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Is professional development as useful as more ice is to the Inuit?

Volume 3: Teachers, teaching and teacher education in physical education

The previous blog suggested that what we say as teachers has an impact on gendered expectations for participation in PE. In other words, how we talk to boys and girls encourages students to believe and re-enforces teachers’ expectations that boys are ‘sporty’ and girls are ‘needy’.  

In this week’s blog we look at professional development (PD) and suggest that, as it currently stands, it is about as useful as more ice would be to a Greenland Inuit. In other words PD fails to deliver anything of real use to teachers and until it does then teachers will be forced to suffer in silence, adopt avoidance tactics or find (and fund) their own PD.


Paper 49:

Armour, K.M. & Duncombe, R. (2004/2012) Teachers’ continuing professional development in primary education: Lessons from present and past to inform the future. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume III. (pp. 7-28) London: Routledge.


My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

I have written in the past about my professional development (PD) experiences as a teacher but experience (and reading this paper) leads me to believe that they were not unique. Hands on heart I can honestly say that not once, in thirteen years as a teacher, did my PD have a pedagogical focus. In truth it had a focus on safety and cost. I was trained to be a lifeguard so I could teach swimming and use the pool that the school had on site but not once did I take a course in swimming teaching. I was trained to be a first aider so I could support any child who got hurt (a skill I had to call on many times for the inevitable cuts, sprains and pains that occurred both in PE and around the school) but I didn’t know what the word pedagogy meant until I started a masters degree. I learnt to drive a minibus so I could transport pupils to interschool fixtures and did various levels of coaching qualification so I could coach those teams but my teaching – the job I was employed to do – seemed to fall between the cracks in terms of PD.

It was only when I self-funded and time managed an MSc and then a PhD that I began to focus on classroom practice and on student learning. Like the teachers we meet in this paper much of my meaningful development only came when I chose its direction myself. But more than that it only came when I invested years in achieving my goals and changing my practice.  Therefore, I ask, what chance do standalone, off-site, sport focused courses have when changes takes years and not hours?

What is more worrying, perhaps, is that PE is my passion and I have invested years in understanding ‘it’ as a subject and a way of life. Primary teachers don’t do this. It is part of a smorgasbord of subjects – some that they love and some that they don’t – that carrying different expectations and which are valued in different ways. In the grand scheme of things PE is often seen as being unimportant and time and money is not always made available for teachers to develop in this area. However, when money is available and the time is there what is being provided to teachers? PD that, as a PE specialist, I found irrelevant to classroom practice.

So what is the solution?

Inevitably it seems that meaningful PD is a personal-professional responsibility, especially when it comes to pedagogical development. This needs to change but that change takes time (and hasn’t yet been forthcoming) so teachers need to find alternatives. There are many out there but one I would recommend is PEPLC. This initiative is the brainchild of Andy Vasily and it seeks to bring together PE teachers in an interactive learning community that aims to improve classroom practice; one thing that seems to be missing from conventional PD.


The Paper

Recently I have been reading the work of Ken Robinson (Out of our Minds) and Michael Fullan (Stratosphere) and two phrases or ideas resonate from those books with the paper by Armour and Duncombe. All four authors, independently and in different ways, suggests that we need to disenthrall (Robinson) ourselves with finding increasing better solutions to 20th century problems (Fullan; Armour and Duncombe) and instead find new ways of considering the newly emerging problems of the 21st century (Fullan; Armour and Duncombe). This was certainly the key take home message for me from this paper.

While some of what Armour and Duncombe wrote about was (a) specific to the UK and, (b) reflective of a time when increased funding in PE was becoming the norm under the then labour government, many of the general messages are still pertinent today – a decade on.

On the main what they suggested was that PE in primary schools is almost exclusively depended on the prior sporting experience of the teachers charged with teaching it. If they were ‘sporting’ then they were positioned to replicate their own experiences as players with their own pupils. However, if they weren’t ‘sporting’ or if the curriculum didn’t match their own biographies of sport then they struggled. What is more, the school was rarely in a position – either because of funding or priorities around PD that didn’t involve PE – to support its teachers to develop. Finally, even when PD time and funding was available the resulting course was normally one-day, off-site and sport specific. In other words it followed the traditional approach of parcelling up bits of general knowledge and some activities about one traditional sport and giving it to the teachers (similar to my own lifeguarding courses).

