How can continuing professional development meet the needs of the contemporary physical education teacher?

It is widely agreed that continuing professional development (CPD) is important for all teachers, but there are different views about what makes CPD more or less ‘effective’. In this paper it will be argued that in order to be effective for contemporary physical education (PE) teachers, CPD should (i) be rooted in both the nurturing philosophies of John Dewey and complex theories of learning; (ii) be cognisant of context; (iii) address contemporary challenges; and (iv) bridge research/theory-practice in innovative ways.

Key words: teacher learning; contemporary challenges, learning theory; research-practice

Text written by Prof. Kathleen Armour, School of Sport, Exercise & Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK.
Few would argue against the claim that continuing professional development (CPD) should meet the needs of teachers in ways that are relevant to the contemporary challenges they face. Yet despite decades of research, there is little agreement about what forms of CPD are most likely to be ‘effective’. At its simplest level, to be effective, something must have a desired or intended outcome but, of course, there are differing views about the most desirable outcomes of any CPD activity. Indeed, from the perspective of CPD producer/providers, the intended goals of CPD are rarely met as envisaged.
 
Research has identified numerous different CPD types, models and processes and has attempted to evaluate which is the most effective in making a positive impact on specific aspects of teachers’ or pupils’ learning. Yet, to date, even large scale studies have produced inconclusive results (Hill et al., 2013). Perhaps, therefore, it is time to consider the issue of ‘effectiveness’ differently.  
 
 
‘Effective’ PE-CPD
It has been argued that the emergence of the concept of ‘CPD’ in recent years signals a shift away from narrow understandings of in-service teacher ‘training’. For example, at the practice level in PE-CPD, Tannehill et al (2015, p. 94) identify a wide range of potentially relevant CPD activities including: “regularly attending workshops and annual professional conferences, participating in staff development programs, reading professional journals and books, pursuing an advanced degree and maintaining professional contacts at other schools and in the community”. 
 
There are also suggestions that CPD should be a seamless process of learning undertaken across a teachers’ career; for example, from a policy perspective, the Teaching Council of Ireland (2011) has described CPD as a ‘continuum’:
 
The continuum of teacher education describes those formal and informal educational and developmental activities in which teachers engage, as lifelong learners, during their teaching career. It encompasses initial teacher education, induction, early and continuing professional development and, indeed, late career support, with each stage merging seamlessly into the next and interconnecting in a dynamic way with each of the others (p. 5).
 
It is interesting to consider whether, in reality, teachers do experience their professional education as a continuum, with each stage merging seamlessly into the next. In my research on this topic I have never encountered a teacher who felt they had experienced this. Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that education systems have programmes in place that could come close to meeting the complex and progressive learning needs of individual teachers over their whole careers (Armour, Makopoulou & Chambers, 2012).
 
            
Contemporary challenges for physical education teachers
Physical educators today are facing a number of contemporary challenges that should be addressed in any CPD that claims to be effective. It is clear that teachers need access to current research on these challenges, and that they must have a strong voice in determining what they need. Ball (2012) has argued, we lack the kinds of mechanisms needed to bridge the gap between research and practice, yet the persistent gap between theory/research-practice is important. It undermines attempts to develop practice underpinned by robust evidence and, equally important, research driven by a practice-led agenda. Moreover, this is linked to questions about the nature of ‘effective’ CPD because, by definition, ‘contemporary physical education’ is a dynamic concept. Three examples illustrate this point and highlight contemporary challenges that should be addressed in PE-CPD.
 
