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What is professional, workplace learning?

The world has changed in many ways and yet the way people are socialised into a profession, or a trade, has persisted.

Most people would struggle to win an argument that insisted that what happens in the workplace of a lawyer, a doctor or a teacher were in anyway (or many ways) similar. In contrast few would struggle to win if the argument revolved around the clear need for people to engage in work place learning in order to ‘move’ into these professions.

The ‘point of access’ for most professionals is via a legitimate work place. This is where their induction occurs and where qualifying begins and continues. It is where, after a period of monitoring, mentoring, and guiding, an individual starts to be able to call himself or herself a beginner. From there comes an induction and/or probation period (for a teacher in the UK this is the NQT or Newly Qualified Teacher year) where further standards have to be met. It is only then, and over a protracted period time, that professionals are considered as experienced or even expert.

This is a model of professional qualification that was ‘established’ in a world where advanced economies were defined by manufacturing industries; industries that are now, almost exclusively, found in the developing world. Furthermore, economies are no longer really measured or even governed at national levels. Things have changed and that change (indeed change more generally) has become one of the persisting elements in the modern world. The truth is that what is ‘done’ has changed considerably but the way that people are ‘prepared’ for this changing world hasn’t.

Given the supply (in physical education at least) of aspiring teachers, employers (and the gatekeepers who control pre-service teacher places i.e. Physical Education Teacher Education [PETE] and school-based programmes) are likely to seek out ‘recruits’ who already understand what they will be required to learn. Worryingly, given the manner in which the world has changed, what is valued is “how one is and should be as well as what practices and spaces are legitimized or not, including those practices reinforced in education, credentialing processes, and the shaping of the profession/al for and by its members”. In other words, what has occurred before becomes legitimatised as the accepted practice of the membership – be that within PETE, workplace learning as a pre-service teachers and NQTs, and/or later as experienced or indeed expert teachers/mentors. For me, an example would be prospective teachers knowledge and competency of a particular sport.

The preparation of physical education teachers does not occur, however, in isolation or in a vacuum. Instead it occurs at a time when teachers and schools are repeatedly audited. Consequently new teachers are required “to learn in a community itself under pressure from the burden of expectation such as success in school sport, high scores and grades by students in the high-stakes senior programme, and minimization of costs associated with running the HPE department”. Teacher do what needs to be done and pre-service and beginning teachers are expected to do the same.

Taken alone, that would be complex enough but learning is no longer confined to the working day. The divide between “work, leisure time, unpaid work, family time and education” is barely discernible and ‘work’ is now free, it seems, to spill over into other facets of people’s lives. The boundaries of work have become, at best, blurred and yet we accept this. We accept this because to work has become one of the key indicators of good citizenship and to be out of work is seen as a serious social stigma. We accept that learning is more than learning generalities but is now about ‘picking up’ routines and watching and copying colleagues in the same context. Significantly, these ways of learning are far from uniform even for pre-service teachers in the same school or on the same teacher education programme. This is a very different form of learning to the one that most children experience at school, i.e. one where they are “continually pushed through the same curriculum in institutional forms of learning, doing the same tests at the same time”.

Teachers are expected to learn how to respond in institutional ways to given situations while still having the flexibility to react. They are required to know the techniques, skills and procedures of their school so they can react, accordingly, to common events. This is not so they remain uncritically ‘on message’ but so that they can react appropriately and quickly to any uncommon or novel events that might occur. To do this they need to practise. That is not say that new teachers simply absorb what they need to learn and regurgitate it. They learn through a structured, yet individually specific, approach to learning that includes “organized mentoring, assessment of task performance, competency and skills inventories, and so on”. These approaches are far from uniform and are “contingent upon the degree to which the school itself is a dynamic site, generative of serious intellectual questions about the nature of teaching and learning.”

The school is not, however and as we discussed last week, a single space. Instead it should be considered as a loose hodgepodge of groups who are competing for students’ attention, for funding, and for recognition. There are implications for teachers who are required, expected and mandated to learn and qualify in the diversity of these conflicting spaces; implications that centre on safety. Their safety. Workplace learning is dependant on the specific workplace climate because it is only when this is safe that it becomes and remains favourable to learning. If it isn’t socially, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and/or physically safe then it can have a “devastating effect” on any teacher; let alone novice and beginner teachers. Indeed, “any work environment that is doubtful or uncertain will likely provide opportunities to learn that are defensive or evasive”.

