Pakuranga College: Organising for professional learning

 Pakuranga College principal Mike Williams describes the strategy, structures and processes the school is using to embed professional learning in teacher daily practice.


There are many ways to organise your school. I believe that the organisation of professional learning has to:

  • include all staff
  • be authentic and reflect school values and culture
  • be based on the science and evidence about how people learn.

Our school professional learning journey has been about creating the school-wide culture and conditions for teachers to challenge their thinking and their current ways of teaching, adapt their practice and respond more effectively to student learning needs.

There are three important ways we have done this:

  • We constantly communicate our key beliefs and vision for teachers and teaching.
  • We have deliberately contextualised professional learning in individual teacher’s daily practice.
  • We have prioritised the inclusion of authentic student voice in the inquiry process.

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Teacher outcomes

There are four desired teacher outcomes to our professional learning programme:

  • increased knowledge of how people learn
  • a greater variety of pedagogical tools in our teacher tool-kit
  • increased self-awareness of our values and assumptions and how they drive our actions in the classroom
  • deeper reflective capacity and inquiry thinking skills – our ability to stand back and critically analyse the effect of our teaching on student learning.

Our organisation, structures and processes provide personalised learning opportunities for teachers to achieve these outcomes. We do not provide answers or solutions. We remind our teachers that they are professionals and highly successful learners. We expect them to identify problems of practice and select some best practice or creative and innovative actions to take for themselves.

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Leadership tasks

The principal’s job is to:

  • put the structures and resources in place for effective professional learning to happen. The critical part of this, the hardest part, is to build a learning culture.
  • keep the big goal and the core principles in focus – the reason we are doing this work is better outcomes for students through teachers continually moving forward and building capability.
  • remain committed and not allow us to get side tracked, but be flexible. Like teaching it is a complex process and we know the approach will change.

As a leader I have direct influence on how teachers value and genuinely buy-in to professional learning and inquiry.

I ensure there is designated time for professional learning and inquiry.

We have one hour a week, when students don’t come to school, for teachers to spend on their own professional learning. It is never used for any other purpose. No matter how important a competing priority is, I keep reiterating professional learning is the most important thing.

I distribute the leadership of teacher learning to as many teachers as possible.

Leading professional learning of a staff is not something you heroically do on your own. The role of principal is not to do, but to ensure it happens. The principal leads the leaders of learning – or in our context, the principal empowers the leaders of the leaders of learning.

I work with my senior leadership team to set the strategic direction for school-wide professional learning. I also use my networks to access resources and ideas to develop the thinking and structures of the senior and middle leadership teams and grow the capability of a distributed leadership team. These teams in turn develop the capability of other teachers to inquire into their practice.

I think leadership is one aspect of professional learning. So I deliberately plan and provide authentic opportunities for teachers at all stages to be leaders.

I focus on developing a coherent school-wide culture.

You can’t build a professional learning culture unless it is embedded in a wider school culture that is firmly rooted in the school’s core values and principles. A professional learning culture allows teachers to openly acknowledge their effective and ineffective practice and grows the capability of a distributed leadership team.

I walk the talk.

I model inquiry in a way that is purposeful and authentic to my role in the school. As a non-teaching principal I learn and inquire into the effectiveness of my leadership and I share this with teachers. I make myself vulnerable and expose myself to the same risks I am asking my teachers to take.

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PLD structures

Professional learning groups (PLGs)

Teachers engage in structured reading, discussion, and inquiry planning and critique in groups of around 12 to 15 people. In our staff of 130 to 140, there are 10 groups.

A deputy principal and a team of 10 teachers, known as professional learning group (PLG) facilitators, plan and lead weekly professional learning sessions. PLG facilitators are experienced teachers who are respected by colleagues, have mana, are passionate about teaching and learning and are good listeners and critically reflective practitioners.

Their role is not to teach staff pedagogical strategies. Their role is to model the desired outcomes of PLGs and facilitate structured activities to support staff in their professional inquiries and challenge their thinking and practice.

Critical friends groups

PLGs are subdivided into critical friends groups of three which encourage deeper discussion about individual teaching practice in a safe, supportive, collaborative relationship. The critical friends also observe each other as part of the inquiry process.

Teachers coaching teachers

We have volunteer coaching relationships in which a coach (specialist classroom teacher) will go into class, observe and work with a teacher to help them to modify their teaching strategies and behaviours to better meet the needs of their students.

When we first tried to establish these relationships, no one responded. Two years later we asked teachers of year 10 students to identify students they thought were poorly engaged or not learning effectively in their classes. This approach empowered teachers to identify challenges they were having and to work in a non-judgemental partnership with the coach.

We encourage our coaches to complete a masters paper in supporting teacher learning and most of our coaches are completing masters in teaching and learning.

School-wide themes

We have school-wide reading themes. The purpose of the readings is to build teacher knowledge about best practice pedagogy and how people learn, and to develop teacher awareness of their own perspectives and ways of looking at themselves and their students. Teachers apply this knowledge to their inquiries.

Each year we have one external expert present on research and evidence-based pedagogy related to our school-wide themes.

