When it comes to driving enhanced professional development in schools, Western Sydney University's School of Education is on point.
Recognising the value of professional development to principals, the university has been helping them develop their capacity to build the evidence base that informs their schools’ teaching and learning.
Professor Michele Simons, Dean of Western Sydney University School of Education, told The Educator that the initiative is a continuation of its previous Fair Go Project, which involved the university working closely with schools to enhance their curriculums.
“What we’re doing is trying to provide relevant and timely professional learning for teachers,” she said, adding that the majority of the training is accredited through the NSW Education Standards Authority [NESA].
Simons said that one of the offshoots this is working more closely with principals who are interested in developing their capacity to build the evidence base that informs their schools’ teaching and learning.
“This involves a year-long action learning project where we go into schools and work with staff. Together, we discuss action learning sets around areas they want to investigate,” she explained.
“However, we also work with the leadership team to transfer the capacity so that the following year they can set up their own action research, which improves their ability to improve their practice.”
Simons said the underlying idea is that after having worked with a school for a year, the principal and teachers will be at a stage where their leadership has been sufficiently developed to run action learning and run their research independently.
“This is a very exciting thing to be doing, because this builds the capacity of the profession to do its own action research rather than research being done to the profession,” she said.
Listening to what principals want
Simons said that through sitting and listening to principals, she and her research team have been able to “tap into the wisdom and expertise” gained through their daily experience of working in the school.
“Once we have a sense of what their interests are and what they want to achieve. Then we’re able to say ‘what if we try this?’ or ‘how can we shake this up in the best way?’” she said.
Simons pointed out that the most important part of this process is that it is not enforced on schools as “pre-packaged solutions”.
“Our researchers go into schools with a framework that shows how action research works in a particular way through cycles,” she said.
“We don’t go in with any pre-determined agenda. It’s really up to the school to come up with the topics they think are worthy of further investigation and how they would like the teachers to congregate around these ideas.”
Simons added that Western Sydney University provides input as well as the development for the leadership team which allows them to pick up from where they leave off.
Giving educators a crucial head-start
Simons explained how through planning action sets early, schools can more easily roll out their plan of action when the school year, or next school term, begins.
“What is unique about this process is that we might start during Term 4, where we’ll be planning for next year, preparing their action learning sets to address their problems,” she said.
“Terms 1 and 2 will be when the school is collecting data and analysing it so they can make decisions. In Term 3, we have a symposium in the school where we share and perform the learning.”
Simons said rather than writing papers or reports, the researchers encourage creative ways of being able to share the learning with colleagues.
“We’re also looking at ways of tapping into a strong oral tradition. Teachers love to tell stories, explain, demonstrate and do. We know that young people are more engaged when their learning is performed,” she said.
“Asking teachers to perform their learning is a way of actually engaging them in a way that maybe they could think about engaging their own students. To some degree, there is also the opportunity to model different ways of doing things.”