Newsletter 80 Professional Development

“Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny.” CARL SAGAN: PLANETARY SCIENTIST-1980

Teacher knowledge and employer driven professional development: A critical analysis of the Gauteng Department of Education programmes by Francine de Clercq and Yael Shalem University of the Witwatersrand


  • Selecting a teaching focus for professional development is a challenging task given that teachers need a specialised knowledge of the subject matter they teach, a broad sense of diverse methods of teaching, and ways of explaining and representing subject matter knowledge, with the intention of imparting it to learners of a specific age and cognitive level of development.
  • Our review shows that employer-driven PDAs before 2009 were not systematic or properly conceptually aligned; there was little incremental building of topics between courses, and aspects of subject matter knowledge were only touched on as ad hoc responses to some immediate demand or need.
  • Employer-driven professional development focused on curriculum compliance and snippets of general pedagogy. Its cascade form of organisation was mostly ineffective.
  • After 2009 employer-driven professional development focused on a limited number of objectives for instructional practice over a long time and, in that sense, began to provide teachers with a more meaningful opportunity to learn.
  • Small-scale research evidence shows that some teachers in the GPLMS schools, the key employer-driven PDA in the post-2009 period, are slowly developing more productive teaching routines of coverage and pacing (De Clercq 2014) and that coaches are instrumental to teachers’ understanding and interpretation of curriculum documents (Masterton 2013), but, given the nature of their posts, the quality of the coaches is uneven (De Clercq 2014). Improvement in Annual National Assessment results in more than 80% of the schools included in the strategy is reported (Fleisch, forthcoming).
  • In both periods, teacher knowledge of subject matter and pedagocial content knowledge (PCK) were not offered explicitly and systematically, as a teaching focus, barring a few quality ACE courses.
  • The knowledge argument has serious implications for thinking about the teaching focus and organisational form of PDAs. It suggests a logical order – that acquiring substantive and syntactic dimensions of subject matter knowledge, including knowledge of learners and learning, has a logical priority.
  • The choice of focus of a PDA should take account of the need for teachers to follow a continuum of learning that is coherent and structured.
  • On the question of organisational form of PDA, providers have to attend to programme duration and pacing of teacher learning, resources and artefacts selected, the site of learning and teacher selection criteria.
  • Although the organisational form will have to match the PDAs’ foci, it is important to emphasise that too often PD providers appear restricted in the duration and pacing of teacher learning and/or the quality of resources and artefacts provided at the school site.
  • To maximise teacher learning, teachers need to buy into the programme, which should be facilitated by quality trainers over a reasonable period of time.
  • They have to be rooted in, and start with, teachers’ existing competences, attitudes and knowledge, on which they should build.
  • It is also clear that no ‘one-size-fits-all’ PD interventions exist, as they should be context-relevant, depending on the stages of teachers’ careers (De Feiter et al. 1996) and their work responsibilities, as well as the competences, attitudes and knowledge which they are expected to acquire. PDAs have first to know the priority development needs of teachers and understand the sequence in which to meet them appropriately.
  • Their organisational features should take account of the need for teachers to be put on a continuum of learning with PDAs that are coherently aligned and properly supported by quality human and material resources.
  • A programme targeting different teacher knowledge will determine the site of learning but, given that the take-up of teachers is always a serious issue, attempts should be made for follow-up at the site of practice.
  • Indeed, a sufficiently classified curriculum, textbooks, schemes of work and lesson plans cannot replace a sound professional judgement that teachers need to make. Further understanding of the complex nature of different routines and their reliance on prior knowledge is important.
  • For teachers to really benefit from structured lesson plans they are provided with, and for them to be able to exercise their agency in contextualising lesson plans in their classroom, they need to be confident in and have basic knowledge of what they teach.
  • If, as research continues to show, the subject matter knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge of the majority of South African teachers are weak, then, in addition to lesson plans, systematically presented courses focusing effectively on these will have to be more effectively envisaged.

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