Unsurprisingly while the course itself was remembered as something that was attended, the teachers remembered little of the information provided. Two of the three teachers interviewed in the study (including Duncombe herself) recalled they had been on these course but that these had been a long time ago and had often occurred in the teacher’s own time and their own expense. The third teacher considered himself so unsure of himself in the PE context that he actively sought to avoid PE and PE PD.

Much has been written about the importance of primary school experiences in PE as a foundation for future activity and yet it would seem that we are abandoning our colleagues in primary education to scratch out an existence in PE. When teachers themselves hate or fear PE (even if it just a little) then how are they supposed to “inspire a generation”? When teachers barely remember the content of courses they go on then how are these courses supposed to have an impact on either teacher or pupil learning? If teachers attend the same sport-based standalone courses then how is PE in primary schools ever going to change?

So what is effective PD?

Armour and Duncombe suggest that it involves the teacher as both a learner and as teacher and to this end recommend that PD is brought back into schools and involves working with both other colleagues and pupils. Such a move to bring PD back into schools allows teachers to struggle with the uncertainties of being both a teacher and a learner and gives them a sense of autonomy and relevance towards their personal PD. Expertise in delivery is important but above all PD needs to be bespoke, challenging and up-to-date and therefore usable in the context that the teacher finds themselves in day after day. Would you agree with these recommendations? What would you consider to be effective PD?


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear whose work behind the scene as copy editor is a vital part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence. 

