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Teacher professional development: a portfolio approach

Heather Pinder & Margaret Turnbull
Auckland College of Education, New Zealand

Paper Presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 11-13 September 2003

In New Zealand the advent of professional degrees for teaching created a desire for teachers in the field to upgrade their diplomas of teaching to degree status in order to maintain currency with new graduates. With regard to this phenomenon, the staff in the Centre for Practicum at Auckland College of Education developed a practicum module in their Bachelor of Education (Teaching) programme specifically for teachers who wished to upgrade their qualifications. The module is entitled Refining Professional Performance and requires teachers to select and develop a specific area of their work for professional growth. This professional growth is documented through a Portfolio of Current Practice. The guiding processes within the portfolio include the concepts of professional development and change, action research and reflective practice, and an examination of socio-political contexts at personal, institutional and national levels. These processes are undergirded by principles of adult learning.

Section One

In this section of the paper, eight principles underpinning the adult pedagogical approach in the module are made explicit. Also, in relation to the development of the Portfolio of Current Practice, a brief perspective of the literature on professional development and change with links to the prevailing socio-political contexts is presented. In addition, the intersection of action research, reflective practice and assessment, as political tools for teachers, is briefly explored.

Principles underpinning the adult pedagogical approach

Basic to the eight principles of the adult pedagogical approach in this module, is the contention that the relationship between the principles and the pedagogical approach is demonstrated through professional practice. Furthermore, it is assumed that professional practice constitutes an ethics of practice that is based on a moral standpoint and includes the continuing need for critical reflection on practice . The eight principles are:

1. An effective learning environment is established.

It is vital to the effectiveness of the teaching-learning process that a 'rich environment for active learning' is establishment . Such an environment makes provision for not only a social constructive approach to the cognitive aspect of learning, but also provides support and challenge to the physical, emotional, spiritual and sociocultural dimensions of the learning-teaching process . Moreover, the climate should be conducive to reflective practice .

2. Provision is made for self-direction in learning.

This principle, emphasising that only individuals can experience learning , is aligned with the notion of intrinsic motivation and the uniqueness of each learner . As well, it provides opportunity for a deep approach to learning , allows the individual to construct knowledge within their socio-cultural and historical framework, and avoids a transmission approach .

3. Opportunity for self-assessment is inherent in the assessment strategies.

The ability to self-assess helps develop professional judgement and implies that the learner fully understands the criteria for assessing the task . As the learner becomes more skilled in self-assessment, the power position of the assessor as 'other' is diminished and a more collegial approach can be established . Moreover, self-assessment promotes the tendency for a deep learning approach .

4. The experience that each adult brings to the teaching-learning context is acknowledged.

Implicit in this principle is the acknowledgement of each learner as an individual, which, in turn, contributes to the notion of mutual respect . However, it is conceded that for some individuals, the nature of their experience might be less than 'purposeful' . In such instances, it is important to acknowledge the experience that the learner brings, and to find a way of facilitating reconstruction of the learning.

5. The prior learning of each person provides the starting point for the construction of new knowledge.

This principle, although related to principle four, is based on the social constructivist theory of learning. In this theory the learner's zone of proximal development is ascertained through working with a more knowledgeable peer in order to create new knowledge or 'scaffold' the specific learning to new understanding (Bruner, cited in Vygotsky, cited in ).

6. Critical reflection is an essential element of practice.

Critical reflection affords the opportunity to confront existing practices that are based in a socio-historical, political and cultural construct. Through such confrontation of practice, opportunity for re-construction and emancipatory action occurs .

7. Recognition is given to the socio-emotional context of teaching and learning.

This principle relates to the notion of teaching as an 'emotional practice' as illustrated in the work of . advocated for the development of 'pedagogical tact', explaining that a disposition of empathetic understanding and care leads to heightened awareness of the moral purposes of education.

8. Collaborative practice is inherent in effective teamwork.

Although learning is a personal activity that occurs within social and cultural frameworks , the notion of collaborative practice , interdependence, and the synergy of effective teamwork are strong educational aims (Alcorn, 2000; Codd, 2000).

