicalities of teaching and evolved into a program that simply put ‘process’ on the table. This gave teachers a licence to further think about how they taught, discuss what had worked within the past – formal and informal chats – as well as to celebrate creative practice.

Look at the Process of Teaching

A focus on process liberates teachers from content and foregrounds a truth that all teachers share whether they are in Primary, Secondary, Tertiary or Industry: all teachers have to engage and stimulate varying learners. How one engages a learner in their learning is a starting point for deeper engagement. All teachers and trainers share "educational process." The more we see learning in this way the more we can see what unites us and how we can learn from each other. I have in my own experience been amazed by the many strategies that I have been able to adapt across the sectors and subject areas.

Teaching is creative

At the core of good teacher staff development is the celebration of teacher creativity – a teacher’s innate ability to grow in his or her skills and adapt learning processes to his or her unique students. Where much professional development has failed has been in the way that it has defined and pigeonholed learning and teaching. Teaching and learning is an active process constantly being adapted and engaged in by both teacher and student(s). Teachers know this best and should reflect and build upon what they are already doing within the day or even at night in the form of preparation or marking. We should work with what comes from within rather than impose. This shows respect and creates a fertile environment for growth. Our motto should be "As with teachers likewise with students".

Furthering discussion about Process

Learning should not be grounded in fads or jargon. We should think twice about what is packaged and fed into schools. One constant is that of teachers and their need to engage and stimulate themselves and others in learning. How can this incontrovertible truth be brought to the table? How can we maintain such reflection upon process through the many distractions and challenges of the day? How can we share ideas? How can we deal with practicalities before we reach into theories? What role can networking, coaching and mentoring play?

By getting teachers to think about teaching strategies and how they can be adapted we are celebrating the abilities of teachers and the creativity of a craft. The more we talk about the ‘craft of teaching’ the more we can see teaching as an artistic journey – one with its peaks, its depressions and plateaus.

In these days in which learning is often devolved into that of ‘student learning styles’ or electronic delivery, teaching is still practical, hard and ever changing as one tries to meet the demands of students. Teaching is also very social with much under-recognised room for interactive learning.

The more schools embrace the practical craft of teachers the better we lay a foundation for getting beyond the understandable cynicism towards a fad-driven and information overload. It is time to put practicalities on the table, celebrate the craft of teaching and build workplace-learning models further into schools.


  • Claxton Guy (1999) Wise Up: The Challenge of Lifelong Learning.
  • Reframing the Future Website
  • Claxton Guy (1997) Hare Brain Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less.
  • Howard Gardner Interview

Darron Davies

© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009


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