Professional conversations are structured, classroom pedagogy-focused discussions between professionals. In the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage study, 21 secondary school English teachers participated in fortnightly professional conversations, and these discussions formed an integral component of the Accessible Pedagogies Program of Learning.
So how can professional conversations support teachers to refine their pedagogical practices for inclusive education, particularly for students with language and/or attentional difficulties? And how are professional conversations different from regular coaching conversations?
Genuine inclusive education, at the chalkface
Genuine inclusive education is everyone’s business and requires systemic reform across policy and governance, leadership, and in the classroom. This united approach is heralded in General Comment No. 4 on Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which defines inclusive education as:
“…a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers”.
However, students’ experiences of inclusion will be largely shaped by their classroom experiences. This is because the pedagogical practices used by teachers can substantially contribute to the “changes and modifications” that students require to be included, rather than integrated. Therefore, regular classroom teachers are at the chalkface of implementing inclusive education.
Teachers often report that they are supportive of inclusive education. However, there are practical realities, such as a lack of professional support, resources, planning time, and access to specialist support, that can reduce teachers’ confidence to uphold the aims of inclusive education. The recent Disability Royal Commission Final Report – Volume 7 (Inclusive education, employment and housing) also identified that existing teacher professional development opportunities “do not fully support teachers to gain capabilities to better support students with disability”. This is concerning, because we must invest in teachers to support them to build the skills and confidence required to provide accessible, high quality, whole class instruction.
Not all professional development is created equal
Traditional lecture-style approaches to teacher professional learning are typically facilitator-centred and position teachers as passive recipients of learning. In her keynote at the recent Accessible Assessment Forum, Professor Nicole Mockler aptly referred to traditional professional learning as the “spray on” option: experiences that are often one off, short-term, and decontextualised. Lecture-style professional development also fail to take local teaching contexts into account and neglect teacher practitioner knowledge, skill, and expertise. While approaches like this often include nice catering and comfortable venues, they are expensive, and beyond offering a nice day out, do not represent quality investment in our teacher workforce.
Teaching is complex, intellectual work and so it follows that teacher professional development needs to offer teachers technical support to support and refine their practices.
Therefore, modern approaches to high-quality and effective professional learning must be intensive, sustained, and provide active learning opportunities. Professional development that is structured in this way can support teachers to reflect on and refine specific pedagogical skills that can be readily embedded in the classroom.
In the US, examples of multiple touchpoint and sustained teacher professional development already exist. For example, MyTeachingPartner is an evidence-based approach to teacher professional development, focused on practice refinements to enhance student-teacher relationships. One element of this approach is regular, individual coaching sessions.
We have drawn on these international examples and have developed an approach to professional conversations that aim to support teachers to enact inclusive education in their unique classroom contexts.
Professional conversations are highly structured, action-focused, individual coaching sessions that take place to support teachers to refine their practice. In the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project, we used professional conversations as one element of the program of learning in Accessible Pedagogies, alongside an online learning platform and a group professional learning community.
Twenty-one secondary English teachers were invited to participate in four, fortnightly professional conversations across one school term in 2022. With the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, illness, and other school commitments, 80 professional conversations took place in total. Each conversation followed a consistent structure, where the teacher and researcher discussed professional learning materials, shared co-constructed feedback on teaching practice, and discussed and planned pedagogical practice refinements. Before each conversation, we also invited teacher participants to watch a short video segment of themselves teaching. This gave us some common ground from which we could engage in iterative feedback cycles, focused on the Accessible Pedagogies Domains (linguistic, procedural, and visual accessibility).
Here are some of the teacher’s reflections on the value and impact of professional conversations:
“It was really good. It’s been an interesting process. Sometimes I felt a little bit overwhelmed and stretched, but no, it’s been great.” (Teacher C2)
“It’s my seventh year of teaching, um, or coming up to being my seventh. And I think it’s so important to do things that make you look at the way you do things” (Teacher A2)
“I guess we started looking at our own practices. For me, it’s been really enjoyable to be learning something again and to kind of be forced to reflect. You know, we walk out and look and then we just kind of carry on with our day, whereas now I’m putting in a bit more. Not necessarily more time, but more effort and thinking more about the lessons and really trying to break up the lessons. That first one you filmed, there was just a lot of teacher talk when there would have been a lot of opportunity for the kids to do an activity, like today’s lesson. I really tried to reflect on that and get the kids to do stuff, and I have easily kept collecting answers on the board, and I was like, ‘No, you do it’.” (Teacher C4)
“It’s just been really interesting to be able to be very reflective. I guess I reflect on my practice sometimes, but I guess to reflect on it more explicitly and be aligned with certain categories, you know, like with the visual, linguistic and procedural rather than just thinking of a lesson as a whole. I guess it’s pretty easy for us to over complicate things sometimes. But, you know, lessons don’t always have to be, you know, extravagant. Things that take forever to put together. It’s more about, you know, making sure that the right pieces are there for kids to be able to access what you’re trying to teach them, because you can come up with a lesson and PowerPoint. But if the kids can’t decipher what’s on it, you’ve wasted your time doing it.” (Teacher B5)
The professional conversations in our research offered teachers the opportunity to build professional trust, reciprocity, and engage in deep professional practice discussions. These opportunities were critical to supporting teachers to feel confident to interrogate their typical practice and make practice refinements.
This study provides early data on the impact and value of professional conversations to support regular, secondary school teachers to enact inclusive education. These findings have the potential to inform high-impact principles for future teacher professional learning in Australia and beyond.
At the 2023 AARE Conference, in Melbourne, I presented this work at a poster presentation (view the poster here). It was wonderful to share the value and impact of professional conversations with academics from across Australia, including academics from early childhood, initial teacher education, and English as an Additional Language/Dialect (EAL/D) education. The people I spoke to shared that they could see how targeted professional conversations could apply in their fields of study and work with educators.
We thank the 21 teachers who participated in the Accessible Pedagogies program of learning for being open, willing, and brave to deeply reflect on and refine their practices in this way.
This blog was originally published on the AARE EduResearch Matters blog on November 2023.
Ms Haley Tancredi is a PhD candidate at QUT and is investigating the impact of teachers’ use of accessible pedagogies on the classroom experiences and engagement of students with language and/or attentional difficulties. She is a speech pathologist, a senior research assistant with QUT’s C4IE, and is a chief investigator on the Central Queensland Region Inclusion Action Research Project.