I was drawn to the optimism of the title Unleashing Great Teaching. While acknowledging the multitude of challenges schools face in improving their professional development, the tone of the book is hopeful. The premise is that, with access to the right resources, expertise and school leadership, the profession has bags of potential to move itself forward.
The authors describe the book as a “practical handbook” which “takes the guesswork out of professional learning for school leaders”. It’s full of do and don’t checklists for all levels, and helpful case studies of what excellent professional development looks like (and what it doesn’t look like!).
It is wonderfully accessible. I’m not a school leader, but I work in an organisation that supports the development of expertise within schools, so I’m always keen to find out exactly what schools need and want from us to make this happen. Chapter three – “Support and Challenge” – was a particularly rich source of such insights.
Carefully woven throughout is a powerful discussion on targeting professional development towards the “organisational edge”, where school leaders and teachers interact with pupils, parents and the community. This serves as an important reminder against the design of inward-looking professional development, which serves organisations rather than students.
Unleashing Great Teaching is packed with insights for school leaders and teacher-educators
I was most looking forward to chapter three, “Impact: Implementing and evaluating professional learning” – which I hoped would address some of the thorny questions on how to reliably evaluate the impact of professional learning that keep me awake at night. Weston and Clay’s determination that evaluation should not be seen as separate to design and delivery resonated with me, and I found it provided useful frameworks and checklists for measuring professional learning.
The authors present a model of “responsive” professional development, within which there is a strong emphasis on planning. They advocate allocating significant time and energy to thinking about needs and goals and, critically, checking assumptions to ensure that training addresses the right issues. They also make the important distinction between professional learning activities and programmes, where the latter is a coherent series of activities which knit together to form carefully defined learning outcomes over time.
Unleashing Great Teaching also discusses culture changes. There are plenty of helpful examples and analogies, likening staff to “sheep being harried to follow a narrow pathway” or “a shoal of fish all swimming about happily and energetically but with little apparent overarching direction”. It makes explicit the (often implicit) factors that best support a culture of strong professional development in schools, including a focus on student outcomes rather than teacher performance, adequate provision of time and resources, and modelling from school leaders.
I was particularly interested in the journey towards a developmental culture and the distinction between end goals and steps. The conclusion is that the building blocks for a great culture need to be in place before more ambitious goals can be realised.
There is sensitive articulation of the complexity of schools and their limited resources throughout, as well as a recognition that competing challenges can stand in the way of a focus on staff development. Importantly, this doesn’t mean you must accept bad or badly resourced professional development. The authors present genuine examples of the roles we all can play in continuing to change the picture.
Unleashing Great Teaching is packed with insights for school leaders and teacher-educators, drawn from extensive experience in the field. These include a helpful summary of the common pitfalls when using research to inform professional development, a detailed consideration of developing support staff, and advice on how to apply cognitive science to teacher learning at both a macro and a micro level.
If as much effort that goes into teaching pupils went into developing teachers, teacher-educators and school leaders, the authors believe we can make every school a place where teachers thrive and students succeed. I couldn’t agree more, and I recommend that anyone who wants to know how starts by reading this treasure trove of a book.