Professional development, change and the socio-political context

Pertinent to the pedagogical principles, the teachers were introduced to aspects of literature that emphasise a link between professional development and change. The element of change is a key feature with regard to the purpose of professional development . Effective professional development brings about change in teachers' beliefs and attitudes, content knowledge, and instructional practices, leading to improved student learning . To support the notion of change opportunity needs to be made for educators to engage in reflexive practice and professional discourse with others in order to accommodate to the "ever-changing parameters of the learning context" . Although it is acknowledged in the literature that change involves loss, anxiety and struggle , often, in practice, there are insufficient strategies put in place to help teachers cope with such feelings .

However, in order to effect understanding of the socio-political nature of the workplace environment, offered a model to enable teachers to compare and contrast their personal professional values and philosophy with that of the prevailing discourse in their professional context. Also, as a means of helping teachers in New Zealand to reflect on the possible reasons for the current unprecedented change in the workplace, presented an overview of the political change that has occurred at national level. Within the last eight years, New Zealand has moved from a welfare liberal society with egalitarianism as a prime goal to that of a neo-liberal society with a focus on an enterprise economy.

Action research

For the purpose of providing a framework for the selection and development of a specific area for professional growth, the teachers were coached to take a critically reflective stance and engage in an action research process. It could be argued that this position, also, is in alignment with the stated pedagogical principles in terms of self-direction, prior learning and experience, critical reflection and collaborative practice.

pointed out that critical reflection on practice is similar to action research. Both have the common theme of reflection on professional practice with a view to change or action for improvement. From the same perspective described the use of action research in the practicum as a "vehicle for focusing the reflections of student teachers both about their practice and the contexts in which they worked" (p. 4). However, unlike reflection, action research is a well-defined process according to proponents such as , , and . As well, action research affords opportunities to make an "essential contribution to the further development of educational theory" .

In similar vein, Parker (1997) viewed action research as a "systematic and public reflection on practice which recognises and celebrates the uniqueness of the situation it investigates" (p. 37). He argued that the reflective teacher who participates in action research, that is, the systemised process of reviewing, diagnosing, planning, implementing and monitoring her or his practice, consequently engages in reflective teaching. Moreover, when the motives for action research are concerned with improvement of practice rather than accumulation of knowledge, reflective teaching "can become properly critical" (p. 39). Parker reasoned that critical reflection is a "principal causal factor in bringing about change and, crucially, the emancipation of teachers, the agents of reflection, and their pupils." (p. 39). Thus, it would seem that although reflective practice is possible without undertaking action research, the notion of action research is dependent on reflection as one of its processes.

Reflective practice

Within this portfolio development we have advocated for dialogic interaction with a critical friend to promote the development of reflective practice (Golby & Appleby, 1995; Smith & Hatton, 1995). Also, specific frameworks for reflection were recommended for use within the action research spiral. The first of these is dialogic reflection and the second is Smyth's (1989) model, which comprises four sequential stages of action for teachers' professional empowerment.


Intersecting with the notion of action research and reflective practice the question arose of how best to assess the teachers' work. This was a problematic issue. Within the context of teacher education, Halliday (1998) deprecated the idea of reflection being related in any way to assessment. His concerns were twofold. The first was that if reflection were to be assessed it would be relegated to a technicist mode. The second was that assessment would be an impediment to authenticity with regard to the student teacher's reflection. In relation to the latter aspect, he implied that it could be considered foolish to reveal one's true reflection in some areas of professional practice if assessment of that practice were to be at stake. Similarly, Zeichner (1999) and his colleagues debated whether or not to grade an action research assignment that had been set for practicum. In deciding not to grade, they considered that, "giving a grade for action research also undermines the more democratic power relationships that are implied by the practice." (p. 12).

Consistent with other practicum modules in the Bachelor of Education (Teaching), it was decided not to grade the module Refining Professional Performance. Resonant with principle three of the pedagogical approach, the assessment process is accomplished through self and peer assessment with confirmation by the teaching team. The focus is on evidence of a completed portfolio of current practice and by a seminar presentation to colleagues.

