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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

How to learn anytime, anywhere in school

Elizabeth Holmes explains how to facilitate professional dialogue for learning.

‘Discussion is impossible with someone who claims not to seek the truth, but already to possess it.’Romain Rolland, Above the Battle

Imagine a working day where you spoke to no-one but your pupils; no interaction with colleagues at all. Aside from the camaraderie you may feel with the people you work with, you might also miss the opportunity to bounce ideas off colleagues, to discuss problems and simply to learn from one another.

A rich source of development

Professional dialogues between supportive colleagues can be an incredibly rich source of development, both personal and professional. These are especially effective if they occur between people with a mutual degree of vulnerability, so that the conversation can flow free without the intrusion of status (perceived or actual) and ego. The great thing about these professional conversations is that they can take place at any time, without the need for cover, time out or other costly resources. They aren’t dependent on the arrangement of meetings, although it does help if they can happen at a mutually agreed time, and there are no restrictions on how they can be carried out; face-to-face is good, but if that doesn’t happen, there are social networking solutions which can at least allow dialogue to take place and potentially expand the pool of dialogue partners.

Recognising informal learning

Research in higher education has explored ways of helping staff to gain professional recognition for this kind of informal learning. Trials of professional dialogues in a handful of universities drew on assessors’ and participants’ voices as a method for providing empirical evidence. Findings so far have been encouraging and, I would argue, might provide a useful basis for considering ways of assessing professional dialogue at other age stages in education. Having some method for recognising this more informal learning may also help us to keep better track of the full scope of learning that colleagues are gaining, ultimately helping schools to draw on and perhaps synthesise the personal and the professional when it comes to CPD.

How can we ensure these conversations succeed?

So if professional dialogues have such great potential, why aren’t they happening across all phases already? And what prevents these conversations from succeeding?

  • Having set ideas about what we need to get out of them: It’s really crucial to remember that as with all types of professional learning, the impact of what we learn may not come to fruition for many months, perhaps years; this is one reason why evaluations of professional learning are always going to be limited if undertaken shortly after the learning experience. Be open to the benefits of professional dialogues manifesting in unanticipated ways.
  • Participating parties seeking to impart their opinions rather that discuss on a level basis: We see examples of dogma and diktats about teaching and learning every day on social media sites and this does absolutely nothing for the wider debate about what works best in education. What we’re aiming for here is dialogue with a view to development, not rants or unchallenged, ideologically motivated opinions.
  • Lack of opportunity: In order for teachers to talk about teaching they need to have the opportunity to meet and encounter one another. This can be easy in a small school, but can be problematic in larger schools where staff can be department-based and –focused. It sounds very obvious, but needs addressing. If learning dialogues are not really happening in your school, this would be the first thing to consider.

Having staff interact in this way may bring untold benefits. With just a gentle nudge in the right direction, professional learning dialogues could become a central feature of your school’s CPD.

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