In which professional development activities do Québec teachers participate?

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EngagED Learning Magazine Cover

This article is part of
Vol. 1, issue 1 (Fall 2021)
of EngagED Learning magazine.

By Marie-France Boulay
Doctoral student in educational psychology and lecturer, Université Laval
Under the direction of Christine Hamel and the co-direction of Sandra Hamel

A study carried out among 708 Québec teachers designed to address the lack of information about the nature of professional development (PD) activities in which they participate made it possible to draw some very interesting findings. This report summarizes them and enables us to take stock of the characteristics supported by research of so-called effective PD activities, in addition to learning about avenues of intervention to be considered to promote teachers’ participation in their continuous professional development. 

In Québec, the adoption of Bill 40 in February 2020 requires all elementary and secondary school teachers to complete a minimum of 30 hours of continuing education per two school-year period, beginning on July 1 of each odd-numbered school year (therefore July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2023 for the current period).

The provincial government defines “education” as the participation in a structured activity, in particular a course, a seminar, a colloquium or a conference. This activity can be organized by the Minister, by a university institution, by a school service centre, by an educational institution governed by the Loi sur l’enseignement privé, by another organization, by a peer, etc. Reading specialized books is also recognized as a continuing education activity, as is participation as a trainer in such activities.

How do we measure the quality of the PD activities offered to teachers? What are the reasons that lead teachers to participate in PD activities? What are the perceived benefits and outcomes? And what are the incentives and barriers that might prevent them from participating in such activities?

When these legislative changes came into force, there was no centralized source of information for the professional development (PD) activities in which teachers were participating.

(Conseil supérieur de l’éducation [CSÉ], 2014). Fortunately, it was also the end of a data collection effort designed specifically to initiate the work to address this lack of information. (Boulay et al., 2021). After analyzing the data collected from 708 teachers from all over Québec, there were some very interesting findings.

The study results indicate that teachers rarely participate in activities that were not first offered to them formally. These results are very revealing and point in the same direction as other studies (see in particular Opfer et al., 2008) that the PD activities offer and teachers’ participation in these activities are closely linked.

Thus, when teachers are invited to participate in PD activities, the participation rate exceeds 72%, even increasing up to 99% if it involves time out of working hours for independent personal study, in which the teacher examines their own practice.

An offer based mainly on “less-effective” PD activities

The quality of the activities offered to Québec teachers focuses more on so-called « traditional » activities, such as conferences, presentations, workshops or seminars. The fact is that those activities that engage teachers in more passive rather than active learning rarely meet the characteristics of effective learning systems (see box below).

Challenges of consistency between personal aspirations and those of the organization 

It is necessary to take into account personal and individual training needs, bearing in mind that to be effective, PD activities must be seen by teachers as part of a cohesive learning program (Desimone, 2009). However, effective PD also refers to the idea that the goals and objectives pursued must be shared by the school organization and be part of a cohesive whole (Whitworth & Chiu, 2015). Thus, the so-called “collective” reasons are important when the time comes for teachers to decide whether or not they will participate in a PD activity, and it may seem normal that teachers report having perceived little impact from their participation in PD on various changes in the organization or the school structures. 

In light of the results, the hypothesis raised is that the school administrators’ level of commitment in the organization and deployment of PD activities in which Québec teachers participate could be called into question. In fact, only 39% of teachers indicated that their school administration organized and/or led the activity in which the teacher spent the most time. However, when the identification of learning needs and the planning of PD activities are done in a non-strategic and erratic way, it results in an ineffective PD, for both the school and the teacher (Opfer and Pedder, 2010).

Barriers and incentives to participation

What are the obstacles that can influence teachers’ participation in PD activities? The main reason given by the teachers who participated in the study relates to the lack of substitute staff. Then come the reasons related to work schedule constraints, activity costs and lack of support from the employer.

