Features of Effective Professional Learning: A Case Study of the Implementation of a System-Based Professional Learning Model*

Feb. 15, 2016

Source: Professional Development in Education, Vol. 42, No. 1, 54–77, 2016
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This research broadly focuses on two distinct concerns: the first relates to what constitutes high-quality professional learning; and the second relates to the implementation of professional learning at the classroom level.
This paper addresses each of these concerns by identifying the features of effective professional learning.

Review of the literature on effective professional learning suggests six elements that support sustained change in teacher practice:
- focus on content and instructional practices;
- learning components that are participant driven and feature experiential and active learning; - feedback, including group review and self-reflection;
- collaborative practices that support the development of professional learning communities, trust and discourse;
- temporal characteristics that require the professional learning to be sustained for a minimum of one semester and include follow-up with classroom-based support; and
- coherence in teachers’ knowledge and beliefs as well as broader school and system-based policies.

This study assesses the validity of these elements in a system-based professional learning programme implemented in Diocesan schools in Australia.

The article reports on case studies of three Catholic schools that have implemented the system-based professional learning programme.
The case studies involved both interviews and surveys. The data were collected from the principal, from seventeen teachers directly involved in the implementation of the Quality Teaching Framework (QTF) and from forty-five students of these teachers.


This analysis of the three-case study schools suggests that the greatest benefit of system-based professional learning is the level of coherence it can provide. When system-based schools work together, this supports collaborative practice and enables schools to share the costs of expert support. The positive comments from staff involved in cross-school implementation suggest that such interaction is under-utilised, but facilitates cultural change.
While the analysis identified some benefits of system-based professional learning, it also emphasised the need for a level of flexibility for individual schools to implement this learning into unique school contexts.

The importance of leadership was another factor that emerged. This is a factor that has not been broadly acknowledged across reviews of structural and contextual features of effective professional learning.


The rapid erosion of the QTF in the third case study after a change of principal suggests two significant implications for system- based professional learning:
first, all six features of effective professional learning at the school level must be maintained to produce sustained change; and
second, it is important to design the learning components within system-based development such that they connect in meaningful ways to principals’ existing knowledge and belief systems.

This would ensure that cultural change can survive changes in leadership. The analysis of these three case studies provides strong support for the six elements of professional learning identified from the literature review.

Updated: Jan. 09, 2017