Professional Judgement?

It’s a term that often makes me cringe when I hear it: professional judgement. This is not to say that I disagree with it. To the contrary, I believe that it is at the core of what we do as teachers, as professionals. My issue with the term is that it tends to be misused and overused, misunderstood and underappreciated.

First, to pin it down. Damian Cooper in his 2011 book Redefining Fair describes professional judgement as “decisions made by educators, in light of experience, and with reference to shared public standards and established policies and guidelines.” I like this definition, but I also have two problems with it. Firstly, professional judgement in this sense has the potential to be a catch-all for any decision a teacher makes, especially since public standards and established guidelines are often as broad as a barn door.   At times, I’ve seen colleagues invoke professional judgement as a defense for a decision or policy that has been challenged by students, parents, or other teachers.

Professional judgement cannot be any decision by a teacher, lest they become decrees from on high. We cannot as professionals, expect our decisions to be automatically correct ‘because I said so!’ What happens when two colleagues disagree? Is one more professional, so their judgement stands?  Is neither wrong, meaning that every teacher is right but only in their own classrooms?  No, to accept such a broad definition undermines the very nature of a profession.

My second issue with Cooper’s definition is that it frames professional judgement as an event, a moment in time. One could say, “I made a professional judgement,” in this context. I don’t like this because it feels again like professional judgement is invoked, or like it’s a tool brought out of storage to be used and then returned when you’re done making the decision. Should there be times when we aren’t making professional judgments? What kind of judgments are they?  Unprofessional judgments just isn’t that appealing. No, we as teachers ought to always be professionals, meaning that professional judgement must be more than simply a decision.

Quebec’s Ministry of Education in 2006 produced a document on assessment, Value Assigned to the Professional Judgement of Teachers, that I feels better points to professional judgment.  It states: “Judgement consists of analyzing and summarizing information that has been collected about student learning…. Making a judgment is not the result of compiling data. It cannot be reduced to adding up the different marks a student has obtained…”

By the way, this is a great document, and I recommend others read it. It’s in a Q&A format and really speaks to the sometimes uncomfortably subjective aspect of our profession. I also like this definition because it better embraces professional judgment as a process and not an event.  Between formative and summative assessments in the classroom, professional judgement is always taking place.  But I don’t like the focus on assessment only, which is where most writers on professional judgement like to sit. Teachers don’t only professionally judge when they grade. What are we doing when supervising the playground?

The Ontario Ministry of Education’s Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools (2010) has a more detailed definition that I prefer. Professional judgement is:

 informed by professional knowledge of curriculum expectations, context, evidence of learning, methods of instruction and assessment, and the criteria and standards that indicate success in student learning. In professional practice, judgement involves a purposeful and systematic thinking process that evolves in terms of accuracy and insight with ongoing reflection and self-correction.

I really like this definition because it encompasses the breadth of judgments we make in a day and places it as a process rather than an event. It also point towards the early days of the term ‘professional judgement’ in the 1980s and 1990s when standard thinking of instruction was questioned by critical thinking proponents, and the validity of psychometrically based assessment tools were being challenged in favour of performance tasks.

At the time, many professions struggled to define the concept. In 1990, Peter Facione offered a definition in his highly influential report to the APA, Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for the Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction, that encompasses the spirit of what it means, not only to have professional judgment, but to be a professional altogether.  He defines professional judgment broadly, as:

 a goal-oriented decision-making process carried out in the interest of one’s client wherein one gives reasoned consideration to relevant information, criteria, methods, context, principles, policies, and resources.

Professional judgment is rooted in experience, continuous training, and evidence. It is also testable through the litmus of “in the interest of one’s clients”, which for teachers, often means our students. We can ask our colleagues why they have made a particular choice, and should expect an answer that reflects the core of professional practice.  Has it worked in the past?  Is it founded on principals or teachings learned in PD?  Did it actually have a positive impact?

We as professionals cannot always be right, nor should we ever expect to be. But, we should be always improving, refining, and growing.  Professional judgment should reflect this process.  Professionals should embrace it.

When It’s Really NOT Good to Know

No Good to KnowIn my current position as someone who handles data for the school division, I often get asked to create tools, run analyses, develop theories, or present recommendations on matters concerning student performance. The thrust of my work is to help decision makers (teachers, administrators, etc.) make better decisions in their practice through reflection on evidence.  At the end of the day, it’s about improving student learning.

Usually, requests for help appear to link quite strongly to students’ wellbeing in school, such as their academic achievement, behaviour, attendance, or self-efficacy. Sometimes, requests are a little further removed, but still have tangible links, such as an HR project on a representative workforce.