Significantly the very process of becoming a teacher is dominated by a small number (two or three maybe) spaces and two particular phases i.e. the school experience/practicum and the first year of teaching. Within these wider spaces the subject department staffroom (or PE office) is the space more frequently occupied by novice teachers. This is, however, one of the spaces we know least about, especially how it “operates as a professional learning community and how this affects the process of becoming a teacher or learning to teach”.

In Australia “the most entrenched criticism of teacher training relayed to its practical component.” Even if this criticism is only a shadow of the global picture then it still raises questions about the whole process and the unquestioned need for workplace learning in the professional qualification of a teacher. It is clear that the subject staffroom or office, and particularly its culture, “is a key factor in facilitating a positive and productive professional development experience” and yet we know so little about it.

In many cases it could be argued that it affords new teachers with outstanding learning opportunities. It might also be argued that in many cases it gives new teachers a taste of the real world. Equally that ‘taste’ could be unsupportive, questionable, abusive and filled with language and practices that ridicule others because of their sex, sexuality, culture, religion and/or body shape. This would not be a new story. As a subject physical education has been “described as insensitive to social issues, elitist, sexist, anti-intellectual, and full of pragmatic sceptics”.

Learning informally as a member of workforce is something that individuals will, in different guises, spend more of their life doing than learning in formal settings. They will learn to ‘play the game’ and they will learn the language and gestures of the workforce. This is to be expected but shouldn’t we be more aware of what this means for new teachers and, eventually, for the young people they will teach themselves – be they new teachers themselves or students. It could be argued that this hasn’t been important before, given how little we really know. Surely it’s time that changed.

Rossi, T., lisahunter, Christensen, E. & Macdonald, D. (2015). Workplace learning in Physical Education: Emerging teachers’ stories from the staffroom and beyond. London: Routledge.

Thank you, Ashley, as usual for a very thoughtful post and congratulations on your new website. I also would like to thank you for the invitation to respond to this week’s post.

The day anyone in a school community forgets how much he/she has to learn, is the day that a school fails to meet its potential and students are not served optimally. A growth mindset shouldn’t just be a worthy pursuit for students, it should be modeled by every member of the school community. It should be an expectation.

Regarding thoughts on novice teachers, I might add that equal support should be provided for the experienced teacher. You see, education is an evolving discipline and this leads to why your blog is so great – it helps disseminate research to practitioners. Experienced teachers deserve to have time to process research, plan and modify practice, and reflect on their experiences. Otherwise, how will they improve? I have observed school leaders load experienced teachers with extra duties and assignments because they are so effective. This leads to burn out, high stress levels, and ultimately losing some of our best teachers who move on to other careers.

I get really annoyed when we talk about experienced teachers as being lazy and novices ones as needing all the support. Think about our students…we can’t generalize them. We have to know each of our teachers as individuals and create a system that supports them so that each one can reach her/his potential, just as we aim to help students do the same.

Pre-service teachers can be better if assignments during PETE programs are authentic, focus on critical-thinking, and provide them with access to plan, implement, assess, and reflect on activity based courses. Opportunity for debate, case studies, and other student-centered teaching strategies should be normalized in these programs. Moreover, PETE professors should not only be well-versed with the latest research, they should work diligently on their own teaching effectiveness as well as to develop and maintain an effective, positive, and collaborative relationship with the government physical education professionals.

Many PE teachers feel isolated and work as the only PE teachers in their schools. In fact, at least in North America, is very common for elementary PE teachers to teach in multiple schools. Thus, the opportunity to learn in PE offices simply doesn’t exist. Another issue is that PE teachers are often serving students during their non-instruction time. Intramurals, anyone? Coaching duties, anyone? Effective PE teachers support students’ physical literacy development in many ways – which decreases opportunity for them to engage in professional dialogue with PE teachers and other content area colleagues during the school day and before or after school.

Of course, there are other ways of reaching out to have your thoughts questioned. We met through Twitter, and I joined Twitter while off on maternity leave as I missed the professional dialogue with colleagues I had as a K-12 PE teacher and PETE professor. Yet, of the absolutely best PE teachers I have met only very few of them are on Twitter. I completely disagree with the idea that the best teachers are on Twitter and cringe when I read this idea because it’s an ignorant statement.

How PE teachers are evaluated often leaves me wonder if the evaluations actually mean anything. Take tenure and promotion in the higher education system, for example. How can a biology professor evaluate the contributions of a PETE professor given the service load of a PETE professor who is supervision pre-service teachers, running service-learning programs as part of the pedagogy classes, etc.? While some may have this right through trial and error, it’s an area that I believe needs a lot of work.

