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Q&A with Helen Timperley, author of Leading Professional Conversations

Q&A with Helen Timperley, author of Leading Professional Conversations

Feature 6 minute read

A new book published by ACER is aimed at improving the impact of professional learning conversations between school leaders and teachers. 

Ever-evolving generations of students and the impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic have shown us that schools cannot be static. Professional learning is the key to navigating change and adaptation in schooling, but this can be ineffectual when leaders and teachers are disconnected in their professional conversations.  

ACER’s School Engagement team lead Daniel O’Loughlin recently led a discussion with Dr Helen Timperley, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, about some of the key ideas in her new book, Leading professional conversations: Adaptive expertise for schools. We present some of the highlights of this conversation or you can watch the full recording

Dr Timperley wants to see professional learning have a greater impact.  

‘In my research, I found that school leaders really planned carefully, got the greatest resources and provided teachers with opportunities to learn, but often nothing changed,’ Dr Timperley said. 

By recording hundreds of conversations between leaders and teachers across different states, she identified and investigated the point of failure: implementation.  

Emphasising the importance of professional conversations in educational practice, she shared her hope that the book will be used as a professional development tool, resulting in changes to practice and better outcomes for students. 

The art of professional conversation 

Productive conversations should be based on a good relationship between leaders and teachers, Dr Timperley said. The first step is transparency.  

‘If you come to a professional learning conversation with a hidden agenda, you won't build a relationship. Well, you will, but it won't be the relationship you want,’ Dr Timperley said.  

The second step starts with evidence - both quantitative (for example, test results) and qualitative (for example, observations), which lead to a grounded conversation with direction. For the third step, Dr Timperley refers to the `ladder of inference’ (see Figure 1).  

Figure 1: The ladder of inference 
Source:  Timperley, H. (2023). Leading professional conversations: Adaptive expertise for schools. ACER Press. Adapted and used with permission.


She said effective conversations should start from the bottom of the ladder (selection of evidence) and work their way up. The start of the conversation should make clear what evidence is being discussed so that both participants can move through descriptions, interpretations and finally draw relevant conclusions.  

However, often conversations are starting at the top (conclusions) and therefore it can be unclear if both parties are attending to the same evidence, especially since leaders and teachers inevitably witness different evidence.  

‘If you don't actually talk about what you're noticing then you're going to talk past each other because your descriptions will be different,’ Dr Timperley said.  

She also touched on how effective it is for leaders to take on a co-inquiry role as evidence is reviewed. ‘If there's an issue that you want to talk about for professional learning purposes, then ask the other person what would be helpful evidence to bring to the conversation. But it’s not only just about asking them. As a leader, you've [also] got ideas about what [you think] would be useful.’  

At every stage, leaders should stop and check that the conversation is on track, rather than rely on their own judgements, Dr Timperley said. ‘We all make judgements. That's the nature of our thinking processes. But it's a matter of being much more systematic about how we make those judgements.’ Just like students working collaboratively, leaders and teachers should as well. ‘If you get that process right then you will build the trust.’ 

Identify the challenges 

Deep learning requires knowing the what, the how and the why, Dr Timperley said. This knowledge must be acquired before any change can be put into practice effectively. Her research identified 2 approaches that leaders tend to adopt in professional conversations:  

  1. The leader asks questions of the teacher, not wanting to impose their own views. This approach stems from a belief that whoever is undergoing the professional learning, already has the resources to improve their practice and just requires the opportunity to express their knowledge. In practice, this does not have an impact. 

  1. The second approach is completely opposite, where the leader tells teachers how they should go about their practice, their opinion being: ‘I have the wisdom, you just do what I tell you and things will improve’. Extensive research has already shown this is completely ineffective.There is no interrogation into what the teacher is already doing and why it’s not working, just an assumption that it is incorrect and something new is needed.  

Dr Timperley said there were no simple answers. ‘What I was trying to do was bring together how learning is that complex mix of existing beliefs and practices, new possibilities that need to be unpacked in context of the teachers’ current knowledge [and] the students in front of them. They need to be figured out in terms of the implications of practice.’  

Routine versus adaptive expertise 

In emphasising the importance of adaptive expertise, Dr Timperley first compared it to routine expertise – knowledge that is efficient and useful in predictable situations.  

‘Routine expertise is really useful [and] efficient where there's a clearly defined problem and there is a solution that people have already worked out that can be applied,’ she explained. The problem? Teaching and learning are not predictable, they’re full of complexities. 

This is where adaptive expertise comes into play. Teaching and learning are inherently woven together, with student learning and wellbeing the only linear element running through the core.  

Figure 2: Attributes of adaptive expertise in educational leadership 
Source: Timperley, H., & Twyford, K. (2021). Adaptive expertise in educational leadership: Embracing complexity in leading today’s school. Australian Educational Leadership, 44(1), 8–12. Adapted and used with permission.

Teachers must inquire, think and act knowledgeably, evaluatively, collaboratively, metacognitively, responsively and systematically, and apply these to the specific situation in front of them.  

Ultimately, professional learning is not dissimilar to student learning. 

‘It’s a formative assessment process,’ Dr Timperley explained. ‘Develop a goal with achievable criteria, assess in terms of a goal and then you have the support to close the gap. Hopefully, the book gives you the scaffold to improve.’ 

Find out more
Purchase a copy of the book here or watch the recording

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