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Cosán – A Pathway for Professional Learning

Tomás Ó Ruairc
Director, Teaching Council

Cosán, the national framework for teachers’ learning, supports teachers in shaping their learning journey, reflecting on their learning, renewing themselves as professionals, innovating, and collaborating. It also provides a flexible framework within which the rich variety of teachers’ learning can be recognised, in the most inclusive and sustainable way possible.

The late John Coolahan often remarked that the landscape of teacher education had been transformed in the last six or seven years of his life, particularly in initial teacher education (ITE). He lamented the fact that the scale of this transformation was not fully recognised in a wider context. These changes included the new national programme of induction for all newly qualified teachers (NQTs), Droichead, and the reconceptualised programmes of ITE, which were introduced in 2012.

At the time of writing, we have had four cohorts of graduates from the new ITE programmes since 2016. In the school year 2018/2019, over 2,700 NQTs completed the Droichead process in almost 1,200 schools. Arguably, Droichead marks the first recorded systemic change in teachers’ professional practice in both primary and post-primary teaching since the foundation of the State.

When a student teacher qualifies, they receive a parchment from the university or college recognising the degree to which their professional learning has transformed them from the person they were on entering first year. When an NQT completes Droichead, they co-sign with their more experienced peers a declaration as to the quality professional induction in which they have participated. This marks a different way of recognising how they have transformed themselves as newly emerging professionals over a particular period of time.

And what then? What about those experienced peers who have worked closely with their newly qualified colleagues during Droichead? Where is the recognition of the transformations they experience as a result of their own professional learning, in Droichead and many other processes, throughout their careers?

In the inaugural Teaching Council lecture to mark World Teachers’ Day in 2012, Anne Looney, then CEO of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, talked about how, in contrast to some of the public stereotypes about the teaching profession, teachers must renew themselves and innovate every day for the students in their care.

Droichead may be the first recorded systemic change in teachers’ professional practice. But we in the Teaching Council know – from Droichead, from FÉILTE, from the Centre for School Leadership’s work with principals, from Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT), and from the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) – that the landscape of teachers’ learning is also transforming. With echoes of John Coolahan’s observation, it seems to us that this transformation needs to be recognised beyond Droichead and beyond FÉILTE.

Recognition implies looking at something with a particular focus – in a mindful, attentive way. Yes, we see something, but we see it with new eyes. Even with the naked eye, any process of seeing requires a lens through which to recognise.

Cosán – the framework for teachers’ learning

Cosán is the lens that the Teaching Council has formed, informed by the voices of teachers, and through which all of teachers’ learning can be viewed. It is the first national framework for the teaching profession’s learning. It is a lens which is sufficiently wide and flexible so that all of the ways in which teachers tell us that they learn, formal and informal, can be recognised.

Approved by the Teaching Council in March 2016, this framework for teachers’ learning was called Cosán to reflect the idea that teachers’ learning, like that of their students, has no single fixed destination. The teaching profession is not a homogeneous group. Each of us has a unique perspective on life, a unique experiencing of life. Each of us follows our own pathway of learning. One size does not fit all. Yet Cosán is designed on the inclusive premise that one framework can accommodate all. It allows teachers to navigate their own learning journey, and to alter its course over time, based on their professional judgements and reflections.

As a nation state with one of the longest unbroken periods of democracy in Europe, we understand that neither extreme of top-down or bottom-up approaches to policy can work on their own. And we understand that not only do we need both, we need, as Michael Fullan states, a glue in the middle to connect policy design, implementation, and feedback.

We have a deeply rooted cultural regard for the power and importance of education for our social and economic progress. Our education system is highly regarded internationally. It is understandable therefore, as policy moves to rely more on trusting professionals at the site of practice to lead teaching and learning, that maximum reassurance is needed as to the quality and consistency of that professional leadership in the form of national policy frameworks.

Cosán is the Teaching Council’s response to this in the area of teachers’ learning.

It forms the third and potentially the most significant block in the edifice of teacher education policy which the Council has been working on since its establishment in 2006. The other two, Droichead and the standards of ITE, impact on 3,500 graduates each year, on average. We estimate that 15% of the register, at most, have experienced the new programmes of ITE or Droichead.

Cosán has the potential to affect all 100,000 teachers. It is crucial therefore that we take our time to embed the framework in a sustainable way that recognises, first and foremost, the rich variety of teachers’ learning and also the reality of their daily working lives.

What will Cosán look like in reality?

In the early stages of Cosán’s development (2016 to now), our response to this question tended to be that the profession would shape how the framework works in reality. In both its drafting and its development, Cosán is designed to work on the premise that the conversation on professional learning should start with teachers.

Professional learning versus CDP

In the consultations on the drafting of the framework, we asked teachers a number of questions. Two have proven to be particularly instructive. When asked what they understood by the term CPD, the majority of teachers tended to talk only about formal programmes of study, such as a master’s or PhD. When asked how they learn, teachers described a world of professional learning that includes the formal programmes but also goes wider and deeper to cover a whole variety of learning pathways.

And this is why, in the Teaching Council, we talk of teachers’ learning, not CPD. Teachers told us that learning, for them, navigates a wide space of interconnecting dynamics: personal and professional, formal and informal, school-based and external, individual and collaborative. For the Council, teachers’ learning is a much more inclusive term than CPD – it includes the full breadth and depth of teachers’ learning pathways.

So in some respects, Cosán should not look much different from the ways in which teachers tell us they already learn and continue to learn. Its elliptical shape was deliberately chosen to convey the sense that it seeks to ‘wrap around’ the ways that teachers already learn – and to be flexible enough to include new ways that will emerge over time.

In other words, the Cosán development process will encourage and support teachers in their ongoing professional learning.

Reflecting on Professional Practice

What will probably look or feel different is how teachers reflect on their learning – its impact on them as people and as professionals. As I said in an article for the JCT in December 2018, one way of looking at reflection is to see it as the process that unfolds when we stop and think. Common sense and research tell us there is more to it than that – but it is a good start.

How often do we stop and think deeply about our professional practice? How often do we discuss those reflections in a critical and courageous way with our peers? How often do we write them down? How often do we take even one new idea from our thinking and try it out in our professional practice? How often do we articulate the values and beliefs that underpin our learning and our practice?

This wider understanding of reflective practice underpins all aspects of teachers’ learning – and by extension, Cosán.

The many ways of learning

Since Cosán’s launch in March 2016, we have learned so much about the many ways that teachers learn and reflect on that learning and on the connections between their learning and their practice. Through school self-evaluation (SSE), underpinned by the Looking at Our School framework, teachers are already collaborating in looking at students’ learning, and considering what else they can do to enhance it. They are participating in learning opportunities provided by the NIPT, PDST, JCT, and other DES Support Services. They are learning through master’s programmes and PhDs. They are learning through courses and programmes they source themselves and in Education Centres. And they are learning every day in their classrooms, and with their peers at school.

It was Margaret Wheatley who said: ‘Everyone in a complex system has a slightly different interpretation. The more interpretations we gather, the easier it becomes to gain a sense of the whole.’ And Daniel Siegel, the author of Mindsight, says that complexity theory in mathematics tells us that systems which move towards complexity are paradoxically the most stable and adaptive.

Cosán: the framework for inclusive conversations

These are exciting times in Irish education. Many teachers are coming forward with new ideas and innovations rooted in their own sense of self and sense of place – their love of learning. It is high time that we came together as a system, with all our various perspectives, to recognise and support their professional learning in the most inclusive and sustainable way possible. Cosán offers a framework for these inclusive conversations.

We look forward to hearing from you!

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