Andy Vasily
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On Friday 03 January at 21:21 Andy Vasily said
Ash, mostly all of the PD that I have attended as a PE teacher has been exactly as you described above. The international baccalaureate organization does run some quality PYP PE professional development sessions from time to time, but the focus here is to develop PE teachers new to the PYP. However, I would say that, on a whole, quality professional development is still greatly lacking in our subject area. I agree with Armour and Duncombe suggestions, especially in regards to giving teachers a sense of relevance and autonomy when it comes to PD. Teachers need the freedom to pursue and explore areas of professional development that they feel best apply to their specific needs which are often times very unique and directly dependent upon at what point in their careers they are at. However, I think the predominating sentiment among teachers is that the responsibility to be professionally developed rests solely on the shoulders of the schools and it is up to administration to grant us all of our PD wishes and needs. Sure, schools need to do a better job of creating more authentic PD opportunities for us, but I do believe that teachers need to take more initiative and to grab the bull by the horns so to speak when it comes to deepening their practice. If the professional development that is currently being offered does not meet the needs of teachers, they must seek and explore alternative routes that will help them become better. If that means joining a network like PEPLC, great. With 5 learning themes in place, they are sure to find value in the collaborative discussions taking place throughout the different regions around the world. However, if they choose not to join PEPLC, they are still going to find a plethora of great stuff out there by getting connected. There is so much being shared by so many great teachers out there on Twitter. By taking the plunge to get connected through social media, teachers will have a world of readily available resources and reading that is sure to give them the guidance and support they need to deepen their practice. Out of Our Minds is great recommended reading Ash. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Ken Robinson's books and have just finished reading 'Finding your Element' which was another great one. Other authors such as Seth Godin, Daniel Pink, Malcolm Gladwell are also great reads that have influenced my teaching. I am currently reading Creative Confidence written by the Kelley brothers (Tom and David) and cannot recommend it enough. Teachers can greatly benefit from the work of these amazing authors. Have a great year in 2014 Ash.
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On Friday 03 January at 23:12 Ross Halliday said
Ash, First of all can I say that I am delighted with the "change colours" option introduced to the peplc.net blog. A great addition to the site for 2014- thank you! Another great blog post and a topic I am passionate about. There's a caption pic going around that says something like "if I die, I'd want it to be at a teacher in-service, as the transition from life to death would be so subtle." This is both humorous and true in equal measure (for the most part). The poor PD experiences of teachers could probably be made into a series of witty books! It surprises me that the very things we present and hold dear as quality learning/ pedagogy in our classrooms are completely ignored when it comes to pd sessions. My experiences are very much that someone stands out the front of a room/ gym/ playing field/ swimming pool and tells you some stuff that they know in a take-it-or leave-it fashion. We all comply, listen, tick the boxes, sign the attendance sheet and add the points to whatever scale we are being asked to reach by teaching standards governing bodies. Just as sure as this however, we then use approx 25% of what they offered (if it was an AMAZING PD session) the next day- 50% of the 25%, half again the next day until about a week later, when the particular "improvement session" is invisible in our teaching. In other words, like radioactive waste, PD in this form has a half life that leads to no sustainable change or improvement. That's the bad news. The good news is, I think it's changing. Albeit not quickly enough. The great man Vasily, has stated above that PD is the responsibility of the teacher (with support from the school) I completely agree and have written about this many times on my blog. It is not the schools job to "professionally develop" you as a teacher it's yours and we owe it to all those faces staring back at us in a daily basis to be our best, or more accurately in search of our best. It's changing for the better for a number of reasons (here's my 2c on why); 1. The people who present PD sessions are beginning to understand that sessions have to be hands on and interactive and about the WHY of changing practice not just a guide to WHAT and HOW. 2. The bodies who offer PD, including schools (I'm referring mostly to Aus here) are understanding that "shot in the arm" PD may up skill quickly for certain topics/ skills but essentially what is required is the formation of learning communities who work together on an ongoing basis with established goals. Like a dripping tap, we are in it for the long haul and we are in it together, for support and not judgement. 3. Teachers (I think) are beginning to understand that PD "sessions" are not the exclusive gateway to improvement. As well as the terrific peplc initiative which I'm involved in (and huge rap for by the way), Visit a teacher pal's school, teach with them, invite a fellow teacher to come watch you or maybe even to teach one of your classes, ask if you can go watch a science or maths lesson, follow a class for a day etc etc. Not only are these viable and valuable they will probably have at least double the Impact for half (or more) of the cost. The point is they require teachers/ schools to be proActive and they require you to care. Lots. Any visits need to be logged and discussed before and after to get the full benefit of the experience. They must be formalised, by that I mean written down and talked about (what you want to get out of it/ what should I be looking for) in a supportive manner NOT in appraisal form, that's not what ongoing learning communities are about, certainly in the early stages anyway. Thanks for another thought provoking post Ash, I really hope this is an area that's changing for the better, I think it is and by discussing it on forums like this maybe we can help to speed up the process of change. Have a wonderful 2014 and keep the posts coming. Rosco
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On Saturday 04 January at 00:47 Brendan Jones said