Section Two

Encompassing the principles of adult learning and the processes introduced in the first section, a portfolio was selected as an appropriate vehicle to scaffold teachers' professional development and to allow teachers to be self-directing in the documentation of their learning. It was believed the portfolio would provide a framework that would involve teachers in a process of systematic enquiry, analysis, synthesis and documentation ; Wildy & Wallace, 1997; .

From the above literature the following factors were identified as important to the successful use of a portfolio approach:

An endeavour was made to incorporate these factors in the portfolio approach. In this section of the paper the teachers' engagement in their portfolio documentation and the central processes that underpinned this approach are presented.

Professional development, change and the socio-political context

The portfolio began with teachers documenting background information about their current roles/responsibilities, philosophies and career aspirations. This was followed by introductory workshops that examined professional development and the impact of change within the socio-political context.

Portfolio entries required at this early stage included an examination of suggested readings in order to identify characteristics of effective professional development and to compare these with personal experiences. The teachers were guided to document a brief critical analysis of their own professional development giving consideration to factors within their socio-political context. It was evident from the portfolio entries that for many teachers the responsibility for professional development had shifted from a locus of self, to that of external bureaucratic control.

Anne illustrated this dilemma when she reported her professional development as:

...being driven by Government initiatives. The last two years has seen me focus on the implementation of the new Health and Physical Education curriculum. Also sessions on performance management and appraisal have all been because of the Government push to ensure quality teachers through measurement. Even this degree I am doing is something I have almost been forced to do to keep up professionally. It means I am more marketable. I am not sure it indicates better cognitive ability or better teaching, though it does get recognised through greater pay...I cannot think of any recent professional development I have undertaken because of weakness or need in my teaching. There are certainly things I could do but extrinsic factors rather than intrinsic factors influence what I do.

Beverley, on the other hand, had experienced both imposed and self-initiated professional development. She described a preference for learning that was based on personally identified needs:

The professional development that has served me/benefited me most has been the self-directed kind that I have identified myself. In this way (specifically in the areas of reading and writing) I have improved my classroom practices/my own subject knowledge and feel that I have met the needs of my children better in this way. As this type of professional development has come from myself (self-directed) I have felt like I have actually met the needs of my children as well as my weaknesses. As I improve I constantly look for ways to continue to improve and to repeat the cycle for better teaching. This has been far more beneficial than one off professional development courses.

The socio-political context of teachers' professional development was a consistent theme throughout the portfolio documentation. It provided a link to all key processes and encouraged an examination of growth and change from a critically reflective stance . An 'ice-floe' metaphor was used to help teachers recognise that professional development takes place in an environment where tensions may exist between opposing ideologies. Teachers were required to compare and contrast their personal values, beliefs and assumptions with the prevailing socio-political environment . For many, revelation occurred when they discovered inconsistencies between their personal philosophies and the socio-political climate in which they worked. David, discovered that a rift existed between his philosophy and that of his school and state when he examined his 'icefloe':

When I had to change schools last year I researched my new school thoroughly as I believe it is as important for the school to fit me as it is for me to fit the school...I have been feeling slightly at odds with the senior management's philosophy without being able to put it in words. I can now see that the school is very strongly welfare-liberal while I have to redefine myself as having some neo-liberal leanings. This is also affecting my philosophy.

Some teachers reported that they gained new self-awareness as they documented similar tensions. Mary, for example claimed:

I have been able to consider my own professional way and critically evaluate how this sits with my own personal philosophies. What had occurred was a decided shift in my practice, even to the point of changing schools and adapting a specialist, structured approach in response to increasing curriculum demands. I thought that by doing this I would do justice to the curriculum and be able to teach to my strength. What became apparent though, was a denial of my basic educational principle - the belief that students needs should be paramount.

