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Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 11: Professional Development and Reflective Practice


By William Powell

While few educators or policy makers would argue that professional development is unimportant and while considerable lip service is paid to the need for teacher training, the facts of the matter suggest a different picture. When student enrollment falls and the budget is stretched, professional development is one of the most likely targets of the financial pruning shears. The suggestion is clear - when priorities are assigned, professional development is often still perceived as a "frill", as something outside and beyond the essential core activities of the school. Like most misperceptions, the vision of professional development as an "add-on" has numerous antecedents, among them the admittedly poor track record of traditional models in effecting the improvement of instructional practices in schools. One is reminded of H.L. Mencken's caustic comment that "there is no sure-cure so idiotic that some superintendent of schools will not swallow it. The aim seems to be to reduce the whole teaching process to a sort of automatic reaction, to discover some master formula that will not only take the place of competence and resourcefulness in the teacher, but will also create an artificial receptivity in the child. (Mencken, in Postman, 1996)".

In this chapter, I will argue for a re-conceptualization of the purpose and structure of professional development. I will describe some characteristics of effective professional development as they relate to both implementing and maintaining inclusive programs and will offer some specific suggestions for a professional development framework. The chapter will argue that a school culture that celebrates the reflective practice of teachers is an essential component to any program that seeks to include exceptional children.

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Traditional professional development programs have either taken place at universities during school vacation periods or have been comprised of imported experts who spend brief periods of time in schools in order to transmit knowledge and information to relatively passive recipients. Neither model has been particularly effective in improving instruction within the classroom (Sparks and Hirsh, 1997) and for international schools both represent very expensive options. Eisner (1998) points out that many times the outside experts "decontextualize" the in-service education and, as a result, weaken its potential usefulness.

The assumption is that once teachers are exposed to such wisdom (from external experts), they will implement the practices suggested in their own classrooms... The situation is much like a voice coach giving advice to a singer whom he or she has never heard sing... One does not need to be a specialist in learning theory to know that for complex forms of human action, general advice is of limited utility. Feedback needs to be specific and focused on the actor in context (Eisner,1998, p 161-162).

For the most part, the influence of outside experts in terms of effecting lasting school improvement often disappears as soon as they do. There are exceptions, and there are times when short term, external consultants can be useful; however, the transmittal model of professional development, wherein the goal is simply the transfer of information or the acquisition of skills, has shown itself to be generally ineffective in promoting desired change in instructional practice (Sparks & Hirsh, 1997). From our experiences in the classroom as teachers, we know that mere transmittal of information is not the way in which conceptual understanding is constructed (Brooks & Brooks, 1993); nor is it influential in the development of positive learning attitudes and dispositions. Therefore, it is little wonder that this model has been only marginally successful in school reform. Ann Lieberman (1995, in Sparks & Hirsh, 1997) points out the ironic contradiction of the traditional, transmittal approach to professional development: "What everyone appears to want for students -a wide array of learning opportunities that engage students in experiencing, creating, and solving real problems, using their own experiences, and working with others - is for some reason denied to teachers when they are learners (p. 2)."

I am arguing for a broader vision of professional development that is not limited to a specific time, place or consultant; but rather pervades the entire life of the organization and is, I believe, an essential component of successful inclusive teaching practice. The objective behind this broader vision of professional development is to build a culture of reflective teaching practice. Reflective practice is a hallmark of quality instruction and is indispensable in meeting the not inconsiderable challenge of including exceptional children within the regular classroom.

It is self-evident that the inclusion of diverse learners in the regular classroom provides a significant challenge to even the most seasoned teachers. Teachers need assistance. They need guidance and moral support. Needless to say, enthusiasm, however robust, is simply not enough. Teachers require training in order to recognize the needs of exceptional children and to develop pedagogical strategies that will be appropriate for them. But unlike in the past, this training is not something that will happen to teachers, but rather it will become something that they will increasingly provide for themselves through collaborative reflection on teaching and learning.

Traditionally, teaching has been a very lonely profession. Someone once described schools as collections of highly educated professionals linked by a common parking lot. Teachers commonly have very little contact with other adults in the course of the school day and the resulting isolation makes it extremely difficult for teachers to learn about what they actually do in their classrooms when they teach. Caldwell (1999) perceives such isolation as incompatible with the "new professionalism", and while some schools have embraced collaboration and teaming, many teachers, perhaps most, continue to teach behind closed doors in isolation from their colleagues.

Eisner (1998) writes that "classrooms, unlike the rooms in which ballerinas practice, have no mirrors (p.160)." It is clear that professional isolation perpetuates professional ignorance. Without adult-to-adult reflective interaction it is almost impossible for a teacher to learn whether her class climate promotes risk taking, whether her use of humor is appreciated or whether she is asking too many low level questions.

Reflective teaching is the practice of colleagues joining together to observe and analyze the consequences for student learning of different teaching behaviors and materials in order to gain insights that will result in the continuous evaluation and modification of pedagogy. We need to create in international schools an organizational structure that will make it possible for teachers to observe how colleagues teach. We need to mold and nurture a professional climate in our schools in which teachers learn how to observe and critique teaching.

Reflective teaching practice is essential to the inclusion of diverse learners because it:

  • Embraces a willingness to alter both content and practice in the pursuit of individual meaning;

  • Focuses on learning theory, cognitive psychology, developments in brain research and special education;

  • Provides a powerful framework for on-going, fault-free assessment of pedagogy;

  • Relies upon the teacher developing knowledge about how specific students learn;

  • Depends on colleagues giving and receiving professional help; and

  • Models the metacognition we would want for our own students.

I shall be arguing that the ramifications of reflective practice go beyond the growth and learning of individual teachers and administrators and actually alter "the culture and structures of the organization in which the individuals work (Sparks & Hirsh, 1997, p.2)." Such professional development can hardly be conceived of as a "frill" or a desirable, but dispensable, "add on". Roland Barth (1990) links the very survival of the profession of teaching to reflective practice: "How can a profession survive, let alone flourish, when its members are cut off from each other and from the rich knowledge base upon which success and excellence depend? Not very well. Professional isolation stifles professional growth. There can be no community of learners when there is no community and when there are no learners ( p. 18)."

Simply put, inclusion cannot be successfully implemented or maintained without a significant commitment towards continuous teacher learning.

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