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Talking Heads

How do the work-based conversations we have with others at school get to function as a form of professional learning?

As someone who has a longstanding interest in how teachers learn in the workplace, I consider one-on-one conversations to be one of the most useful strategies to evoke reflection, to open up and clarify thinking, to challenge beliefs that are no longer useful and to embed previous learning. They are also a great way to explore individual differences and to build relationships.

The question remains, however: how do we move from habitual forms of ‘talking’ to a form of conversation or dialogue that has more traction as a vehicle for learning? Part of the answer lies in understanding more about the way this functions – getting below the waterline to see what’s going on underneath the words. In a previous article, we explored some of the terminology currently used to describe professional conversations, learning conversations and coaching conversations to help gain some clarity and consistency in using these terms in schools. The increasing interest in feedback conversations takes us into this territory too.

Feedback using the principles of good coaching methodology is likely to be much more effective than more conventional feedback forms. This is because it works with positives, expands thinking about options for improvement and arrives at a plan for implementing any change. This plan, if supported during its implementation, is the vehicle for individualized professional learning. Helen Timperley’s review of the research and practice related to conversations and feedback provides plenty to think about in strengthening the link between feedback and professional growth.


What is going on, underneath the words?

When the conversation is thoughtful, carefully structured, and focused on deep listening, we have moved beyond “talking”. When we engage others in deep conversation, we are making a space for reflection – a kind of guided reflection that is not so easily accessible via other means, especially in the workplace.

Reflection – on what is currently happening, what needs to be different, how our beliefs and behaviours might be linked to that – often leads to new insights and therefore is linked to learning. However, few of us can critically reflect in isolation, so facilitation of reflection through conversation can be very useful. One of the great strengths of coaching conversations is that they provide that space for the insight, or ‘aha’ moment, and then support the transition from that moment into future action.

Here is, in a nutshell, the essence of effective teacher learning – moving from theory into practice. It is one thing to ‘learn’ something, but another to transfer that knowledge into practice. This is what has been called the “great theory-practice divide” and is a critical phase in professional learning.

Learners need to make connections between existing knowledge and new knowledge, and then internalize this new knowledge and operationalise it. Transfer into practice, reviews of research literature have shown, entails supporting teachers in making their current beliefs, ideas and practices explicit, experimenting, adopting and adapting it into their own practice. We know that this work is best not done alone, but facilitated collaboratively, through conversations and reflection. Grappling with this concept of transfer into practice lies at the heart of understanding how to make our conversations more powerful. The ‘aha’ moment by itself is necessary but not sufficient to bring about a change – which is why the GROWTH coaching framework includes the T for Tactics and the H for Habits: to embed that change.


Reflection and the emotional side of learning

Fred Korthagen from Utrecht University in his article Inconvenient truths about teacher learning: towards professional development 3.0 proposes that understanding how teachers learn is the key to linking theory to practice. He is an advocate of what he calls the ‘core reflection approach”- a deep and transformative kind of reflection in the coaching of students and teachers. He believes that teachers’ behaviour is unconsciously guided by three dimensions (the cognitive, affective and motivational) and that teacher learning takes place at various levels.

If we wish to promote teacher learning, we need to move beyond seeing learning as a purely rational process and take thinking, feeling and wanting into account. Therefore, when we are attempting to bring about changes in practice, we need to be providing learning opportunities for individual teachers in their specific circumstances and settings. This leads to one of Korthagen’s ‘inconvenient truths’ – that we may have to focus on individual teachers and support them in their idiosyncratic learning processes. Characteristic of this successful approach to teacher learning is the focus on guided reflection on practical experiences.


The role of coaching

If we accept Korthagen’s theory – that the professional development process should build on individual teachers’ concerns, personal strengths and goals, within the context of their actual work, then organising individual or group coaching, including peer coaching, seems pivotal to success. Equally important is that this is done in the context of a community of practice, where there is a group dynamic of interest and participation in learning. Effective communities of practice provide teachers with opportunities to process new understandings and challenge problematic beliefs, with a focus on analysing the impact of teaching on student learning. Coaching conversations provide the opportunity to focus on the individual and at the same time build a community of learners who are more likely to engage in reflection and learning that challenges the theory-practice divide.

We can now return to the opening question: how to make better use of work-based conversations so that they function as a form of professional learning? Reading Korthagen’s work suggests we need to see them as guiding deep reflection and being aware of the emotional side as well as the rational side of learning. This process is individualised and builds on existing qualities and successes. However, the real traction comes from understanding the challenges of transferring knowledge into practice and seeing the conversation as a way to enable that process.

  • What is your own experience of the work of shifting educational practice?
  • What particular conversations stand out for you in that process, either for yourself as a learner, or for others?
  • What might have been the specific function of reflection in those conversations?
  • To what extent do learning conversations in your context take account of cognitive, affective and motivational dimensions of individuals?
  • What are you already doing well in using these conversations?
  • What are three things you could do to make conversations even more effective as a form of professional learning?


References:

  • Korthagen, F. (2017) Inconvenient truths about teacher learning: towards professional development 3.0, Teachers and Teaching, 23:4, 387-405, DOI: 10.1080/13540602.2016.1211523
  • Timperley, H. (2015) Professional Conversations and Improvement-Focused Feedback: A Review of the Research Literature and the Impact on Practice and Student Outcomes, prepared for the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, AITSL, Melbourne.

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