Other teachers felt reassured when they found that their professional 'icefloe' was structurally stable or when they recognised the socio-political constraints that had caused disharmony for them. It was not uncommon for teachers to comment on how this process of analysis had completely changed their attitude to their work, to school, and life in general. Melanie had become more aware of the external pressures that had impacted on her and resolved to reassess her priorities. She explained:

One of the reasons for leaving employment in the past is because I have not felt my contribution has been valued in the way I would have liked. A good workplace can be the launching pad to the development of a successful career; a poor one can blight it irreparably. This is sadly what I found in my first two years of teaching...It is within my control as an individual to take charge of my life at a personal and career level... I also need to ensure my own personal life and priorities are compatible with my career, taking in to consideration my family, my health, the leisure activities I participate in, the area where I live and its proximity to my workplace. These external factors that are beyond my control can become barriers that prevent me from achieving my career objectives. It is important that I guard against this.

Nevertheless, as a process that enabled teachers to analyse the socio-political factors that impacted on their professional development, the Linzey 'icefloe' framework appeared to be both effective and challenging. It provided a means for reflection upon and insight into the conflicts they had been experiencing in their workplace.

Action research and reflective practice

Another key process, action research, was introduced as a manageable professional development and change framework that was dependent upon reflection as an integral process. The spiral nature of action research enabled a dynamic interplay to occur between reflection and action. This interaction was illustrated by John when he said:

While I was writing up the action research part of this module I found it difficult to clearly differentiate between the action and the reflection stages of the process. I would be writing about the action and find myself recording reflections...As teachers we frequently reflect as we are working and change our action accordingly.

Sometimes teachers felt discomfort during the process. However, in working through the process, they also experienced the results of positive change. Leslie described her pathway through the action research spiral in this way:

At various stages of the action research cycle, I have developed new insights that have really made me step back and think. The action research cycle has been a process that I need to keep going...I have often felt like I was on a journey and taking detours on the way...At times I felt this action research journey was more like a roller coaster than a train ride... At times I felt frustrated and did not feel like I was really getting anywhere...the action research cycle I have carried out really highlighted that my perception of the teachers' role had changed.

Others found the action research spiral process opened up new opportunities to explore and improve their practice. Building on personal needs was no longer seen as a weakness but an opportunity to learn. Pauline reported she was:

encouraged by the successful linking of problem solving and the action research model... I have accepted that changes in my classroom practice do not suggest deficiencies in my current practice but rather that this group of students would benefit from alternative activities...I, too have further developed my skills in problem solving.

The action research model, not only provided a strategy for teachers to engage in researching their own practice, it also enabled them to value their practical knowledge. As argued, externally driven professional development had "all too often, placed little value on the teacher's own practical knowledge in the development of classroom skills and self-improvement" (p. 3).

Teachers were encouraged to apply a range of strategies to support and extend the reflective process. They were introduced to and guided through each of Smyth's, Four Stages in Personal Professional Empowerment, describing, informing, constructing and reconstructing as they tentatively explored a possible area for professional development.

Teachers made use of the reflective processes in different ways and for different purposes. However, the depth of the reflection that was demonstrated varied. Some teachers were unable to confront the socio-political, historical and cultural nature of their personal construction while others, like Melanie, were enabled to move through the painful process of self-confrontation:

One challenge has been to confront myself honestly. This is a painful path to go down but one that has been a necessary part of my self-awareness to analyse both my strengths and weaknesses. My strengths are what I start with; my weaknesses are what I build on as part of my own ongoing professional development... I have been encouraged to move outside my comfort zone with a willingness to explore possibilities and learn new skills. My fear of failure stemming from my childhood provided an initial block to my learning and once again threatened to jeopardise my whole learning experience. I have been challenged to face up to my fears. To overcome my negative feelings with a positive mindset, concentrating on the new knowledge gained by reading the set literature, I found I have been able to confront the concepts, which initially seemed too hard and deal with my 'unfinished' business'... Having built a so-called protective barrier around myself I now realise how it had held me back from achieving my full potential. As I have examined this belief I realise it will be more beneficial for me to use my strengths as I work towards changing my career path.

The reflective process was also promoted through the notion of dialogic reflection and the introduction of a critical friend . Pauline extended these strategies to encompass a 'circle' of critical friends:

I have benefited from the support of a critical friend and circle of friends-a supportive group of colleagues who are also undertaking this professional development. Their support and challenge have helped me sustain the purpose and relevance of the studies to my career goals and my teaching practice. The realistic acceptance of the struggles and weaknesses, even failure, has been kept in perspective by this support group.

