Rethinking Professional Standards to Promote Professional Learning

Feb. 10, 2016

Source: Professional Development in Education, Vol. 42, No. 1, 19-35, 2016
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article explores some of the key issues that emerged in the revision of the professional standards in Scottish education which resulted in a suite of professional standards covering different stages of a teacher’s career. The revision of the professional standards was part of a wider project to build teacher professional learning in ways that had an impact on practice and on pupil learning.
The article then explores issues raised in the work to take forward the two recommendations from the Donaldson (2011) report related to, firstly, the professional standards providing a coherent framework and, secondly, the development of a ‘standard for active registration’.

Design of professional standards

There are a number of issues related to the design of standards, particularly about the level of detail necessary for standardization and about the authenticity and accuracy of these specifications of practice. A critical issue is the construction of professional practice underpinning a particular professional standard. A simple distinction might be whether in a particular standard the focus is on setting out the tasks and functions or whether there is a more complex construction of professional practice to include knowledge, understandings, personal dispositions and purposes.

Professional standards and professional learning
Professional standards are seen as an important element in promoting professional learning. Professional standards for teaching and educational leadership are complex ideological texts privileging particular constructions of what it means to be an effective teacher or leader. Professional standards have a clear regulatory function specifying in differing degrees of detail the required tasks, skills and knowledge of professional practitioners. The first issue concerns the assumptions about the nature and development of professional practice that underpin the design of a set of professional standards, and the second issue relates to the use of standards by teachers as they progress in their careers.

The nature of professional practice
The professional standards in Scottish education include different aspects as integral elements: professional values, knowledge and understanding, personal qualities and abilities as well as the professional actions.
While these standards defined practice in terms of sets of behaviours, there are also ideas about the importance of criticality and reflection.

There are a number of possible ways in which standards might be used to enhance practice. Professional standards set out expectations and levels of competence, and so one way in which standards might be used to promote enhanced practice is to raise expectations.
There is, therefore, an inherent tension in a standard such as The Standard for Full Registration, which is the legal benchmark of competence and can hold teachers to account in terms of their performance and at the same time is aspirational in terms of raising expectations.

Rethinking the use of a professional standard

Therefore, in seeking to improve the quality of pedagogic practice, the focus has to move from the specification of pedagogic practice to engagement in a process of ongoing professional learning and the impact of this on practice. Therefore, as part of the suite of professional standards, a new standard was included, The Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning (GTCS 2012b).

The Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning centres on a set of professional actions that focus on the development of practice. The Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning sets out a set of professional actions which relate to the process of developing and improving practice. The Standard for Career- Long Professional Learning codifies the processes of professional learning and shifts the focus for teachers from a ‘once and for all’ attainment of a set of competences to an ongoing engagement in the processes of professional learning.

Conclusion: from transmission to generation

A critical element in the design of the Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning is about privileging a specific construction of professional learning. In order to do so, there are a number of aspects that need to be addressed including the following:

Firstly, the effective use of standards including the Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning rests on high-level skill and understanding about the processes of self-evaluation by teachers.
In addition, one of the first prerequisites in using the Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning will be the building of skill for teachers individually and collectively to use standards as reflective and planning tools exploring their contextualized practice. This requires on the part of teachers a deep understanding of the context of their practice and an awareness of themselves as practitioners and learners working in this context.

Secondly, the Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning privileges processes that reify teacher agency in the development of practice including enquiry approaches, collaboration and leadership. Teachers as generators of knowledge may well lead them to question practice in school but it needs to be recognized that in doing so they make an important contribution to the enhancement of teaching and learning.

Thirdly, professional learning has to move from transmissive models to models that allow teachers to engage with other teachers in knowledge-rich environments. Access to ‘knowledge resources’ to support the knowledge practices of professional learning is important.

Finally, creating a standard for career-long professional learning is a starting point in underlining the significance of teacher learning. The success of this model depends on the role of school leadership in fostering cultures to support this and at a system level where professional learning is placed as central to the school improvement raising attainment agenda. Therefore we need to move away from a model of change and improvement that privileges centralized policy initiatives and associated training to ensure implementation of a more contextualized approach whereby professional learning is the means of generating and experimenting with changing practices in the classroom.

Donaldson, G., 2011. Teaching Scotland’s future: report of a review of teacher education in Scotland. Edinburgh: ScotGov.
General Teaching Council Scotland, 2012b. The standard for career-long professional learning: supporting the development of teacher professional learning [online]. Edinburgh: GTCS.

Updated: Dec. 19, 2016