i. Digital literacy
Chambers, Murphy, Nolan and Murphy (2014) describe the life of ‘William’ who is ‘A 15-year-old sport-crazy Millennial in Ireland’. From a digital humanities perspective, these authors identify ways in which the lives of William and his friends differ from those of previous generations, particularly in the use (and abuse) of digital technologies. The authors point to the importance of digital literacy for physical educators (rather than the uncritical use of technology) to ensure they can support young learners to navigate the digital world in positive ways. In his work on pedagogy, technology and change, Fullan (2013) positions technology, in the hands of skilled and motivated practitioners, as a potential ‘accelerator’ of learning. What we can conclude from this is that part of the dynamism of contemporary PE (for the foreseeable future) is linked to digital technologies in the hands of trained teachers and if CPD is to be considered ‘effective’ for contemporary PE, this should be a prominent theme. 
ii. Physical Activity Education
Finding new ways to encourage individuals to engage in physical activity through the life-course is acknowledged as a contemporary global health challenge (Trost, Blair & Khan, 2014). National Governments have issued a series of physical activity guidelines (cf. the UK Department of Health, 2011), yet data on physical activity levels in both the youth and adult populations suggest that current practices are failing many young people (WHO, 2010). It is generally understood that PE alone cannot be the solution to this problem, but it is clear that PE is part of a lifelong process of physical activity education. This is an area where knowledge is changing fast as the body of research grows, yet, there are few examples of sustained efforts to ensure that (a) the most up-to-date evidence from a range of sub/disciplines is readily available to PE teachers; and (b) that teachers have engagement in the determination of research agendas in those areas that could support their professional judgements. In the area of ‘health’, this is particularly concerning.  
 
In a recent attempt to bridge persistent research-practice gaps, teams of scholars from around the world collaborated to develop prototype ‘pedagogical cases’ (Armour, 2014), comprising of multidisciplinary analyses of individual young learners in PE and youth sport. Looking across these first twenty cases, a key point that was illustrated consistently was the influence of macro and micro contexts that constrained and enabled young people’s engagement in sport, physical activity and PE in so many complex ways. For contemporary PE teachers, therefore, it seems clear that effective CPD must be grounded in a deep analysis of societal and local contexts. It must also equip teachers to challenge the plethora of simplistic ‘exercise prescription’ approaches. This is important if teachers are to meet the diverse learning needs of all their pupils and, in turn, equip them to become discerning consumers of the burgeoning fitness/health industry rather than victims of its latest fad or fashion.
 
iii. The compexity of learning
This theme underpins the previous two examples and, given that teaching is a learning profession, it could be argued that it is at the heart of any discussion on effective CPD. Yet, PE-CPD is regularly designed and delivered in ways that take no account of the research on effective learning (Armour & Yelling 2004; 2007); and research in PE rarely makes explicit the learning theories that underpinned the design or methods of a study. As Quennerstedt, et al (2014a) have argued: 
 
Learning is at the heart of pedagogy, and physical education teachers as well as sport coaches are essentially pedagogues. Pedagogy is, however, a complex concept [and] the number of variables operating in any pedagogical encounter is vast…so in order to study learning, we require clear frameworks simply to make sense of what is happening (p. 886)
 
Quennerstedt et al (2014b) illustrate these points in a project where they video-recorded a series of PE lessons. They were able to illustrate the complexity of learning in a single lesson in progress; for example the practical and embodied nature of learning; the importance of individual experiences;  the ways in wider cultural influences enter and become part of the learning process; and the impact of power relations on the dynamics of the lesson. The complex learning picture that emerges from this analysis of short lesson sequences is both insightful and exciting. Yet, it is simply indicative of the complexity of all pedagogical encounters (Leach & Moon, 1999). This type of multi-layered analysis could, therefore, provide rich material for PE-CPD, but without a link to ongoing research, the intriguing mix of embodiment, individual experience, culture and power that are at the heart of everyday practice can simply appear routine and unremarkable. 
 
How, then, could PE-CPD be considered differently? One way to answer this question is to return to the seminal writings of John Dewey and the notion of education as growth.  
Education as growth
John Dewey argued that education can never be about pre-defined goals that put an end point on learning. Instead, to be ‘lifelong’ and continuous, each learning experience must stimulate further learning. So, when students are passive in the learning process and are directed towards achieving a pre-ordained end point, possibilities for further growth and innovation are stifled. It is interesting, therefore, to substitute ‘children’ with ‘teachers’ in this argument, and to consider the nature of effective CPD from Dewey’s anti-foundationalist perspective. In particular, the notion of ‘continuing’ would appear to be axiomatic. For Dewey, ‘growth’ is one of the aims of education; indeed he argued that “life is growth” (1916, p. 43) which means that change must be regarded as the norm for all individuals, irrespective of age. In this sense, a PE teacher can never be considered as a finished teacher, but instead always in the process of becoming a teacher. This perspective seems to link to the earlier points made about the essential dynamism of contemporary PE.  
 
