Professional learning: From engagement to impact

‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better,’ - Professor Dylan Wiliam, 2012 SSAT National Conference.

There is a growing appreciation and commitment to self-improvement among the teaching profession, yet the practical connection between professional learning outcomes and changed practice continues to be elusive.

Links between teacher professional learning and improved student outcomes also need to be strengthened.

In this article, we consider recent international data and the potential implications for Australian educators.

The situation in Australia

The 2013 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) explored teachers’ experiences of professional learning. Results from TALIS revealed an increasing commitment to growth and development amongst educators worldwide.

Australian teachers readily access and are heavily supported to undertake professional learning. However, the report also highlights that Australian teachers identify a disconnect between the professional learning they undertake and observable impact on their practice.

Eighty-six per cent of Australian teachers reported attendance at courses and workshops, and 56 per cent reported attendance at education conferences or seminars. Both figures are above the TALIS average.

However, Australian teachers commit less time overall to these activities compared to the TALIS average. Furthermore, despite the increased participation, compared to the TALIS average fewer Australian teachers reported that their learning experiences had a meaningful impact on their capabilities.

According to the survey, the role of performance and development processes as improvement levers in Australian schools varies considerably. Ninety-seven per cent of Australian teachers reported that they were formally appraised. However, the process was largely viewed as administrative or operational with nearly half of Australian teachers surveyed (43 per cent) reporting that ‘the appraisal and feedback systems in their school have had little or no impact on the way they teach in the classroom’.

What we know

Cole, in Linking effective professional learning with effective teaching practice (2012), states that in schools with rich learning environments, classroom observation and feedback are commonplace, professional learning opportunities are built into day-to-day operations and a culture of collaborative learning and risk–taking are the norm.

Research into the impact of such collaboration is beginning to show that students perform better when their teaching teams have strong group ties (Pil & Leana, 2009). For many Australian schools this represents the next step towards sustained improvement in teaching and school leadership.

The 2014 Global Trends in Professional Learning and Performance & Development report (the ‘Horizon Scan') commissioned by AITSL (The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) identified features of innovative practice in professional learning and performance and development.

The Horizon Scan found features that encouraged individual agency, allowing the learner to dictate the focus and design of their professional growth experience, were prominent amongst the most powerful examples. Opportunities for self-direction and personalised learning that actively contribute to growing the knowledge and culture of the organisation appear to be very important.

Of the organisations profiled in the Horizon Scan, the most successful examples support their staff to engage in professional learning that has been designed for impact, that is aligned to an identifiable need, and that is cognisant of the learning preferences of participants. It shows that those organisations that commit to continuous improvement – those that reinforce their capacity to refresh their ideas, renew their culture and reinvigorate their staff – survive and thrive through tough times.

A new perspective

Across Australia, some schools are demonstrating new approaches to professional learning.

Where it was once commonplace to outsource, schools are increasingly drawing upon their own resources. Localised professional communities, where learning is considered a part of teachers’ everyday work, are becoming increasingly prominent.

There is anecdotal evidence of teachers and school leaders moving towards more personalised, targeted and job-embedded professional learning (AITSL, 2014). In some instances, this is concurrent with the more traditional forms of professional learning. In others, these more localised approaches have replaced the old generic models.

The Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders and the Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework advocate for the realisation of a culture of performance and continuous improvement across the profession. Together, they highlight the underlying components for professional learning and performance and development approaches of the highest calibre, suggesting these approaches should be:

  • focused on student outcomes, first and foremost;
  • relevant;
  • collaborative;
  • future-focused;
  • flexible;
  • clear in articulating effective teaching;
  • guided by effective leadership; and
  • coherent.

Effective professional learning focuses on teaching and learning and is directly linked to classroom practice that supports improving student outcomes. Effective performance and development requires setting clear goals, derived from an identified need, and which include a plan for translation to practice and inform the selection of professional learning activities.

As Cole notes: ‘By focusing on concrete actions that generally can be understood and implemented in a relatively short period, and then improved over time, teaching capacity is built step by step and the armoury of strategies and techniques available to the teacher is extended,’ (Cole, 2012).

Time to refocus

With the TALIS 2013 survey results showing a divide between learning undertaken and observable practice, there is an opportunity for educators to refocus attention on those elements which have been neglected.

Participation in any professional learning activity needs to be driven by a desire to improve identified student outcomes. Teachers also need to clearly link what they ‘learn’ with what they ‘do’ in order to impact student outcomes.

Importantly, there should be alignment between individual learning needs, school goals and reform initiatives. Research has also shown the importance of collaboration and collegial learning environments that encourage sharing and reflection across classrooms.

In Applying organizational research to public school reform: the effects of teacher human and social capital on student performance, Pil and Leana (2009) state ‘When teachers trust one another, they are more likely to reveal their weaknesses and perhaps address them using the support and guidance of their peers’.

It will increasingly be the responsibility of all educators to ensure that the learning they engage in is targeted toward improving student outcomes, has a plan for implementation, and is tailored to the context.

AITSL's Professional Growth team supports teachers and school leaders, systems and sectors, to implement the Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework and the Australian Charter for Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders.


AITSL (2014). Innovation Grants Report. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Melbourne. Viewed August 5, 2014 at

Cole, P. (2012). Linking effective professional learning with effective teaching practice. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Melbourne. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from

Innovation Unit UK (2014). Global trends in professional learning and performance and development: some implications for the Australian education system. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Melbourne. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from

OECD (2013). TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning. OECD Publishing. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from DOI: 10.1787/9789264196261-en

Pil, F.K. & Leana, C. (2009). ‘Applying organizational research to public school reform: the effects of teacher human and social capital on student performance’. Academy of Management Journal, 52(6), 1101–1124.

SSAT (The Schools Network) (2012). SSAT National Conference 2012 Keynote 2 – Professor Dylan Wiliam. Viewed August 5, 2014 at

This is a reader contribution.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Teacher and its publisher.

Are you currently undertaking a professional learning activity?

If so, how do you anticipate it will aid you in improving student learning outcomes?

Do you have a plan to connect what you have learnt to your classroom practice?