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The spiral of inquiry in action

Teaching as inquiry is an integral part of the process of improving outcomes for students. We are trying to develop an inquiry mindset in all our teachers.

You can’t fix problems through using an external expert. The most powerful learning for teachers is when they discover problems and solutions for themselves. It’s a waste of time people telling you how to fix the problem. It’s the telling that is the waste of time.

We reiterate that inquiry is not an additional project, instead it is an iterative and ongoing process in which we critique and assess the effect of our teaching strategies and activities on student learning, motivation and engagement.

We focus on:

  • expelling the blame culture
  • moving from a deficit to positive growth mindset
  • identifying what it is that we have control over
  • reflecting on prior practice
  • analysing the learning needs of the current cohort.

Our staff are required to use qualitative and quantitative data including achievement data, student interactions, how the class is going, the quality of student engagement, student feedback, peer and video observations, Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT) data and previous years’ assessment data. In our PLGs we work with staff to make sense of it. That is the key.

All our teachers follow our adapted spiral of inquiry process – shown in the image below.

Inquiry focus

We emphasise that inquiries have to be:

  • purposeful 
  • located in daily practice – what students in my class need to know and be able to do
  • shared or individual 
  • focused on a class or a particular group of students
  • informed by analysis of data and evidence of student learning, qualitative and quantitative.

In our school we have retained flexibility and honoured professional judgement. Teachers decide on an inquiry focus that is relevant to their teaching practice and the learning needs of their students.

Every teacher can have their own individual inquiry, perhaps based around a theme. There is likely to be a large number of inquiries around engagement; how engaged students are in the learning activities, the motivation they bring to learning and their depth of understanding.

Student involvement

All teachers are required to use student voice in their inquiry. Effective teaching and learning is about teachers being explicit about what they want students to learn and students being explicit about their learning needs. The student voice helps teachers see what the problem is and where to go next. What the students say is the most powerful.

Students and teachers at Pakuranga College describe how being involved in professional inquiry together has made a difference to their experience of learning and teaching:

Student voice in professional inquiry

Teaching observations

As part of the inquiry process each teacher is expected to observe a critical friend and be observed by one. We use an observation template to record learning intentions and the teaching and learning strategies used and to collect student voice about what they are learning and how and what the teacher is doing that helps them with their learning.

Lesson observation form (Word 2007 41 kB)

We also ask teachers to have pre and post observation conversations. The purpose of these conversations is not to give feedback or advice. The observer asks questions to prompt the teacher to think critically about how their teaching and learning activities engaged students in active learning, and to reflect critically on the effect of their teaching actions on student understanding and motivation.

Critical reflection

We have experimented with ways for people to think deeply about their practice and which students are advantaged and disadvantaged by their actions.

One of the tensions is getting the balance right between the public and private nature of reflection. For example, insisting that everyone observes someone else and is observed themselves compared to using other more individual reflective tools of journaling and video analysis.

Undoubtedly one of the most effective tools for reflecting on our own practice is to actually watch ourselves in action. Many of our staff are already brave enough to video themselves.

One of my goals is to build our culture to the stage where one day we will reach the point where teachers openly share videos of their practice and we have groups of teachers who sit together watching a videoed lesson critiquing what they are seeing, asking questions about why that strategy, with that class or group or child.

Public presentations of inquiry

Twice a year, for about 15 minutes, every teacher presents their inquiry to their colleagues in cross-curricular or faculty groups. In these presentations staff model risk taking and thinking. They share what they did and why, and what students have said. All presentations follow a set of questions.

Inquiry presentation guides (Word 2007 18 kB)

Teacher and student shared presentations of inquiry

Another step we’ve taken is to build a culture of teachers and students talking together about effective teaching. This initiative started slowly in 2013 with two brave teachers and groups of 3 to 5 students. It is now a regular part of our programme.

Each year between 6 to 9 teachers and their students present to cross-curricular groups of 30 teachers for 15 to 20 mins. The students can confidently talk about what their teacher was doing that was helping them with their learning and the teacher talks about how the student voice helped them modify their practice to create more effective learning activities for their students.

The dialogue between teachers in these sessions is very powerful. Teachers ask students if a learning strategy used in one subject area would transfer to their own subject area. We have found that involving students in these presentations has enhanced the transfer of teacher practice, for example, from English to physics, physics to mathematics, English to social sciences.

Student feedback after the presentation sessions tells us that they believe there is a real culture of teaching and learning partnership being established when teachers say to them, “Well that strategy worked in your physics class, so let’s try it in maths.”

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Inquiry example

Listen to Martyn Davidson, one of the history teachers at Pakuranga college, talk about his inquiry into making history more engaging for students.

Pakuranga College: Inquiry story

Further information

Professional learning – teacher inquiry

In this video, from the Enabling e-learning website, Mike Williams describes professional learning and inquiry at Pakuranga College

Student voice and effective teacher practice

Teacher magazine. May 2016. ACER

In this article, Alison Taylor describes how they worked with students at Pakuranga College to develop an effective teacher profile. You can download the profile from the web page.

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