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Professional associations – do they have a role in professional learning?

I have been watching the growth of SCEL with interest – particularly its work on teacher leadership led by Fearghal Kelly.  If the full vision of Curriculum for Excellence is to be realised, it is important that teachers have the agency and autonomy to shape and implement the education they provide for the young people in their care.  However, autonomy for teachers should not mean isolation – indeed, I would argue that it requires the exact opposite.  Teachers need to collaborate and share – not just to prevent everyone continually reinventing the wheel, but also to allow teachers to have a proper discourse about the purposes of education and how to best deliver that for our young people.

When I came into teaching over thirty years ago, I was a probationer physics teacher in a supportive department but I was keen to learn more and get external support and advice to help me improve my teaching further.  Within the first couple of weeks of me starting teaching, a colleague suggested I join the Association for Science Education (ASE) as the cheapest means of getting indemnity insurance.  Of course, in addition to this, I then received journals, newsletters and details of conferences and meetings I could attend. I attended my first conference during the April of my first year of teaching and found a community of like-minded individuals all keen to improve the teaching and learning of science.  After a couple of years I found myself on the local ASE committee and ever since I have been active in various capacities in both the ASE and the Institute of Physics.

Of course, the support available for teachers has changed in many ways over the last thirty years.  The internet has made paper newsletters a snail-mail thing of the past and I now find Twitter an excellent way of following key events and people in education – not just in Scotland but all over the world.  However, the rise of Teachmeets, Pedagoo and ResearchEd has demonstrated the continued need and demand for good face-to-face career long professional learning focussed on the needs of teachers.

Some argue that local authorities and schools should provide professional learning for their staff but too often this results in one-size-fits-all top down provision which seldom quite delivers the goods.  Rather than the system imposing professional learning on its staff, it would be more effective for it to facilitate its staff partaking in a rich economy of professional development.  There has also been pressure to focus more professional learning within schools or clusters. There are very good reasons for doing this, but I fear sometimes this is driven purely by financial considerations.  Whilst much can be achieved by good, collaborative, school-based professional learning, if this is all that occurs its impact will be limited.  Teachers also need to look outwards beyond their immediate surroundings, for new ideas, advice and for challenge.

Of course, in secondary schools, teaching has traditionally been structured around subject departments.  All schools require some structures for management and administration but I would argue that our traditional subjects have also served the development and leadership of teaching and learning well.  To be effective, teachers need good pedagogical content knowledge.  This means they not only require good knowledge of the subject matter they teach but also of the misconceptions pupils are likely to bring with them and of teaching strategies which can be used to overcome these.  No-one can know everything about everything and I would argue that our traditional subjects have proved a sensible core structure around which to base both teacher and pupil learning.  I am sure we could probably all improve our provision of interdisciplinary learning, but the very term implies that there are core disciplines to bridge learning between.  We all need a holistic view of education but for that we need effective, collaborative team-working within schools and clusters to connect learning between the disciplines.  In addition, especially for teachers in small departments or within small schools we require collaboration between teachers of the same discipline across different schools.

So, do I think there is a role for subject professional associations in a modern education system?  Yes, more than ever!  They can be the oil that lubricates the collaborative and communicative culture that allows teachers to have the agency they require to shape and deliver the sort of education promoted by the high level aims of Curriculum for Education.  A professional association can facilitate teachers meeting and communicating – even if only by providing some funds for coffee and biscuits. It can also can give teachers a voice for communicating with others or a clear contact route for others wishing to communicate with teachers.  For many years ASE used the strapline “Teachers helping teachers teach science”.  If you replace science with whichever subject best applies to you, I cannot think of anything more appropriate for developing teacher leadership or improving education.  I do not think I can underestimate the benefits to my teaching that being a member of a professional association has brought me right throughout my career.

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