Teacher expertise and professional development


As part of our LET -studies we got an opportunity to visit Oulu University Teacher Training School (“Norssi”), and discuss UBIKO -project (which stands for ubiquitous technology enhanced learning) with Heikki Konturi who is a teacher in Norssi and was project manager for the project. UBIKO -project was mainly funded by Finnish National Board of Education, it was conducted between 2011 and 2013, and it included 110 4th and 5th grade students working together with their teachers.

The main idea in the project was to modify school life to the 21st century learning needs by addressing pedagogy, infrastructure and culture. Physical changes in the project were that 5 traditional classrooms were molded into a learning environment that would promote self-regulated learning and collaborative learning in students as well as to support and enhance team work among teachers.



But how does this kind of physical learning environment promote self-regulated learning and collaborative learning? In practice, in UBIKO pupils have a lot of choices related to their learning; for example the location, whether they want to learn by themselves (solo), with a pair or in groups, they have access to technology (e.g. iPads), and they can choose the level of support and challenge they want.  Communal places, for example, are thought to give opportunities to think and reason together, which enhances students collaborative skills as well as self-regulation skills (opportunities for co-regulation and socially shared regulation). Additionally, communal places are natural and creative places for shared expertise to both pupils and teachers.


This looks like a typical Finnish elementary school classroom.

I have to say that I loved the new kind of learning environment! It is so different from the typical class I had as a child; we sat in the same class, in front of our own school desks the whole year round. I’m sure that the children in UBIKO all love their learning environment, especially due to the fact that they are able to move, and have the freedom to choose themselves, for the most part, where and how they want to learn.

When walking around the UBIKO, I was thinking to myself that I wish work places could be something like this also. In many cases, in information work at least, us adults spend most of our days sitting in front of our own worktables staring at a computer screen. If we had working environments similar to UBIKO, I’m sure there would be a lot more opportunities to be more creative and a lot more collaboration and sharing of expertise would be possible. I remember that many times in my former workplace the most creative ideas were born and a lot of important information passed between people during the coffee breaks when we were all sitting in the kitchen sofas discussing freely with each other and having a laugh.

Anyhow, back to UBIKO -project. In addition to just changing the physical learning environment to promote SRL and CL is not enough. Teachers are in central role in this, as they are expected to obtain a new role in supporting the pupils’ SR processes instead of just teaching the subjects. This means a fundamental change in the pedagogical role of the teacher from a mere information giver to being a diagnostician, a challenger, a model, and an activator. They should be able to model metacognitive strategies for students, coach students in the acquisition of those strategies and fade their support when students become more proficient in their use (Collins et al., 1989, as citec by Bakkenes, Vermunt, & Wubbels, 2009). Teachers should be able to design assignments, supervise project groups, coach cooperative learning, assess skills of self-regulated learning, etc.

Teaching should always be based on research-based pedagogy. So what happens if school leadership decides to change the pedagogy of the schools, to for example promote self-regulated learning. Teachers are expected to adapt their way of teaching accordingly, and this makes them learners along all dimensions of Shulman and Shulman’s (2004, as citec Bakkenes, Vermunt, & Wubbels, 2009) model: they have to develop another vision on
learning and teaching, be motivated to learn about the new pedagogy, understand what the innovation is good for, develop skills to bring the innovation into practice, reflect on their experiments with the new pedagogy in order to learn, and form part of a community of teachers who all are learning new things.

Teacher learning in the context of educational innovation

Teachers are supposed to be experts in learning, and teachers are the most important agents in shaping education for students and in bringing about change and innovation in educational practices. Thus, it is of utmost importance to develop the professional expertise of teachers.

There is a multitude of studies about how teachers could and should promote student learning, but not so many about teacher learning. A study conducted by Bakkenes, Vermunt, & Wubbels (2009) aimed at understanding teacher learning by studying learning activities of experienced teachers in the workplace. Their study was conducted among secondary school teachers within the context of a national innovation programme in Dutch secondary education which aimed at encouraging teachers to foster students’ ASRL (active and self-regulated learning). The study examined teachers’ learning activities and learning outcomes in the context of this educational innovation.

In the study six categories of learning activities, in which teachers engage when confronted with education innovation, emerged: “Experimenting” and ‘”considering own practice” were the learning activities teachers reported using most frequently. “Getting ideas from others” and “experiencing friction” were the next most frequently reported categories, followed by the categories “struggling not to revert to old ways” and “avoiding learning”.

Teachers reported learning mostly through experimentation and reflection on their own teaching practices. They seem to learn much less by external input like the ideas from others, such as colleagues or authors of professional literature. Yet, there appear to be large individual differences among teachers in the learning activities they employ.

Learning outcomes were represented by four main categories: “changes in knowledge and beliefs”, “changes in emotions”, “changes in intentions for practice”, and “changes in actual teaching practices”.  (These main categories included several subcategories.) The teachers mainly reported changes in knowledge and beliefs and in emotions, and hardly any changes in teaching practices. However, intentions for practice were often reported, which can be seen as precursors of change in actual practices.