Hi Ash, and thanks for continuing your series of thought provoking posts. Teacher Professional Learning (TPL), as we call it in my system, has been an area of interest for me since I started teaching in the 80s. I've always been a keen learner, even before I started working in schools, but the key was that (a) the learning has to be interesting and (b) I had some meaningful use for it after it was finished. Whether it was building plastic model kits and I would read about building them better, or how to better engage my students by attending a course - these two basic tenets hold strong. I remember someone presenting at a course about learning ( a meta learning experience!) and saying something along the lines that when you attend a TPL course, you forget over 50% of what happened at the course within a week and that most committed people will implement 10% of the 50% that they remember. I, like you, have been to plenty of courses where you come back inspired, then the reality of school life largely snuffs out the drive to bring about improvement that you've learned about. Nowadays, too, with shrinking TPL budgets and edugurus and conferences charging ridiculous amounts for delegates to attend their sermons, I think we'll see a rise in DIY action research becoming the preferred TPL weapon of choice. It makes sense to get experienced and innovative classroom practitioners to share their successes and failures as a way of directing new initiates in other schools interested in doing similar things. I really like the concept of Peer Coaching, where a mentor or critical friend guides the journey of a learner towards achieving the learner's goals. Combine this with an action research project on pedagogy and you can get a quality TPL experience, with learning grounded in real life, for a fraction of the cost of a edu workshop or conference. The best parts of PEPLC do this - small groups of like minded people working on a way to create something new that will ultimately spin off into benefits for many.  Myself - I'm an altruistic DIY exponent. I don't require payment for my ideas. I'm happy to share, and hope the majority of practitioners out there think likewise. Some don't, and that's fine, because they are supplementing their teaching incomes with their IP that they're rapid of. But the most important aspect of DIY is free knowledge - knowing there are practitioners out there wiling to share their experiences or answer questions when you ask them. Everyone buys tools, but you shouldn't have to buy knowledge.  Cheers, Jonesy
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On Friday 10 January at 09:53 Michaela da Cunha said
Hi....the text here is very small. Hopefully, it will change once posted! Otherwise, my apologies if you need a magnifying glass! Thanks for this blog open to all involved in teaching and coaching sport. My interest (passion) for over 15 years has been in Sport Pedagogy and for the past four years, linked with ‘Family Studies’. I write humbly as a coach and developer of specific physical activity programmes that support a child-centred approach specifically, but not exclusively, for the primary school age-groups. Prior to that I designed and built primary school playgrounds. My first thoughts are that there is, amongst many teachers, little knowledge of, or a misunderstanding of, the word ‘pedagogy’. The importance of a lifelong approach is key to the lifetime well-being of every child. Physical Education teachers play a vital part in contributing towards this goal, but they cannot be expected to achieve it with a stand-alone approach. With lack of quality personal development opportunities in the field of sport pedagogy, suffering in silence or adopting avoidance tactics seems the likely alternative for the majority, especially with already heavy workloads and stressful lifestyles. If a child spends four hours a week (including playtimes) being physically active, this would equate to 0.27% of their life expectancy. It is a certainty, we hope, that these very few hours of being active in school will happen, albeit in varying amounts. This is all the more reason why personal development programmes maybe need to, above all, concentrate on 1) helping teachers to understand ‘how’ they can promote life-long participation of children in physical activities and 2) to understand the underlying skills children need to a) prepare them to excel in any sport from the age of eleven and b) prevent them from wanting to give up at any stage of their childhood. Dramatic change has occurred over the past ten years with the onslaught of social media, sedentary lifestyles, poor eating habits and the consequential poor health and well-being of our nation at large. ‘Upstream’ interventions are needed if we are going to reverse the effect of these changes. The NHS are being crippled by rising health bills and are desperate to find solutions. And there lies one answer. We need to provide the NHS with strong research-based evidence of how schools can play a major part in making a difference to the health and well-being of children. As well as hoping to enrol on a Masters degree in September, I am soon to launch a Community Interest Company with parent and employee workshops and community club and school based activities. In the future we would like to extend our workshops to teachers. To achieve this we are developing innovative strategies to measure the impact of our work on the mental and physical well-being of children, adults and communities. On a personal note regarding knowledge and sharing of information, I am not sure I can agree. I care that so many children are being let down by a changing society, advertising, financial greed, poor role modelling. My research and knowledge has been built up over two decades. This has been developed, in the main, on a voluntary basis. As a result of my work many girls, in particular, are playing sport today at all levels, including Team GB. I have to consider my own livelihood and children. Knowledge on how to develop good practice in sport in one particular and innovative way, tried and tested, is all that I have.
Ashley Casey
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On Friday 10 January at 19:32 Ashley Casey said
Firstly, Andy, Ross, and Jonesy thanks for your continued support of the #peprn blog and to Michaela for a first comment. Secondly, thanks for your comments this week – which as always made me think. To summarise these ideas and take them forwards – the easiest place to die is in a teacher in-service training event because the transition would be a) easier and b) a relief. That cannot be the way forward. We are pedagogues aren't we and we should not put expedience and tradition before high quality learning. If we advocate that teachers should be learners then we should have the common courtesy to treat them like they are. It seems to me (and from these comments) that teachers are seen as empty vessels in which to pour facts. Or perhaps it is that they are seen as targets at which to throw knowledge in the hope that one of them penetrates and sticks. Yet we know that much of this doesn’t stick (anything from a quarter to a 20th if we are lucky). So why do we persist? What would happen if we concentrated on that 5% and made it so meaningful that it all stuck and actually allowed teachers to make changes? That seems to what happens when teachers have autonomy over their own learning and when they can ask others for specific help – as Andy, Ross, and Jonesy all mention and exemplify. When we are the drivers of our own futures, and when we take the impossible task of pleasing everyone away from schools and stop bemoaning their inability to cater for our needs (after all do we manage it with all our students, individually, in every lesson) then our learning becomes our responsibility. From that point onwards PD becomes meaningful, fun and focused. It’s that what it should always be?

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