Kathy Deacon, Director of the Centre for Professional Learning at the NSW Teachers Federation, raised the issue at a recent Gonski Institute panel discussion at the University of NSW.

Deacon, who set up the centre within the Federation, said 2200 public schools were “choosing their own adventure” through the devolution process to ‘local schools, local decisions’.

 It had “fragmented professional learning across the system” and “crippled the department’s capacity to develop wholescale reform across the system”. 

“Too many people are out there making money out of professional learning and they’ve never had to step across the threshold of classrooms,” Deacon said. 

Professional learning vacuum

Deacon added that the NSW Education Department employed 104 people in its Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation, and “only a handful of very dedicated people” in curriculum and “practically no-one in teaching and learning”. This had effectively distanced the department from the professional learning realm.

“They have vacated the field in the areas of core business and teaching and left the professional learning vacuum to be filled, which is why we set up the Centre for Professional Learning when it reached crisis point.

“There’s a loss of institutional knowledge and memory and experience and vital communication to and between schools. Curriculum delivers the horizontal connections between schools but it’s breaking down and the vertical connections to schools have disappeared.

“How can the department know what’s happening in schools? They only know anecdotally … through the devolution process,” Deacon posed. 

Deacon’s words formed part of the discussion on ‘How will we support and value the profession? Responses to Gonski 2.0 from research, policy and practice.’

 Other speakers included Darceyville Public School principal Michelle Hostrup, UNSW senior lecturer in education Dr Tony Loughland and educational researcher Dr Tracy Durksen.

Accountability over governance

Loughland noted the department’s hands-off approach to professional learning was in line with modern neo-Liberal governments.

“They’re about accountability rather than governing … they tend to set targets and make us accountable rather than be involved in professional learning, and that can be problematic because you do need to have a very strong sense of what’s happening at the practice level.”

Loughland shared research findings showing the two best models for professional learning. One was a model introduced to teachers, contextualised to their environment and allowed them to do some action research. The other involved reading groups, which created a “really nice space” for teachers to work within. 

Boosting teacher collaboration

However, a reading group is more about co-operation rather than collaboration. Hostrup defined collaboration as the act of working together, but posing feedback questions and reflection. 

“In terms of lessons, it’s much easier for me to write a maths lesson and another teacher to write another lesson. Team teaching is just two adults in a room. It’s not as rich, I’m not improving my practice. For [collaboration] to happen, I need time. [Writing, delivering and evaluation] the lesson together … it’s messy,” she said.

What enables effective collaboration, according to Hostrup, is trust between teachers and personal autonomy in the process. 

“The process has to be embedded from the beginning. We need to know how to ask useful probing questions, how to accept feedback … We want to make sure we [as principals] are supporting and scaffolding [collaboration] for teachers,” she said.

“We’re seeing teachers as experts of learning of what goes on in a school capacity so they can advise each other, not going off to whizz bang conferences all the time.”

Durksen suggested being more inclusive of newer teachers in the collaborative process.

She said a collaborative culture should be promoted early in teacher education programs to help develop students “soft skills” that they’ll require for effective teacher collaboration in their future careers.