Successful systems invest and reinvest in their professional capital

Professional capital has three components Human, Social, and Decisional


Speaking to an audience of Teachers at the SSATs annual conference in Manchester, last week, Professors Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan focused on the need to invest in  Professional Capital. They reminded the audience that there are two types of  Capital -business and professional capital. If you don’t invest in  both types of capital you will not get, and cannot expect,  a return.

Professional Capital is, of course, about the qualities and talents of individuals.  But its actually about much more than this. You can’t accumulate much human capital by focusing just on the capital of individuals. Essentially you have three mutually reinforcing   components  that make up this Professional capital –Human, Social and Decisional. Not only do you need to have these elements in place but you need to develop and invest in them to improve, specifically your education system.  And Professional capital, and this is key, needs to be circulated and shared. No silos here.

 Human Capital is about individual talent. You need highly able and talented teachers in the profession who are highly qualified.  And you need to invest in them. But you cannot simply rely on talented individuals to drive improvements across the system. Indeed the claim that the education system cannot be better than the individual teachers in that system is at best a half-truth.

 Human capital must be complemented by Social Capital—groups working hard in focused and committed ways to bring about substantial improvements. Social Capital can raise individual human capital—a good team, school, or system lifts everyone. But, as we often see in sports, higher individual human capital—a few brilliant stars—does not necessarily improve the overall team. Working with  other good teachers in effective ways really will mean that the quality of the education system adds up to more than the quality of individual teachers.  

 The third component—Decisional Capital—involves making decisions in complex situations on innumerable occasions with different problems challenges and cases- the ability and capacity to make discretional judgments . Good teachers use their professional judgement.  It is what professionalism is all about, especially when well-qualified professionals do this together. Like judges, after many years of practice and analyzing that practice and lots of case examples (Common Law) with others, teachers and other professionals know how to assess situations effectively. The evidence helps, but it’s never incontrovertible. In teaching as in  law, it’s the capacity to judge that makes the difference in the end.  Experienced well trained teachers and better placed than others to have decisional capital.  And Hargreaves reminded the audience  there is no book to tell you what to do in innumerable cases.  Professionals have to decide informed by their experience.

 When the vast majority of teachers possess the power of professional capital, they become smart and talented, committed and collegial, thoughtful and wise. Their moral purpose is expressed in their relentless, expert-driven pursuit of serving their students and their communities and always learning how to do better. Those few colleagues who persistently fall short of the mark eventually will not be tolerated by peers who see them as letting down their profession and students.

 High-performing countries use professional capital in their approach to the teaching profession. They don’t pick on, praise, or punish a few individuals. Instead, they get better and better by using a strategy that develops and retains all of their high-quality teachers and moves them all forward together.

 There were a number of  key messages being delivered here by Professor Hargreaves and Fullan. Here are just some:   

 First, of all the factors inside a school that affect children’s learning and achievement the most important is the teacher-not standards, assessments, resources or even the schools leadership but the quality of the teacher.

 Secondly, teachers and administrators must break down the classroom isolation and convert teaching into a more collaborative, and collegial profession.  Good collegiality—social capital—is supportive and also demanding. Peer-driven change should be about pulling people into exciting changes and sometimes also pushing and nudging them beyond what they perceive as their limits, for their own and their students’ benefit. And in this respect they need to know what works best and evaluate their collaborative activity, to ensure it is adding value and improving student outcomes.

 Thirdly, Social capital is more important than individual human capital because it generates human capital faster, among all teachers and for every child. Leaders have immense power with social capital to strengthen their school communities, develop greater trust, and build more effective professional collaboration—to raise the social capital in the school that develops their students’ human capital in the future.

 Fourthly we need to concentrate on moving the entire profession forward instead of obsessing about the extremes in the field by celebrating the stars and dismissing the duds.

 Finally ,mid-career (from about eight-years-plus) is where teachers are considered to be at their peak in commitment and enthusiasm, but where they tend to be most overlooked. We need to use pay accelerators (steps up in pay), professional learning incentives, high quality CPD,and multiple career paths to invest in keeping most of our teachers in classrooms for four to eight years at least and to take better advantage of their growing decisional capital and expertise.

 But what about the role of  Governments?  Their message is clear,  on this.  Politicians need to demonstrate courage and faith in investing in long-term professional capital among all teachers for everyone’s achievement, rather than pursuing short-term  ‘business-capital’ interests that reduce the cost and tenure of teachers, pit them against one another, and replace them with online alternatives in order to get a quick financial return. You do not improve professional capital by diminishing teachers judgment and professionalism, nor by employing less qualified people to teach.   Some Government policies , they claim, are driven by the imperatives of  ‘business’ rather than ‘ professional’ capital which  takes a shorter term view and is more interested in quick returns. 

 Countries that have invested in the professional capital of their teachers, and their students are reaping the benefits.  (ie implicitly  not so much  the US and UK, more Finland, South Korea , Singapore). So think about teaching in terms of the creation and circulation and the investment and reinvestment of professional capital. Governments can create good or bad climates, or enabling environments (and they have a heavy responsibility here),  to advance investment in professional capital. But it is something that must be acquired, spread and reinvested mainly  by teachers themselves, individually and together.   


Michael Fullan is a professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Andy Hargreaves holds the Thomas More Brennan chair in education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. They are the co-authors of Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School (Teachers College Press, Routledge  2012).


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