I have exceeded the word limit so will regrettably stop here. I could think as I tap my keyboard for many more paragraphs. What I love most about what I do is that it forces me to think and grow. It’s so exciting! I wonder how powerful it might be if individuals who read this post challenge themselves to learn something new each day, and to challenge someone else in a thoughtful, kind and intentional way each day. I suspect that less ego, more action, and more quality PE would result.


comment avatar
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On Thursday 28 May at 07:47 @ImSporticus said
In New Lives of Teachers, Christopher Day and Qing Gu examined the varied, often demanding commitments on teachers’ lives today as they attempt to pursue careers in primary and secondary education. They identify 6 career phases within teaching from phase 0-3 years (commitment, support and challenge) to phase 31+ years (sustaining/ declining motivation.)   They feel that Governments, through apprenticeship models of teacher training, are failing the new teacher. Day states 'In these forms of teacher education students spend most of their time in schools learning the craft of teaching but not necessarily developing their thinking, capacities for reflection, and their emotional understand- ings; for teaching at its best is an intellectual and emotional endeavour.' With out developing this deep reflective practice new teachers are unable to cope with the demands the pace, complexity, and intensity of change that you have described in your post. According to their research, challenges to motivation and commitment come from phase 4 (16-23 years) with the main issues being cited as 'external influences' to teachers lives both in and out of school. Considering the current changes to the retirement age and that means that a 22-year old teacher, with a 45-year career ahead of them, might spend up to 64% of it in a state of challenged motivation and commitment. Assuming the average teaching salary in the UK is £23,010 (taken from DfE) then the state could be paying out over £600,000 per demotivated teacher (probably much more than this taking in NI and pension contributions). Amanda makes the insightful point that it can't just be a reform of PETE, but a complete reform of the continual individual professional development that is tailored to the experienced teacher. This might help ensure that the lack of motivation and commitment experience through the life of teacher is challenged and doesn't in turn influence the new members of the profession. When I first began teaching I thought there were two types of teacher. The optimist and the cynic. That there was a daily battle in the staffroom and the PE Office between the two. Sometime the optimist won, but many times I saw the cynic win only leading to more negative practice. Just as I'm about to reach Stage 4 of a Teachers Life I realise that their is another. The Sceptic. Those who want solutions and to make things better but ask hard questions of those solutions. These are the sorts of teachers we want more of within the profession. Modelling reflection and critique to newer teachers. The big question is how do we create more sceptical teachers? I'm not sure under current pressures both financial and time and without help from Universities/researchers that the sceptical teacher will be formed and thrive within the school or especially within the PE Department.
Vicky Goodyear
About me
On Saturday 30 May at 13:19 Vicky Goodyear said
While this blog has highlighted the importance of work-based learning and how a supportive or ‘safe’ environment is effective on learning, it is also important to emphasize that the pre-service teacher should be actively involved in creating this environment too. As the blog suggests, there is much to be learned from the informal experiences in the office or staffroom and the culture of the school, but for this to occur, it also requires the engagement of the pre-service teacher. Now I remember during my teacher training sitting in the PE office and for the first few weeks feeling awkward. Do I act like the keeno? Do I keep my head down and keep doing my lesson plans? Do I pretend to be writing my lesson plans but actually listen to the discussion? Okay I have listened, but I don’t know what they are going on about…what will I say if I they ask me?  Now the key is to remember most people have been in that position and what I would suggest is to listen, learn, and ask questions and if you get asked something just say I don’t know.  To help with these awkward situations it is also key to develop social relations and create opportunities for these to occur. If a teacher suggests they are going to tidy the cupboard, go and help and have informal discussions. Or if a teacher is going on a fixture and driving the mini bus, if you have time go with them. On a 30min journey with just two of you and 15 kids on the bus, there is lots of time to talk, talk about the weather, the football at the weekend, or whatever – and in all fairness the teacher would probably appreciate the company. The key message then is in whatever way suits you create time for social discussions. The social discussions can break down the feelings of awkwardness in the staff room or PE office. In turn, this also helps when you want to ask something e.g. can you help with my lesson plan? You said you teach football in this way, is there a way I could do this?  I suppose the awkward feeling happens at anytime in your career, whether it be as a pre-service teacher or starting in a new school or another type of job. But for me, become involved and talking about social and general things helps what can be learned informally and formally. 

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