Thus, to better support teachers committed to their PD, various incentives could be offered, such as additional salary, recognition of specific statuses, accreditations, modification of the salary structure, etc. However, Québec teachers say that they have little access to various support measures; the main incentive is to arrange their schedules so that they can participate in activities during working hours. It would therefore be interesting to ask teachers about incentives that would encourage their participation in PD activities.

In conclusion, with the new PD requirements legislated for teachers, and most of all, so that they can derive real benefits from their participation in these activities, here are some recommendations made at the end of the study:

  • Ensure that government authorities ensure that their concept of professional development is clarified and that this concept is shared and understood by all academic stakeholders.
  • Promote, among the various school stakeholders, the conditions of effectiveness to be met during the planning, organization, deployment and evaluation of PD activities.
  • Vary and offer more support measures that meet the needs of teachers with the aim of promoting their participation in effective PD activities.
  • Develop mechanisms supporting the deployment of an even richer and more varied range of activities, which meets the different needs of teachers and their school organization, and above all, which takes into account the characteristics of effective learning systems recognized for supporting the improvement of student learning outcomes. These mechanisms could, in particular:
    • Foster the collaborative analysis of teachers’ PD needs
    • Support the development of structured and long-term PD plans
    • Take into account the major roles guidance counsellors and academic advisors play in PD initiatives
    • Enhance the roles played by faculties of education sciences in Québec universities, which are renowned for their expertise in the sector 
    • Rely on the professional autonomy of teaching staff

It should be remembered that well beyond the obligations enshrined in the law, effective PD can support teachers in the face of the increasing complexity and intensification of their work. This is a good reason to create conditions that will enable them to fully engage in it and pursue their personal and professional aspirations.

For more information about the study:

http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.11794/68350 

This research was made possible with the support of the Joseph-Armand-Bombardier Masters scholarship offered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The author therefore wishes to thank this funding agency. 

The characteristics of effective PD

There are many benefits to participating in effective PD activities. Among these:

– Increasing the effectiveness of the education system

– The personal development and professional autonomy of teaching staff

– Updating teaching practices

– Improving student learning outcomes

However, not all PD practices are created equal in terms of effectiveness. From the beginning of the 1990s, various studies highlighted the fact that many of them had difficulty in leading to meaningful learning that could be mobilized in the classroom. The situation can be explained in particular by the fact that, whatever the objectives, these are activities that are often criticized for being too brief, isolated, fragmented, incoherent and decontextualized, and which, consequently, have less chance of improving education.

Over the past 30 years, a certain consensus has emerged in the scientific community as to the main characteristics favouring an effective PD, in particular because they support the transformation of teaching practices with the objective of improving student learning.

The following table summarizes these characteristics:

Effectiveness characteristicsDescription
Focussed on specific contentProfessional learning is fostered when activities focus on specific learning purposes, such as the simultaneous development of knowledge about content to be taught and the exploration of pedagogical practices that enable students to learn that content.
Focussed on active learningTeachers engage in a process of inquiry into their own practices; reflect on their beliefs and experiences; analyze and experiment with new strategies learned. Preferably, the learning deals with what the teacher experiences in reality with their students, in their class (e.g. examining the work done by their students, analyzing their practice through video recording, observing and analyzing other colleagues’ practices, coaching or mentoring activities, facilitating a discussion with colleagues, writing an article).
CollaborativePD activities that promote the collective participation of teaching staff from the same school, or even the same discipline or the same cycle, lead to further transformation in classroom teaching practices, since these activities support the development of a common framework of shared knowledge, which in turn promotes a better understanding of the issues linked to the various teaching contexts. These collaborative activities become more effective when they are reinforced by some form of support, such as mentoring, coaching or peer observation.
Extended over timeThere is some consensus that effective PD activities should total a minimum of 20 hours and that these hours should be spread over at least one semester. It is important to remember that experimenting with and deploying new practices in the classroom takes time; valuable time that teachers must also be able to count on.
Cohesive PD activities should be seen by teachers as part of a cohesive learning program, based on their background (values, interests, knowledge, motivations, beliefs, experiences) as well as their learning needs, those of their students and the priorities targeted by the school organization.

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