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Empowerment, agency and the power of professional learning

Painted Lightbulb – Creativity and Imagination Concept – Abstract

As a team of teacher educators leading professional learning with and for teachers and schools we are continually evaluating, interrogating and reflecting on our work to ascertain and understand any possible impact and learn from the insights this brings. For me, this is a process I am grappling with just now for several key areas of my work. One is the ongoing review and evaluation of our masters level courses and aligned professional learning and preparing our courses for our new cohorts beginning in September.

It’s always great to get good strong feedback and our ratings are very high (phew!). But, what is more important to me is really understanding what it was about the learning experience that appears to have had an impact and how we can build on that or challenge things further. Of course, we also need to see where we didn’t go far enough or could take alternative approaches.

One of the significant and consistent reflections that has emerged from the data  has been the  impact of becoming more “critically minded“, as one participant put it. This criticality has evolved through the development of much deeper and informed knowledge and understanding of educational issues and concepts. A knowledge and understanding that has come from much questioning and challenging and by taking a critically enquiry stance to practice. That enquiring is very much a disposition, a stance and a process rather than a project or intervention to evaluate and measure. Most have shared how painful, hard-going yet deeply rewarding that process is.

"Thank you! Challenging, paradigm shaking and robust.  A joy and the hardest thing I’ve done yet."

It has been about seeking multiple perspectives and asking questions about the taken-for-granted or status-quo. It’s involved ‘looking under the hood’ of some of the big policy issues or educational concepts that are popular/dominant in education just now.  For some this has been likened to that great moment in the Wizard of Oz, where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the reality of the  ‘All powerful Oz’.  Priestley & Drew (2019) also raise the importance of enquiry   to help teachers critically engage with policy and educational discourses.

"This has made me look at things with a critical lens rather than taking thing as fact because it is in a published text."
"Not relying on one method, text, research model. In the past I would perhaps hear about something eg Shirley Clark read and try to embed. Now I'm thinking about it - was this relevant to our school, what other approaches could have be explored alongside this? "

Brookfield (2017) argues that it is when the learning and reflection starts to focus teachers on understanding and questioning issue of power, that is when they become critical. This criticality and enhanced knowledge has led to increased confidence but more importantly a more critically informed professional judgement and confidence. Teachers have reflected on the greater sense of agency they now believe they have and the positive impact that this can have for their learners. The evidence here is a very positive indicator that this type of professional learning, underpinned by critical enquiry, can build capacity and support teachers and school leaders to develop their capacity as critically informed empowered and agentic professionals.

The data indicates that the critical disposition and depth of understanding and knowledge they have developed has been a fundamental shift for them. This has included reports of better understanding of “how and why we do things”; and having “deeper thinking, questioning and consideration of impact upon learners” by being able to “to step back from everyday practice to challenge thinking”. This has ultimately led to better understanding of “how to meet learner needs more effectively”, which really is at the core of the dynamic relationship between learners and the teacher’s professional learning.

"My thinking, beliefs and attitudes have changed dramatically… my understanding of education and my role within it has too. .. feel more informed and thus more confident about the contributions I make within my school context and beyond and it has triggered a passion for learning which I believe has made me a more compassionate teacher"

This learning was not a solitary endeavour and, unsurprisingly, participants always report on the benefit of learning with colleagues: the support; the networks; the like-minded people. But, as some of the fair criticisms of ‘collaborative learning’ state, it needs to be more than finding others to agree with, or ‘stirring the same knowledge around the pot’, or ‘group think’!  This can lead to potentially  ‘claustrophobic or controlling’ (Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018) environments. However, this professional learning goes deeper than that. It is an iterative, active and collective process.  Challenging and and considering assumptions are key and participants report the value of developing knowledge together, building on each other’s perspectives, and opportunity to “to give deeper consideration to different contexts and the needs of colleagues and learners within those contexts.”

From the data we can see the deeply interrelated nature of the key features and principles of the national professional learning model. It is evident the teachers engaging in this professional learning are developing and enacting that “ethical prerogative of taking an enquiring stance to practice” (National PL Model, 2018) and are, arguably, developing and enacting the agency necessary to become the ‘empowered professionals’ who truly are able to make the best informed decisions to really meet the needs of the children and young people with whom they work.

For me, that’s what makes this all worthwhile. As I prepare to welcome our new cohort of participants onto the MED Leadership and Learning, it gives me a great sense of hope, encouragement and excitement for what we might learn together over the next year.

"It’s changed my whole way of viewing the world and reaffirmed what I’m in education for. It’s changed my actual brain I think!"


National Professional Learning Model, Education Scotland 



Brookfield, S. (2017) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, New York, NY.

Hargreaves, A & O’Connor, M. T. (2018) Collaborative Professionalism: When teaching together means learning for all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Priestley, M. & Drew, V (2019) Professional enquiry and teacher agency: putting teachers in control. Professional Development Today, 20(2), 58-65



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