The extent and the way in which teachers’ learning activities were related to the types of learning outcomes were found to be the following:

  • “Experimenting” was associated primarily with the Intention to Continue New Practices, Confirmed Ideas, Positive Emotions, and Surprise.
  • Of all learning activities, “considering own practice” turned out to be associated with the most learning outcomes, especially with Awareness, Change to New Practices, Intention to Continue Current Practices and Intention to Try New Practices.
  • “Getting ideas from others” mainly yielded new ideas and the intention to do
    something in practice with those ideas.
  • “Experiencing friction” often was associated with Negative Emotions and Surprise.
  • Finally, “struggling not to revert to old ways” mainly showed associations with Back to Old Practices and Confirmed Ideas.

Bakkenes, Vermunt, & Wubbels (2009) also studied how teachers’ learning activities and learning outcomes are connected to the type of learning environment they were in. Teachers in informal workplace learning environments reported relatively often that they considered their practice, experienced negative emotions and continued current (old) practices. They reported little experimenting, surprise, and new ideas compared to the groups in organized learning environments.

Teachers in organized learning environments (reciprocal peer-coaching and collaborative
project groups) reported relatively often that they experimented and got new ideas, and relatively little experience of negative emotions. Besides, teachers participating in
reciprocal peer-coaching reported relatively often that they struggled not to revert to old ways and experienced surprise. Thus, organized learning environments (reciprocal peer-coaching, collaborative project groups) did seem to elicit qualitatively better learning activities and outcomes than informal learning in the workplace.

Adaptive expertise

After visiting UBIKO and reading the article from Bakkenes, Vermunt, & Wubbels,  Teacher learning in the context of educational innovation: Learning activities and learning outcomes of experienced teachers” (2009), I could not help but to think that teachers have quite a challenge in head of them in adapting to new way of teaching (or should I say, helping students to learn) now that in Finland curriculum is reformed. I wonder how prepared the teachers are to adapt to the changes, and how prepared The National Board of Education and/or other instances are to give concrete instructions and support to the teachers.

I think that it’s often the case that there are great visions and strategies, excellent research and accurate theories, but too often also a lack or even failure to give practical examples and instructions how to adapt these to the common life and work environment. I wonder if the case with the curriculum reform is that schools and teachers are expected to develop suitable practices themselves. If this is the case, there is certainly a great need for adaptive expertise.

Based on research adaptive expertise is characterized by flexibility, innovation and ability to adapt in new and challenging conditions. Research has shown that adaptive experts are more flexible in using knowledge, they see problem solving as an opportunity to broaden their expertise, they tolerate ambiguity, and adapt in uncertain and changing situation. Research on adaptive expertise has also shown that adaptive experts are more prepared and willing to learn from new situations and that they are successful learners who are able to constantly learn throughout their lives.

Considering curriculum reform and teacher learning in this context, merely skilled experts may face difficulties in adapting to a new pedagogy and may be tempted to revert to old ways of teaching if they are not able to understand and make connections between the new theory and practice. Normal working environment may not be powerful enough for the teachers to learn a new pedagogy, but would require a community of teachers (possibly together with the theorists, administration, and students) to share expertise.

There is research based evidence that expertise can be developed in collaboration and especially in collaborative problem solving. So to support teachers, I think collaborative work is called for to share experiences, views, best practices, and solve problems together. Also the study of Bakkenes, Vermunt, & Wubbels (2009) showed that organized learning environments (reciprocal peer-coaching, collaborative project groups) did seem to elicit qualitatively better learning activities and outcomes than informal learning in the workplace.

The question is how this could be organised, as there are usually the problems of limited time and lack of resources, which is often the case in any organisation or company, which hinders the sharing of expertise efficiently. One possible solution to this could be technology to enhance learning and sharing of expertise. For example, social media tools could provide an adequate platforms to share information, interact and keep in contact with other experts.

As an example, I came across a blog post of a teacher who had read through the newly approved curriculum for 2016 (OPS 2016). He had made his own interpretation of it, and made a comprehensive list of what he thought 1. had been removed, 2.what there will be less of, 3. what continues, 4. what there will be more of, and 5. what is completely new in the new curriculum compared to the previous one. (Here’s a link to the post, it’s only in Finnish though, sorry.) However, this is a great example of how to share knowledge and help out other teachers in interpreting the new curriculum.


References: Bakkenes, I., Vermunt, J. D. & Wubbels, T. (2010). Teacher Learning in the context of educational innovation: Learning activities and learning outcomes of experienced teachers. Learning and Instruction, 20, 533-548.


About kaipihla

A student in Learning, Education and Technology Master's degree program in University of Oulu, Finland.
This entry was posted in Learning of Expertise and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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