Part 2: Kolb’s learning cycle to enrich PD

In Part 1 of this blog post, I considered some of the limitations for Professional Development within schools.  Firstly, that especially in an international schools, our schools are made up of incredibly experienced staff.  In addition, access to platforms such as Twitter has meant that people seek a lot of professional development for themselves – whether that be seeking advice, reading, blogging or speaking at a range of education events, like ResearchEd.  Thirdly, within schools there have been a number of barriers to the effective implementation of Professional Development within schools: the delivery of professional development; the impact of professional development; the misalignment between Performance Management and professional development and as a consequence of all three, a real lack of appetite for professional development in some schools.

So what can be done to support schools in implementing effective professional development that has tangible seen impacts and what can staff do if they work within a school that isn’t quite at the stage of getting it right?

Well, firstly the Education Endowment Foundation in 2022 provided their own summary of recommendations for Effective Professional Development, in which they suggested 14 mechanisms to include actions such as reviewing prior learning: presenting information from a credible source, modelling the technique and encouraging monitoring.

Whilst these recommendations are sound, I personally find them somewhat cognitively overwhelming and feel as though there is something far simpler we can be doing.  I like Kolb’s cycle of learning (2016), introduced to me by the CTeach programme and exemplified in The CPD Curriculum by Mark and Zoe Enser.

Kolb’s learning cycle has a four-stage cycle of learning.  Kolb states that ‘learning involves the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations.  In Kolb’s theory, the impetus for the development of new concepts is provided by new experiences and our reflections on those experiences.’  He states that ‘learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.’

However, these labels, for a simpleton like myself, seem overly complicated and unhelpful when trying to think about the cycle of learning.  I, therefore, turn to Mark and Zoe Enser’s diagram within The CPD Curriculum, which helps to break this process down further.

So the abstract conceptualisation is the theory about an aspect of teaching and learning, which is presented to teachers.  This is then followed by the active experimentation whereby teachers discuss how this theory could be adopted into their own context and an action plan is formulated.  Through the concrete experience, the theory is put into practice…lots of practice and its effects are monitored by the teacher or by an observer  I would argue an instructional coach.  Finally, having completed a cycle of practice / experience, a period of reflection occurs whereby the impact of the theory on classroom practice is discussed, shared and reviewed.

When reflecting on the work I have done this year, using the cycle, I have added some more specific thoughts or steps in relation to these four stages.

The ‘theory’ or area with regard to teaching and learning being presented to teachers for development should really feature within a whole school or department strategic plan if we want to both develop individually but also contribute to the collective endeavour of improvement across the school.

When discussing how this theory or area of practice could be applied within a particular context, specifics are key.  Choosing one particular area only to focus on or one specific group to work with is really important to ensure that meaningful change occurs before potentially being rolled out further – either across other groups or across an entire school.

When the theory or area moves into practical application then a cycle of deliberate practice is important.  Deliberate practice is practice that is both purposeful and systematic with a focused attention on a specific goal.  When we pay attention to a specific goal and practice our delivery of it, incrementally reviewing and adapting what we do then we are being much more systematic in improving the quality of practice.

To support us with this, employing an instructional coach is really beneficial.  An instructional coach should be someone you consider to be an expert in the chosen area you are wishing to develop and someone you can trust who can a. exemplify best practice in the area and b. observe you to provide clear action points that are again incremental in further refining the area you are wishing to develop.

Finally, after a period of deliberate practice with supportive instructional coaching, your practice in a particular area should have been refined, and improved, and a period of review can be undertaken.  This can be completed in a variety of ways: for example, through the writing up of a case study to share within the context of your school or further afield or a gallery showing at the end of the year whereby all staff present their learning cycle reflections for the year.

In part 3 of this blog series, I will showcase how I have used Kolb’s learning cycle to implement the harkness strategy within my practice.

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