Other teachers, like Nicky, were '... initially sceptical of this process but [could] now see the value of a critical friend and in particular dialogic reflection'. She also added 'The reflection process and the action learning spiral have been great tools', suggesting that the interplay between action research and reflection were appreciated.

Professional growth experienced by teachers

As teachers worked independently on their selected area of professional development, they incorporated the processes that had been introduced to facilitate their self-directed learning. Two progress reports were submitted during this stage and a concluding reflection prior to a seminar presentation.

This final reflection required teachers to examine their professional growth during the module and to reconsider their philosophy with regard to consolidation and refinement. They were asked to note changes that had occurred to their knowledge, skills and disposition and the implications this might have for future practice.

It was apparent that teachers had achieved varying levels of growth and change during the portfolio documentation. Positive comments generally referred to changed perspectives about their role as a teacher; changed instructional practice through deeper understanding; and a renewed enthusiasm for teaching. These were linked to philosophies that had either been reinforced through the reflective process or become more closely aligned with their personal practice. Examples of professional growth are represented in the reflections of Natalie and Leslie.

Natalie: Through this process I have consolidated my personal philosophy of teaching and have found that my practice will now align more closely with it. I also recognise the value of using reflection as a means of examining professional practice and how it relates to a personal philosophy. Reflection in this sense allows a teacher to consolidate or modify their philosophy as well as change an individual's pedagogy.

Leslie: My initial philosophy looked more at the superficial concepts such as providing a well-organised learning environment and developing a rapport with students. I have definitely moved on in my thinking, to a much higher and deeper level...I feel excited about continuing my development in this area by implementing new ideas and theories into my mathematics programme next year.

Another area that appeared to have a powerful impact on teachers' professional growth was the awareness that grew from critical reflection. As Susan concluded:

The implications of my work in this module are that I now see the 'bigger picture' in my role as a teacher. Not only do I have to be concerned with what goes on inside my classroom, but the outside influences of parents/caregivers etc and the relationship and rapport I have with them is every bit as important.

In contrast, some teachers found the socio-political environment in which they worked and interacted with others had created problems. Constraints described were associated with taking risks and feeling anxious not only about changes they had implemented but also about the possible consequences. Beverley was concerned that 'people might judge my ability...I would have to let people know I am not perfect' and Susan was concerned with loss of autonomy 'because of the position I have put myself in with the parents'. Also, Mary discovered her innovation became 'problematic because it required the support of others'.

A further constraint mentioned referred to the time involved in implementing action research and the reflective process. Some teachers viewed this as being unrealistic in the current complex and demanding environment in which they worked. Catherine, for example, argued 'one could spend forever reflecting and one has to balance things'.

When asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the portfolio in terms of acting as a catalyst to their professional development, a few teachers felt the module was too long and they had lost focus. For the majority, however, the portfolio appeared to have helped teachers manage their professional development and to have facilitated deeper learning. Typical reports were:

The portfolio kept me on track throughout ... and ... It helped me to focus in depth in an area of my teaching.

The feelings that teachers expressed about the portfolio approach is perhaps best summarised in this statement:

I initially felt anxious about working on a portfolio and didn't know how I would cope with reflection and how it would help me and my professional growth. Reflecting on the process I underwent I know I have grown both personally and professionally. I feel empowered to make the career change I want to - the portfolio has supported and guided me.


This paper has outlined the purpose and process by which teachers enrolled in the Refining Professional Performance practicum module selected and developed a specific area for their professional growth. The results of the teachers' work appear to indicate that the module has been effective in directing self-learning. The use of a portfolio to document this journey has fulfilled the aim of enabling teachers to produce a record of their professional growth, achievements, and changing attitudes in their professional practice.

However, it is seductive for tertiary institutions to record and promote their successful practice. Although this paper has used the strategy of teachers' voice to illustrate their professional growth, it seems important to acknowledge the voices that have not been heard. Those are the voices of teachers who, for various reasons, did not gain credit for the module. A future aspect of our work is to critically reflect on our practice with a view to revealing some explanations of why those voices remained silent.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 18 November 2003