14 May 2010

Rethinking Teacher Professional Development

Rethinking Teacher Professional Development training programmes:

towards a reflective practice framework

Dr Victor J Pitsoe, ANC Today, Johannesburg, 14 May 2010

The success of effective implementation of the Revised National Curriculum Statement Policy and the challenge and trends in dysfunctional schools generally call for a rethinking of the entire Teacher Professional Development, more specifically in classroom management and leadership. Apart from visible changes in classroom environment, teachers need to change their traditional approach and acquire new classroom management skills to implement new approaches to instruction that will produce learning.

At the heart of this article is the assumption that one of the basic changes that should be brought about is the view of teachers as isolated (grade-level or subject matter) specialists to instructional delivery team members capable of contributing to a wide variety of instructional needs. In essence, this means that teachers should work and reflect in groups in planning and instructional delivery, with view to the best possible method(s) for reaching the outcomes.

Flowing from this, it requires teachers to be adequately retrained on various aspects, such as National Curriculum Statement methodology, designing skills, facilitation skills, outcomes based assessment and more specifically, context driven classroom management skills.

National Curriculum Statement policy demands dramatic changes in social relations in the classroom and from a hierarchically-structured model of teaching to a meditational and facilitative role for teachers. It also challenges teachers with an assumption: "all students can learn; all students have potential". If we understand that the rate of learning, learning styles and a surprising range of aptitudes have traditionally been overlooked, the whole structure is challenged.

Teachers, teaching styles, school hours, classroom locations and design, curricula, are all challenged to review, adapt, and evolve. The training of teachers, for example in OBE, has greatly neglected the area of classroom management that should accompany the paradigm shift to be made. No longer will teachers be able to manage classrooms in the traditional way, but they also need to make a paradigm shift towards new classroom management approaches that will support their: 
  • new facilitative role;
  • planning and organising activities in a outcomes based learning mode;
  • involvement of learners in the decision-making process; and
  • outcomes based assessment practices.

 Against this backdrop, paradigm shift spurs radical changes in basic way of perceiving, thinking and doing things. Essentially, this implies that all the parties involved should move to a new mindset, a new attitude and a new way of thinking. Change is inevitable and necessary because more functional instructional strategies continue to evolve.

Changing to the new paradigm would mean that teachers should acquire new teaching and classroom management methods; new approaches to instruction that will produce learning; and shift from traditional and individualistic learning, which tends to be competitive, towards collaborative learning. One possibility is to rethink the Department of Education's Teacher Professional Development programmes and training workshops within a reflective practice framework and a philosophical framework consistent with the emerging paradigm. These new approaches must be successfully managed through new improved classroom management styles.

Teacher Professional Development, among others, consistent with the postmodern thinking and other compatible philosophies, is essential to efforts to improve efficiency and functionality in South African schools. Increasingly, the emerging trends in the Teacher Professional Development discourses are dominated by reflective and reflexive practice framework, for example Schön's notion reflective practice.

Schön's notion of reflective practice was a reaction against an instrumental notion of teaching where the teacher is a technician implementing others' knowledge in practice - it is a rejection of technical rationality for reflectivity. Based on the notion that skills cannot be acquired in isolation from context, the reflective practice movement has emerged as a reaction to technical and competency based strategies common in the 1970s.

In education context, reflective practice implies that the teacher examines his/her own teaching methods in light of how well students are learning, determining in collaboration with colleagues or coaches how to improve one's practice, examining the results of an intervention and making any necessary changes.

Current Teacher Professional Development in the Department of Education's training programmes largely departs on a "one-size-fits-all" approach and cascade model, and is based on the behaviourist principles which focus on input and transmission of knowledge. In most cases, one-size-fits-all training and cascade model result in an unreflective practice. Teachers who are unreflective about their teaching tend to accept the everyday reality in their schools and "concentrate their efforts on finding the most effective and efficient means to solve problems that have largely been defined for them by (some) collective code".

It is not that unreflective teachers aren't thinking - rather, their thinking does not allow the possibility of "framing problems" in more than one way. Schön suggests that professionals learn to reflect in action by first learning to recognize and apply standard practice rules and techniques, then to reason from general rules to problematic cases characteristic of the profession, and only then to develop and test new forms of understanding and action when familiar patterns of doing things fail.

Reflective practice is the pivotal element of experience-based learning. Research indicates that the evaluation of the impact of such approaches to teacher reflection has indicated that they not only provides the individual with opportunities for profound re-evaluation, but have also led frequently to powerful changes within the teachers' practices.

In conclusion, a considerable volume of literature indicates that Teacher Professional Development is strongly shaped by the context in which the teacher practices. This is usually the classroom, which, in turn, is strongly influenced by the wider school culture and the community and society in which the school is situated. Teachers' daily experiences in their practice context shape their understandings, and their understandings shape their experiences.

Thus, the fluid nature of the teachers training needs demand a revitalised framework of effective professional development consistent with reflective practice and constructivist theory; and to be research driven. It should not focus on the mastery of static content but rather on the construction of meaning within a collaborative environment.

  • Dr Victor J Pitsoe works at the Department of Educational Studies, College of Human Sciences, at the University of South Africa. He is sharing his perspective in response to ANC Today Vol 10 No 16 of 7 - 13 May 2010, teachers and human resource development theme