Understanding teachers’ professional learning needs: what does it mean to teachers and how can it be supported?

November 2020

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 26:7-8, 558-576

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This paper offers an examination of teachers’ perceptions of their professional learning needs (as opposed to professional development) and the experiences they associate with meaningful learning.
As a consequence, the paper highlights the importance of working ‘with’ teachers (a professional learning approach with active participants) as opposed to working ‘on’ teachers (a professional development approach with passive recipients) when seeking to support the advancement of their expertise.
This research study is ultimately interested in documenting and making sense of teachers’ own emergent understandings of their professional learning and the needs that stem from this.
With understandings of professional development, professional learning and professional learning needs in mind, this study explored the following two research questions:
● What do teachers identify as their development needs in terms of fostering their professional learning?
● What opportunities and/or conditions would assist in addressing these needs?
To understand teachers’ professional learning needs from their own perspective, case study research provided a way into valuing and showcasing their voices.
The case referred to in this study is a cohort of teachers from one school, which may limit the generalisability of these findings but opens up a level of richness to document the diversity of experiences and opinions within a particular context and therefore create a window into understanding pedagogical need from a teacher perspective.

Research design

Context and participants
The research reported in this paper was conducted in an independent all boys school in the Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.
The school comprises three major organisational units (Early Learning Centre, Junior School and Senior School) with approximately 1300 students.
The participants in this study were the teachers in the Senior School (n = 120).
This cohort can be considered a convenient sample as the school invited the researchers to investigate the teachers’ notions of their professional learning needs after recent changes had been implemented in what the school referred to as, their professional development programme.

Data sets
The project was designed to explore these teachers’ perceptions of their development needs and did so by using a variety of data gathering approaches in order to ‘tap into’ the range of perspectives across the Senior School staff.
A research design was developed that included three elements; survey, open ended responses and focus groups.
However, this paper will concentrate on the qualitative data collected through focus groups.
Using a semi-structured interview protocol, seven small groups of approximately 10 participants each met with the researchers to discuss professional development (PD) at the school.
Focus group interviews lasted for approximately 60–75 minutes and were held during school meeting times across the school semester.
Of the 120 Senior School staff, 75 (63%) were involved in focus group interviews.

Results and discussion
As the data suggests, and in providing a holistic response to the research questions, teachers’ perceived needs are crucial to that which they value and that which informs and the conditions for their learning as professionals.
Commonly, attempts to ‘professionally develop’ teachers can appear more like ‘doing things to’ them in order to implement some form of change or to hasten upskilling, which stands in stark contrast to ‘working with them’ in response to their pedagogic needs, issues and concerns.
Mockler (2005) characterised the professional development (PD) of teachers as ‘spray-on’ professional development, i.e. one-off workshops presented by consultants with little long-term impact; a topdown approach to change.
The data in this study illustrate well that these teachers have certainly experienced PD in that form and do not find it particularly meaningful in the development of their practice.
An often overlooked aspect of teacher learning is the importance of professional judgement and responsibility.
As professionals, teachers are ultimately responsible for identifying and meeting their own development and learning needs.
Therefore, like others (e.g. Groundwater-Smith & Mockler, 2009; Hardy, 2010; Smith, 2017), the authors also argue that there is value in distinguishing between professional development and professional learning.
In so doing, it offers one way of addressing some of the ‘doing to’ issues associated with PD and shifts the focus more to the imperative of ‘working with’ teachers which is inherent in the notion and language of professional learning (PL).
At the heart of PL is a genuine concern for learning about and enhancing pedagogy through better alignment of teaching intents and learning outcomes.
Simply put, if PD is about delivering information to teachers, then it is crucial that PL is seen as working with teachers, supporting them to make sense of information in ways that are personally meaningful.
Differentiating between PD and PL is not meant to denigrate one in favour of the other, but rather to help clarify the purpose of the activity(ies) associated with a programme of development and to recognise where ownership, commitment and change reside.
It may seem paradoxical, but the findings from this study certainly highlight that PD is valued in certain circumstances (e.g. understanding particular medical needs and targeted interventions).
For teachers to keep up to date with ideas, information and research relevant to their work, PD matters.
However, by intentionally differentiating between PD and PL, the purpose and actions of each might better inform the intended learning outcomes.
For example, if a PD activity is a ‘one-off’ session on a particular topic, the intended outcome may be to offer an opportunity for participants to come to know more information about that topic, i.e. that their propositional knowledge of the topic is increased.
On the other hand, if a PL programme is created in response to teachers’ concerns about the nature of their students’ learning, then the intended outcomes are more likely to revolve around assisting participants to respond to information about their students and their particular teaching and learning context.
Hence, the nature of educational changes derived from PD and PL could well be qualitatively different, especially so if the labels of PD and PL are applied appropriately rather than interchangeably.
A significant implication of this study is further clarity around the appropriate use of the terms PD and PL, which provides an opportunity for the inclusion of teacher voice in the future directions of teacher professional learning at a school or system level.
Although limited in terms of the generalisability of the findings, the case referred to in this study is a diverse and valuable exploration of the range of experiences of teachers from one school.
By sharing their opinions of their context, they provide insights into understanding professional learning needs from a much-needed teacher perspective.

Ultimately, professional learning relies on teachers becoming more informed about teaching and learning.
As the data in this paper shows, professional learning opportunities are valued when a sense of trust and working collaboratively is evident.
Much of the data draws attention to the value of:
● Working with colleagues;
● Recognising expertise and knowledge of practice;
● Better understanding the demands of the classroom;
● Being more informed about ways of responding to students’ learning needs; and
● The importance of subject specific pedagogical development and more control over how that might be achieved.
In the development of pedagogical expertise, teacher learning matters.
At the school level, the ways in which PD and PL are organised, developed, built on and valued, can be seen as important in supporting the development of a teacher’s professional identity and that which they value in terms of supporting their own learning needs.
What teachers look for in terms of their own professional learning is often at odds to that which is ‘given to them’ through different forms of, or approaches to, professional development.
Different ways of imagining how their professional learning is able to be grasped, developed, understood, shared and rewarded offer opportunities for systemic (e.g. educational systems) and grassroots (e.g. schools) change.
The challenge lies in finding ways to better articulate the types of approaches to teachers’ knowledge of practice that can be purposefully used to support, develop and more highly value the complexities inherent in the work of learning and teaching.

Groundwater-Smith, S., & Mockler, N. (2009). Teacher professional learning in an age of compliance: Mind the gap. Springer.
Hardy, I. (2010). Critiquing teacher professional development: Teacher learning within the field of teachers’ work. Critical Studies in Education, 51(1), 71–84.
Mockler, N. (2005). Transforming teachers: New professional learning and transformative teacher professionalism. Journal of In-service Education, 31(4), 733–746.
Smith, K. (2017). Teachers as self-directed learners: Active positioning through professional learning. Springer. 

Updated: Jan. 11, 2022