Professional learning for Learning Specialists in 1,553 Government schools in the State of Victoria

Learning Specialists lead teaching and learning in their schools. They are expected to model excellence in teaching and learning through demonstration lessons, mentor and coach teachers to improve their knowledge and skills as they collaboratively implement their school strategies and plans for cycles of school improvement. 

International research and evidence of effective practice indicates that implementing school improvement for impact requires focused and iterative approaches that are supported by key leaders of learning and teaching (DeWitt, 2016; Robinson, Hohepa & Lloyd, 2009; Timperley, 2011). However, Learning Specialists encounter common challenges they need to manage including:

  • Effectively leveraging their role as part of school leadership

  • Managing their time for the role which may be insufficient to implement and measure impact

  • Building confidence and capability to undertake the role in a collaborative, supporting and trusting way with peers

  • Engaging in professional learning tailored to their requirements either as a new or an advancing specialist.

Learning Specialists are expected to be highly skilled classroom practitioners who continue to spend the majority of their time in the classroom delivering high-quality teaching and learning and have a range of responsibilities related to their expertise, including teaching demonstration lessons, observing and providing feedback to other teachers and facilitating school-based professional learning” (page 50-51)

Victorian Government Schools Agreement 2017

Recognizing these challenges, the State of Victoria Department of Education and Training (DET) has committed to supporting professional learning for Learning Specialists.  In 2019, DET engaged Cognition as an expert partner to provide a suite of professional learning opportunities to equip Learning Specialists with the knowledge and skills to successfully undertake their role in implementing cycles of school improvement.

Our approach for this project is based on ‘The Cognition Way’ to ensure capacity building and collective efficacy so that professional development can continue at the conclusion of the contract.

Beginning in Term 1, 2020 Cognition Education and Wavelength Learning has worked collaboratively with the DET to consider the implications of the global Covid pandemic; to discover, design, deliver and evaluate a professional learning suite comprising five ‘blended learning’ courses focused on the roles and responsibilities of the Learning Specialists:

  • Leading from the Middle
  • Modelling Exemplary Practice
  • Professional Conversations
  • Professional Observations
  • Enriching Data and Evidence Practices.

Learning Specialists were invited to participate in each of the professional learning courses from the four regions in the State of Victoria:


By the end of the 2021 academic year Cognition had facilitated professional learning with 287 Learning Specialists.

Read more on The Cognition Way, a Discover, Design, Deliver, Evaluate approach here: 

Discovery Stage

In the Discovery Stage our team established and convened the following groups to ensure success:

  1. A Programme Management Group (PMG) comprising DET and Cognition representation: The purpose of the group is to inform and guide the thinking, planning, activation, and evaluation of each of the contract deliverables and also to grow a DET knowledge, understanding to manage ongoing professional learning for Learning Specialists.
  2. An Advisory Board comprised of recognised global research and practice experts: This group is expected to support the PMG to identify and maximise the current global research and practice that can be used to inform the professional learning, and which can be contextualised to meet the specific needs and responsibilities of Learning Specialists
  3. A Co-design Group comprising representation from Learning Specialists, the DET and Cognition: This group is expected to collaborate with Cognition and the DET to ensure the discovery, design, delivery, and evaluation of the professional learning programmes meets the needs of Learning Specialists and schools both individually and collectively.

In addition, we also completed a research project. This was initiated to ensure the professional learning suite recognises and builds on global research and the unique characteristics of Victorian Government Schooling context and recognises the efficacy of Learning Specialists.

The research led by the Cognition team included:

  • A desktop review of the Learning Specialist previous learning, and Policy and operational documentation that underpins the work of Learning Specialists. This included the VGSA, the Victorian Teaching and Learning Model and the Victorian Governments’ commitment to enhance outcomes for Aboriginal learners within the Marrung: Aboriginal Educational Plan
  • A series of learning conversations with a sample of Learning Specialists focused on the enablers and blockers associated with their role/responsibilities, and their ongoing professional learning needs

Key findings from the research were that the professional learning suite should:

  • be based on the best DET, national and global research associated with the Learning Specialist responsibilities
  • target the responsibilities of Learning Specialists and build the knowledge and skills aligned with the Learning Specialist Capability matrix
  • clarify the role of Learning Specialists
  • enable and encourage Learning Specialists to advance more effective learning within their school(s) context(s)
  • create a sense of collective voice for Learning Specialists – learning with each other, from each other creating a sense of collective identity and purpose
  • be focused on adult learning principles – thus enabling Learning Specialists to design and deliver effective learning for their colleagues.
Design Stage

Originally, Cognition intended to design a professional development suite for face-to-face delivery. However, with the emergence of the global Covid pandemic in early 2020, Cognition and the DET agreed to an alternative delivery model.

