The effectiveness of a professional development course: teachers’ perceptions

Countries: 
Published: 
October 2019

Source: ELT Journal, Volume 73, Issue 4, October 2019, Pages 409–418

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The 30-hour professional development (PD) course for English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers in Israel focusing on effective teaching took place over a period of three months in eight face-to-face sessions.
The content and methods of instruction were founded upon findings from previous, contextually relevant research that identified the key instructional practices of effective English teachers (see Sokel and Martin 2016).
The main areas of focus included learner engagement, providing opportunities for constructing knowledge through scaffolding, and instructional coherence, higher-order thinking skills, in addition to relevance of topic and task, learner autonomy, and cooperative and collaborative learning.
Throughout the course, key theoretical underpinnings were presented and substantial time in each session was then given for participants to work in small groups to discuss the issues, share examples from their classrooms, and examine and prepare teaching materials in conjunction with the topics.

Participants
The participants of this qualitative study were 28 female EFL elementary school teachers in the Jewish sector in northern Israel.
Twenty-one teachers taught in secular state schools, and seven teachers taught in religious state schools.
All participants successfully fulfilled the requirements of the course as determined by the Israeli Ministry of Education.

Data Collection and analysis
Upon completion of the course, each participant was asked to submit a written, reflective account highlighting how the course had contributed to their PD, and in doing so, identify the main ‘takeaways’ for their own practice.
Phrases and sentences were analysed through a method of constant comparison (Corbin and Strauss 2008) according to themes and sub-themes relating to the focus of the study.
Throughout this process the items were either listed under themes already identified, or in new categories as necessary.
The items in each category were then counted, thereby revealing the prominent categories upon which to base the subsequent stages of data collection.
Twelve teachers subsequently participated in face-to-face semi-structured interviews that were recorded and later transcribed.
Field notes from short conversations with an additional ten teachers relating to the points raised in their written reflections were also collected.
The interviews and field notes thus served to triangulate the data collected from the reflective accounts by expanding upon points raised, and adding further insights as to how and why the course contributed to the participants’ PD.

Findings and discussion
The findings in this study identify EFL teachers’ perceptions as to how and why a specific in-service course was effective in its aim to contribute to the PD and practice of the participants.
The overall key themes that arose in the findings are largely consistent with previous relevant research, although in this case, surprisingly few teachers highlighted the significance of opportunities to be active participants throughout the learning process.
The findings from this albeit small-scale study also highlight an array of interesting examples to illustrate the main attributes identified.
These may serve to provide ideas as to how the broad themes may be implemented in order to promote an effective PD experience for EFL teachers, thereby going some way towards responding to the perception that ‘Several studies (into PD effectiveness) have confirmed that it is not clear how to translate … general features into effective practice’ (Desimone and Garet, 2015).
In synthesizing the findings, however, a prominent thread may be identified.
This concerns the marked emphasis placed by the participants on the notion that this course made continued provision for their current and direct needs as effective practitioners in the field.

The findings indicate that this was perceived to have been done extensively throughout the course, by offering opportunities for participants to:
• Consider what they need to know, and know about, for their practice
• Relate to theory that they can clearly connect to their practice
• Reflect on their own beliefs and practice and the connection between them
• Gain ideas for their practice
• Share experiences from their practice
• Experience something as a learner that can then be taken into their teaching.

Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of participants mentioned that they either have already adopted ideas gained into their practice, or intend to do so.
It is important to note, however, that, as highlighted in the literature, integrating knowledge and skills obtained in PD courses into long-term classroom practice that is likely to lead to improved student learning outcomes, necessitates support and ‘sustained follow-up’ (Guskey and Yoon 2009: 497) upon completion of the course.
None the less, the extent to which participants related to their own practice as a direct consequence of participation in this course is surely additional testimony to its relevance to the needs of the participants.

Conclusion
The recurrent reference to the appreciation of the connections between the PD course and the explicit, current needs of the participants for their own instructional practice raises an important implication for the planning and execution of future PD courses that is worthy of consideration.
Although, in Israel, for example, there has been some recent move towards more teacher involvement in PD programmes for EFL teachers through the promotion of Professional Learning Communities, whereby the content for discussion is based on issues that participants bring from the field and is, therefore, often dynamic, this is not the case for the more traditional model of PD programmes that continues to be prominent in Israel.
In this instance, the intended learning outcomes and topics are largely predetermined on a national level by educators holding senior positions, and/or academic experts on relevant topics.
It may therefore be the case that those who decide what teachers need to learn have not necessarily taught school-age learners recently, and sometimes not at all, and are therefore somewhat detached from the current needs of practising EFL teachers in the schools.
In addition, the more detailed content of PD courses is invariably planned before the course begins and, therefore, before the instructor meets the participants.
PD courses are often made up of content that is predetermined by educational officials according to their perceived needs of the field.
In order to ensure that the content and methods of instruction in PD courses reflect teachers’ explicit and current needs for their practice, it would be beneficial for instructors to conduct a small-scale enquiry— through a questionnaire or interviews, in order to determine the needs of potential participants prior to the commencement of the course.
In this way a PD course could be designed to ensure that it provides theoretical and practical aspects geared towards the direct needs of the teachers in the field as perceived by the teachers themselves, and thereby provide what is likely to be an effective PD experience.

References
Corbin, J. and A. Strauss. 2008. Basics of Qualitative Research. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Desimone, L. M. and M. S. Garet. 2015. ‘Best practices in teacher's professional development in the United States’. Psychology, Society and Education 7/3: 252–63.
Guskey, T. R. and K. S. Yoon. 2009. ‘What works in professional development?’ Phi Delta Kappan 90/7: 495–500.
Sokel, F. and S. Martin. 2016. ‘Key instructional practices of effective elementary school teachers of English as a foreign language’. Journal of Curriculum and Teaching 5/1: 52–61. 

Updated: Nov. 27, 2020
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