01 SES 11 B, Lessons for Leaders of Professional Learning in Further Education
Research into educational effectiveness for disabled learners has focused on the use of interventions, but teachers’ professional learning is currently identified as critical to the development of effective classroom practices (Boylan et al. 2018). Effective professional learning in education is conceptualised as a ‘bottom up’ process that involves practical engagement, but also intellectual and emotional engagement on the part of teachers and leaders (Burstow 2018; Opfer and Pedder 2011). Professional learning usually follows a cycle of inquiry that begins with teachers’ questions about learners, which in turn raise questions about what teachers need to learn (Timperley 2011). Learning for all people involves co-constructed knowledge, and this means that professional dialogue, inquiry and reflectionare at the heart of professional learning (Lofthouse and Cowie 2018).
Wales is currently undergoing a programme of major educational reform, including change in the system for learners with additional learning needs. Autistic learners in further education have been identified as a priority group for professional learning to be funded under the reform programme. Recent research indicates that difficulties in communication and understanding exist for both autistic and neurotypical people (Crompton et al. 2020, Milton 2012), and this makes teacher knowledge and understanding a central issue of education for autistic learners (Milton 2019). Professional learning in relation to autistic learners is most often described in terms of a ‘top down’ transmission of knowledge, from ‘autism experts’ to ‘non-specialist’ teachers in classrooms however (Guldberg et al. 2021), with little acknowledgement of the importance of inquiry and reflection in supporting teachers to develop their practices.
A cohort of teachers and lecturers working in all thirteen further education colleges across Wales are currently studying the postgraduate certificate course in autism that is taught at the University of South Wales. The aim of the course is to provide up to date understandings about autism based on recent research, but also autistic people’s own accounts, alongside a reflective approach to practice. Throughout the course, students are encouraged to consider their personal beliefs and values as well as cultural practices that operate in their settings. An important learning activity is to examine principles of practice that underpin approaches for education and support for autistic learners, considering these in terms of the perspective taken on autism, as well as who or what should be the focus of support.
The aim of this study is to evaluate the impact of the course on the development of education and support practices for autistic learners in further education. A secondary aim is to gain insight into teachers’ beliefs, knowledge, values and priorities in relation to this group of learners, with specific research questions as follows:
- What priorities for learning are identified by further education teachers and lecturers in Wales in relation to autistic learners?
- What do further education teachers and lecturers identify as their important professional learning goals in relation to autistic learners?
- How does professional learning focused on working with autistic learners support the development of inclusive practices within further education colleges in Wales?
Importantly, evaluation of professional learning needs to consider development taking place over an extended period of time, rather than as a response to a one-off event (Bubb and Earley 2010; Guskey 2002). This study seeks to capture therefore information about change in teacher beliefs, knowledge, values and priorities over the course of one academic year, using a mixed method design that involves two phases of data collection. The first phase uses a questionnaire to explore teacher and lecturer perspectives on the needs of autistic learners, their own professional learning goals and priority areas for development of practice. Following ethical approval from the research team’s University, the questionnaire was delivered through an online platform and analysed by a team member who was not involved in the teaching of the course. Two-thirds (n=35) of the total student cohort responded to the questionnaire and preliminary statistical analysis of quantitative data and initial coding of qualitative data has been undertaken. Respondents to the questionnaire were asked to self-select for follow up phase two interviews to be carried out later this year. Semi-structured interviews are planned with 22 participants to explore questions derived from the Inclusive Pedagogical Approach in Action (IPAA) framework (Florian and Spratt 2013), which provides theoretical underpinning for the course. Questions focus on personal experiences of learning as well as knowledge and beliefs about practice and change in this respect. Community practices are seen as central to effective professional learning in the area of inclusion (Ní Bhroin and King 2020) and module content for the course allows for collaborative professional inquiry projects. Given this, participants will be offered the choice of an individual or paired interview with a work colleague who is also on the course. Following completion of phase two interviews, analysis of all data will be informed by inductive codes derived from the IPAA as well as the levels of new practice developed by King (2014). Deductive codes will be identified by the research team and final coded material will be combined and organised thematically (Braun and Clarke 2006).
Preliminary findings from the questionnaire show that teachers and lecturers working in further education colleges in Wales identify effective practices for autistic learners as including, learner participation in decision making, promotion of independence, and support for management of anxiety and stress. Transition was identified as a key area of support, but this was seen in terms of effective practice (transition into college), but also of challenge (transition out of college). Participants’ priorities for learners included support for their well-being and socialisation. In terms of practice, the implementation of person-centred practices, which are currently being promoted in Wales across the education sector, and the provision of appropriate spaces within colleges were seen as priorities for development. It is perhaps significant that ‘support for sensory needs’ was seen as neither a significant area of effective practice nor identified as a priority for professional learning and the development of practice. Interviews will take place in the summer and it is expected that further findings from the evaluation study will be available for presentation at conference in September.
Boylan, M., Coldwell, M., Maxwell, B. and Jordan, J. (2018) Rethinking models of professional learning as tools: a conceptual analysis to inform research and practice. Professional Development in Education 44(1): 120-139. Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2): 77-101. Bubb, S. and Earley, S. (2010) Helping Staff Develop in Schools. London: Sage. Burstow, B. (2018) Effective Teacher Development: Theory and Practice in Professional Learning. London and New York: Bloomsbury. Crompton, C. J., Ropar, D., Evans-Williams, C. V., Flynn, E. G., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020) Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective. Autism, 24(7), 1704-1712. Florian, L. and Spratt, J. (2013) Enacting inclusion: a framework for interrogating inclusive practice. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 28(2): 119-135. Guldberg, K., Achtypi, A., D’Alonzo, L., Laskaridou, K., Milton, D., Molteni, P. and Wood, R. (2021) Using the value creation framework to capture knowledge co-creation and pathways to impact in a transnational community of practice in autism education. International Journal of Research and Method in Education 44(1): 96-111. Guskey, T. R. (2002) Professional development and teacher change, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice 8(3): 381-391. King, F. (2014) Evaluating the impact of teacher professional development: an evidence-based framework. Professional Development in Education, 40(1): 89-111. Lofthouse, R. and Cowie, K. (2018) Joining the dots: using lesson study to develop metacognitive teaching. Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching 3. Milton, D. E. M. (2012) On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability and Society, 27(6): 883-887. Milton, D. (2019) Difference versus disability: implications of characteristics of autism for education and support. In: The Sage Handbook of Autism and Education (eds.) R. Jordan, J. M. Roberts and K. Hume, pp. 3-11. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC, Melbourne: Sage. Ní Bhroin, O. and King, F. (2020) Teacher education for inclusive education: a framework for developing collaboration for the inclusion of students with support plans. European Journal of Teacher Education, 43(1): 38-63. Opfer, V. D. and Pedder, D. (2011) Conceptualizing teacher professional learning. Review of Educational Research 81(3): 376-407. Timperley, H. (2011) Realizing the Power of Professional Learning. Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press.
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