Creating a collaborative professional learning environment – the practicalities

In the second of three articles focusing on motivating teachers to remain in Further Education (FE) and the part an alternative approach to professional development could play, Education Consultant Dr Tricia Odell explores the practicalities of introducing a collaborative approach and the role that middle leaders can play in creating the conditions for this model.

In the first article in this series, it was suggested that a top-down model (where an expert leads a training session) may not lead to sustainable changes in teaching and learning, and that if we want teachers to stay in the profession and improve their practice, then leaders need to consider an alternative approach to professional learning. Here, we will explore the practicalities of introducing a collaborative approach and think about the role that middle leaders can play in creating the conditions for this model to take root.

How can a practitioner-led model of professional learning work in practice?

A collaborative approach involves a cycle of activity illustrated in the diagram below:

The five-stage collaborative cycle - teacher identifies priorities, teacher discusses priority areas with mentor, teacher engages in learning conversations/observations, teacher carries out peer observations, teachers share learning in communities of practice

The five different stages are explained in more detail below:

  1. To foster a sense of ownership from the outset, the teacher (rather than their manager) identifies areas of their practice that they would like to improve, perhaps using the Professional Standards for Teachers and Trainers as a starting point (ETF, 2022).
  2. The teacher (mentee) is then matched with an experienced practitioner (mentor). At the first meeting they agree a mentoring contract that may include expectations of each other’s roles, joint responsibilities and frequency of meetings. The mentor teases out the mentee’s perceived strengths and chosen areas for development.
  3. Mentors and mentees meet regularly, engaging in learning conversations during which the mentor encourages the mentee to critically reflect on their practice and to experiment with new ideas, supporting them to engage with relevant educational theory and research.
  4. The mentee explores new pedagogical approaches by carrying out peer observations, maybe engaging in team teaching, experimenting with new strategies and then critically reflecting on these experiences with their mentor.
  5. Teachers come together regularly in communities of practice to share learning.

Two key features of the collaborative professional learning model

If the practitioner is to be in the driving seat when it comes to their professional learning, then we will need to think differently about the role of mentoring and the use of observations.

Non-judgemental mentoring

Recent research suggests that a particular type of mentoring – ‘judgementoring’ – has come to dominate in educational settings (Hobson, 2021). This version of mentoring involves the mentor making judgements about a teacher’s practice to ensure they meet a set of prescribed standards. Typically, the mentor will lead the discussion, focusing on aspects of practice that the mentor considers the teacher needs to change.

A recent ETF guide proposes a completely different approach to mentoring that is non-judgemental and collaborative (ETF, 2023). Rather than assessing performance, mentors support their mentees’ development by using active listening and encouraging them to engage in critical reflection. The guidance includes reference to ONSIDE mentoring as a framework for supporting professional learning, as well as the wellbeing of teachers (Hobson, 2016).

The framework has six distinct elements as below:

OOff-line (separated from line management and supervision) and non-hierarchical
NNon-judgemental and non-evaluative
SSupportive of mentees’ psycho-social needs and wellbeing
IIndividualised – tailored to the specific and changing needs (emotional and developmental) of the mentee
DDevelopmental and growth-oriented, seeking to promote mentees’ capacity for learning and provide appropriate degrees of challenge
EEmpowering – progressively nondirective to support mentees to become more autonomous and agentic

A different approach to lesson observations

If a bottom-up approach to professional learning is to be implemented, then we must also think about observations of practice in another way. This necessitates a shift away from an evaluative approach towards a developmental model, where observations are seen as a starting point for professional discussion, rather than a means to form judgements (Wingrove et al, 2018).

In practice, this means that the teacher (mentee) chooses a specific aspect of the lesson/area of practice on which they would like the mentor to focus. After the observation, the mentee will be encouraged through the skilful use of questions to reflect critically and openly on their teaching. By fostering an atmosphere of trust, practitioners will be encouraged to take risks and will be more open to the idea of trying out new pedagogical strategies.

Matt O’Leary argues the case for an ‘unseen observation’ where the mentor (or ‘collaborator’) does not observe the practice at all, but engages in professional dialogue with the teacher during the planning stage and after the teacher has delivered the session. In this way, the ‘collaborator’ relies on the teacher’s own reflections of the teaching session and so the roles of both teacher and ‘collaborator’ are changed, with the observation seen as means of supporting professional learning in a safe space, rather than a performance management tool (O’Leary, 2022).

What can middle leaders do to help create the conditions for the collaborative model to flourish?

We have seen how this bottom-up model has the potential to inspire and motivate teachers, and we have explored some of its key features.

Below are three top tips to help middle leaders create an environment in which collaborative learning can thrive:

  1. Make sure teachers and their mentors are allocated with the time needed to establish and grow the mentoring relationship.
  2. Provide spaces for practitioners to engage in professional learning activity, with time to embed the new practice.
  3. Start building communities of practice, creating opportunities for teachers and their mentors to come together, to share creative thinking and learn from each other’s experiences.

Lastly, middle leaders should resist the temptation to drive the professional learning activity and should be prepared to ‘let go’. This will mean having the courage to place trust and responsibility for this activity firmly in the hands of practitioners.

In the final article in this series, we will look at some case studies of organisations where leaders have introduced a non-judgemental mentoring culture. We will explore some of the challenges and suggest how these can be addressed.


Education and Training Foundation (2023) Mentoring Framework: Guide for Mentors in Further Education. London: ETF.

Education and Training Foundation (2022) The Professional Standards for Teachers and Trainers. London: ETF.

Hobson, A J (2021). ‘Bringing mentoring ONSIDE: averting judgementoring and enhancing the professional learning, development and well-being of teachers.’ In: E.H. Reames and L.J. Searby (Eds.) The art and science of mentoring: a festschrift in honor of Dr. Frances Kochan, pp. 49-74. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Hobson, A. (2016). Judgementoring and how to avert it: introducing ONSIDE Mentoring for beginning teachers. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 5(2), 87-110.

O’Leary, M. (2022) Rethinking teachers’ professional learning through unseen observation, Professional Development in Education, DOI: 10.1080/19415257.2022.2125551

Wingrove, D., Hammersley-Fletcher, L., Clarke, A., and Chester, A. (2018) Leading developmental peer observation of teaching in higher education: perspectives from Australia and England, British Journal of Educational Studies, 66 (3), pp. 365-381.

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