Doctoral study – emergent themes and my own PD

This is the final post summing up the results of the doctoral research project. This process of summarising and reflecting has been really valuable and, given the informal nature of these posts (compared to peer-reviewed journals), there are neat similarities to the entire topic I have been researching.

The previous post discussed the key findings of the Delphi study, but throughout the entire project several common issues and themes emerged. From the results of the Delphi study an apparent tension between leaders or managers and grassroots teachers was identified. Specifically the issues of accountability and transparency, and power, hierarchy and control appeared to be relevant. In some ways these are unavoidable as school systems are inherently hierarchical. What seems counterintuitive is that educational leaders advocate for learner voice but then impose accountability systems on teachers. Through investigating this topic teachers have told me, anecdotally, of being led into a room at the end of the school day to be briefed on the latest imposed initiative, all in the guise of PD; this is also reflected in published sources by teachers, such as Rich Czyz.

The increased prevalence of performativity measures in education (which extends beyond the UK) further undermine the trust between leaders and teachers. If this is manifesting itself in teacher PD this may explain why some teachers, particularly the Joyce and Showers ‘gourmet omnivores’, are seeking new opportunities to lead their own development, forming more equitable or democratic Professional Learning Networks, with many curating their own fluid Communities of Practice.

Using the critical pedagogists as a lens for this analysis it is significant that both hooks and Freire draw attention to cultural or societal inequalities that simply reinforce traditional structures. They argue for transgression and conscientization with adult learners. In hooks case working in the Academy makes this even more applicable given my own work with education students (although there are some obvious cultural differences). A factor crucial to this in critical pedagogy is dialogue and discourse. Therefore, and to represent the radical nature of this form of PD, the next emergent theme was alternate discourse.

As with the key findings there was an immediate issue in that the definitions for dialogue and discourse differ depending on source or context. As this was an emergent theme my own interpretation is that discussion, debate, dialogue and discourse are all broadly similar in nature; understood and interpreted in an everyday manner. What I believe is important is the way in which teachers question each other, building on ideas, and where appropriate reevaluating their previous ideas. In my own mind I think there is a crossover here to criticality and being research literate and self-aware. Of course this also links back to the earlier key findings of agency and ownership, and trust. And alternate discourse, possibly challenging the status quo or received wisdom, could both support, but also undermine, development of trust. Clearly, for the teacher engaging in this activity, this is a factor that must be handled carefully. To do this the ‘sense of self’ will be significant.

A theme that appeared to link several of those already discussed is teacher identity. This topic is, in some ways, a long way removed from the focus on PD, but then it could be argued that it is central to everything in education. Like with so many of the other factors and themes in the project there are overlaps to all the other areas, illustrating the messy nature of teacher PD (Burstow, 2018). At the final, pre-viva, presentation one of the attendees made this very point. It presents a fascinating area for future research and in particular I am interested in attitudinal component of the Evans model fits with teacher identity. Through my own engagement with the research process I’ve begun to really examine the way in which teachers reflect and move beyond the practical or behavioural components. To do this effectively requires a close and deep inspection of our view of ourselves, and how we feel we can or need to be.

Something that I have returned to several times in this study is the learning that is situated at the base of Rogers’ metaphorical iceberg, unseen and even unrecognised by the learner. This could include the way a sport player seems to have acquired the motor skills to execute a skill (e.g. Ronaldo, who was filmed scoring in complete darkness, having only seen the ball being passed in his general direction) and developing knowledge or skills through lived experiences. Building on the ideas of Eraut and Reber, Linda Evans has recently discussed this in relation to teacher professional development and learning. It may prove in time, along with developments in cognitive and neuroscience, crucial to how we understand learning.

The final thing I consider, in the final chapter of the thesis, is my own personal and professional development. As the main focus of the project was professional development, and I had compiled a reflexive diary this seemed an apt way to end. I opted to consider my development as a teacher, researcher and learner. Despite these three being separate roles it is clear they all overlap. For example, this week I have been supporting science communicators who regularly work with learners and teachers. I am applying the results of research, but also using this as a chance to learn more about the way teachers engage with them. I will also be thinking about how I teach, both adults and young people. And underpinning this will be my own learning. This is self-imitated or self-directed informal learning in action.

One contribution of a doctoral thesis should be to creation of new knowledge, which I think I have achieved. The second contribution should be the development of the individual undertaking the study and research. Although I am wary of being overly self-indulgent in my analysis I can not argue that this has real benefit from the process. Yes, the product has value, but the process is where I’ve really learnt and developed. Referring back to Illich’s theory of De-schooling Society I now understand this far better having lived this experience; after decades in education I have ‘deschooled’ myself. My next step is to share this with, and apply it to, wider educational community.

So there it is. My next post will be post-viva. Before starting the doctoral process I’d have been anxious (and I still am a bit, if I’m honest) but the viva is also a chance to learn and develop. It is a professional conversation which all involved should benefit from. And if that doesn’t sum up the entire project, then I don’t know what does.

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