Dewey (1938a; 1916) expressed his ideas about ‘education as growth’ as a continual process of becoming. Moreover, one of the fundamental conditions of growth, according to Dewey (1916), is learning from experience. He wrote:
 
An experience is capable of generating and carrying any amount of theory (or intellectual content), but a theory apart from an experience cannot be definitely grasped even as theory. (p. 118)
 
In other words, from a Deweyan perspective, the persistent gaps between theory-practice in PE and PE-CPD that were illustrated earlier make little conceptual (or practical) sense. In short, theory relies upon practice as practice relies upon theory. Thus, Dewey highlights the active role of teachers as learners in all learning experiences. It could be argued, therefore, that we have been asking the wrong questions about PE-CPD. It is not the CPD structure, activity or approach that is of primary importance, but characteristics of the teacher as learner.
 
Dewey’s principle of continuity of experience is particularly important for this discussion. Dewey (1938a) explained it as follows: “The principle of continuity of experience means that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after...The process goes on as long as life and learning continues (p. 27). This argument links well with the points made earlier about the complexity of learning in PE lessons. Dewey also envisioned growth to be embedded in everyday lives and to be on-going, and he labelled this learners’ ‘plasticity’ (1916). Dewey (1916) described plasticity as:
 
… the power to retain from one experience something which is of avail in coping with the difficulties of a later situation. This means power to modify actions on the basis of the results of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions (p. 38).
 
For PE-CPD, a focus on teachers’ learning plasticity and the production of new ideas is at the opposite end of the spectrum from viewing teachers as the recipients of knowledge created elsewhere. Moreover, it reminds us that teachers are never passive in the learning process even though may appear to be so.
 
One other point from Dewey’s work is helpful. He argued not all experiences are genuinely or equally educative; indeed some experiences can restrict or ‘narrow the field’ of future experiences, and thus be detrimental to further growth, landing the learner “in a groove or rut”. On the other hand, he also noted that experiences that arouse curiosity and open up horizons create the conditions for further growth. Therefore, the crucial question to be asked about any learning experience is the extent to which the experiences have certain characteristics – or conditions – that either support further learning and growth – or stifle them.
 
Effective PE-CPD from this perspective is that which nourishes teachers as curious, dynamic, creative and continuous learners. Specific CPD activities could only be regarded as effective if they promoted an appetite and aptitude for, and engagement in, further learning. Taking this perspective certainly suggests that we would need new ways to evaluate CPD activities; i.e. moving away from a focus on what has been learnt to a focus on how it has stimulated teachers’ curiosity and impetus for further learning. This certainly seems to meet the criteria of continuing professional development.
Conclusion: effective CPD for contemporary PE teachers?
We can conclude that contrary to much current CPD practice, ‘effective’ PE-CPD is that which nurtures and protects the career-long growth of professional practitioners as learners. The core of pedagogy in PE is that moment where a teacher is engaged in meeting the diverse and complex learning needs of an individual young learner (Armour, 2011).  In order to do this effectively, new ways must be found of focussing on contemporary challenges facing PE teachers, bridging research, theory and practice, and focussing on the complexity of learning in everyday practice. Greene (1995) argued for the idea of ‘teachers as strangers’ who seek to view their teaching through ‘fresh eyes’ in order to think of it anew. This seems to be a good way to think about the nature of effective CPD.
 
Please send you comments and suggestions straight to:
Prof. Kathleen Armour, School of Sport, Exercise & Rehabilitation Sciences
University of Birmingham, UK.
 
 
0121 414 3084
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