I typically ask the purpose of the project. Sometime, colleagues want to see how well their students are reading.  Other times, an administrator wants to know if resources are being allocated appropriately.  Maybe a school team is trying to see if a targeted intervention is having the desired effect.  All these are great things to know.

I’ve also started asking why we want to collect this data. Occasionally, the answer I get is that “it would be good to know.”  As much as I am dedicated to helping colleagues (in fact, that is my primary role), I feel that this is the absolute worst reason to collect and analyze data.  In the immortal words of that great philosopher G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”  I should say, knowing is only half the battle, and it’s also the most dangerous.

Why? Let’s take the example of students reading.  What happens when we put in the time to assess, graph, statistically analyze, and interpret the data on student reading levels in a classroom, and it turns out that most students are struggling?  It is not merely ‘good to know’ that students are struggling; knowing that students are struggling is only half the battle.  We are now obligated to do something about it.

I use the word obligation here very deliberately. As teachers, we are expected to help our students improve, and more than just a little bit (since small performance improvements over the course of one school year are more likely associated with normal effects of aging).  So if we know that our students are struggling, then we must be prepared to support, to intervene, to adjust, to strategize, to seek additional help.  On the flip side, what does it say if you know you students are struggling and aren’t prepared to do make any changes?

Herein lies the danger of knowing. Either you must be prepared to change something that you thought was working well, or you must be prepared to say that you refuse to help.  Knowing is only half the battle.  It’s not just good to know unless you are ready to do as well.

So to that end, I’ve decided to return to why I’m here in this role.  When a colleague asks me for data, I’ll first do them a favour: I’ll ask them how it will be used to help improve student learning.  After all, I want to help them, not expose them to danger for which they are unprepared.  That, I think, is good to know.

Leaders Who Value Student Feedback

by Doug Drover

One of the most valuable tools I’ve ever used for professional growth and program review is student feedback (yes, feedback FROM the students, not TO the students).  It has made me a better teacher, and it’s helped promoted a healthy learning culture in my classroom.

I think we as teachers are, on some level, uncomfortable with receiving feedback from our students.  After all, we’ve been trained to be the professional “in charge” of the classroom: determining activities, lessons and units, planning the semester/year to fit the curriculum, establishing minimum expectations for behavioural norms, establishing seating plans, etc.  This is not in any way wrong.  As trained and experienced professionals, we SHOULD have this authority in the classrooms to which we are assigned.

Teachers and principals are leaders to our students and in our schools, and it is important for us to remember that there are different styles of leadership.  I have always taught my students about three: authoritative, participative, and delegative.

Authoritative leaders make decisions on their own, and they enforce this decision on others, typically through rewards and punishments.  This is a highly efficient method of decision-making, and is quite popular in politics and business… and in the school system.  It works best when the leader is the most experienced and knowledgeable person in the room.  When this is not the case, though, poor decisions can be made.

Participative leaders seek input from their teams, and consider the different points of view before making a final decision.  This is less efficient, but results in compliance because others value the process of providing input and trust that the leader chose the best option on the table.

Delegative leaders ask the team to make the final decision.  It is least efficient, but can be very effective in certain situations, especially when team members are highly motivated and skilled, or hold special expertise that the leader doesn’t.

Often, we think about leadership in the authoritative sense: that we are the experts who make the decisions.  Conversely, we often think that eliciting student feedback will be a waste of time (“They don’t know what is required to…”) or akin to letting the prisoners run the prison!  Not true!  There is a sea of difference between eliciting feedback from students and turning over the reins of the school.  As a delegative leader, my students trusted that I would honestly consider their feedback, but respected that the final decision lay with me.

For some teachers, this can be a shift in mindset, but I assure you from my own experience that asking for and responding to feedback from parents and students does not lead to a loss of authority; in fact, I’ve found that it enhances the trust parents and students have in me.

Schools are not McDonald’s; the customer is NOT always right.  But that doesn’t mean the customers – students and parents – are NEVER right.  Students and parents present many sets of eyes from diverse backgrounds with diverse needs.  They are bound to see things that you can’t, or see things differently than you.  Once we acknowledge that we can still hold authority without ALWAYS being right, we can tap into this vast pool of opinions and perspectives to find solutions to problems that either confounded us, or that we didn’t know existed.

I encourage you to read the link to this excellent article from Education Leadership on formalizing the student feedback process.

Learning from the True Customers


October 17, 2013Permalink