After due consideration and consultation with the Co-design Group and the Advisory Board, the PMG agreed to ‘pivot’ from a largely face-to-face suite of professional learning to a ‘blended learning’ approach enabling an online delivery, supplemented by within and across school/s face-to face learning where possible.

Following further consultation and collaboration, a high-level design comprising both synchronous and asynchronous learning was developed and accepted for each of the five professional learning courses in 2020. In the figure that follows, the high-level design for the Leading from the Middle course is illustrated. This has been recreated and revised as appropriate for the remaining four professional learning courses [1].

Subsequently, detailed facilitator notes, PowerPoint decks, artefacts, learning resources, templates, and self study modules – all expected to complement and enhance both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities – have been developed to support participant professional learning. Materials and resources have been uploaded to the DET Canvas Learning Management System (LMS), accessible to all participants once provided with access by the DET.

To supplement the professional learning suite, Cognition and the DET have also agreed on formative evaluation protocols and design including:

  • online participant satisfaction surveys at the conclusion of each of the professional learning course
  • focus group huddles with the Co-design Group as they experience the learning.
  • design principles and parameters for an online ‘Needs Analysis’ tool – to enable Learning Specialists to reflect on, and analyse their individual efficacy and next professional learning needs.
Delivery Stage:

Registration of participants in the five professional learning courses delivered in 2020 and 2021 has been managed by the DET in consultation with Cognition. Opportunity has been provided for Learning Specialists in each of the four Victoria regions to express an interest in each of the courses which have been facilitated through the ‘Zoom’ video conferencing system. All participants have also been provided with access to the appropriate site on the DET Canvas Learning Management System (LMS).

Of the participants across the five professional learning courses in 2021:

  • 5% of learners were from South Western Victorian Region (SWVR) a 5.5% increase in 2021. This is an improvement for this region who had the least number of learners engaging in professional learning courses in 2020.
  • 23% were from the North Western Victorian Region (NWVR) which was a decrease of 15% in 2021, however NWVR had the highest number of learners complete last year’s course offerings (38%).
  • 5% were from the North Eastern Victorian Region (NEVR) an increase of 4.5% from 2020.
  • 31% were from the South Eastern Victorian Region (SEVR) an increase of 6% from 2020.


The delivery to each cohort in each course has comprised:

  • Five self-directed online learning modules
  • One cohort activation webinar per region (four regions)
  • Two facilitated group discussions: small group collaborative learning with up to eight participants
  • One cohort wrap-up and celebration webinar per region; an opportunity for participants to share their learning as well as their planning for activation within a FISO improvement plan for 2020/21
  • One deep dive webinar based on the course content and topics voted for, or nominated, by the Learning Specialists
  • One ‘Conversation with an expert’ webinar. These webinars have leveraged the expertise of national and international educational experts in their field, including members of the Advisory Board.

The detail of all delivery methods has been informed by credible international research on adult learning, effective professional learning, and blended learning.


Evaluation Stage

Cognition and the DET agreed on an approach to the formative evaluation of the professional learning suite design and delivery has been informed by Fink’s (2015) statement that:

“Program evaluation is an unbiased exploration of a program’s merits, including its effectiveness, quality and value. An effective program provides substantial benefits to individuals, communities and societies and these benefits are greater than their human and financial costs. A high-quality program meets its users’ needs and is based on sound theory and the best available research evidence. A program’s value is measured by its worth to individuals, the community and society.”

More explicitly, Cognition and the DET have agreed and designed a formative evaluation approach to collect evidence of participant feedback and feed forward related to levels 1 (Reactions), 2 (Learning), and 3 (Transfer) of the internationally recognised Donald Kirkpatrick four-level Training Evaluation Model pictured below.

Participants in the learning, and representatives in the Co-design Group have also been invited to share how the PMG can improve the design and delivery of the professional learning programme to maximize the learning of Learning Specialists within their specific contexts.

Online participant satisfaction surveys were completed at the conclusion of each professional learning course.

Co-design Group ‘huddles’ were used to collect the evidence for Cognition to lead a process of collation, analysis, and reporting on reactions, learning and transfer.

Key findings from the evidence collected are as follows:

Professional learning content

More than 90% of respondents to the online survey agreed or strongly agreed:

  • They were well informed about the learning intentions and success criteria
  • The content links well to the responsibilities of Learning Specialists
  • The content was relevant and useful
  • The content was pitched at the right level.

Professional learning delivery and resources

More than 90% of respondents to the online survey agreed or strongly agreed:

  • The facilitator delivery was of high quality
  • Their understanding of the key concepts/practices improved
  • The pace of the learning was appropriate
  • The activities were well designed and useful for consolidating learning
  • The activities gave sufficient opportunity to practice or link learning to their work context
  • The tools/resources helped participants understand and apply the concepts
  • The tools/resources can be applied in a range of contexts

Blended Learning

More than 90% of respondents to the online survey agreed or strongly agreed:

  • The online content was easy to use
  • The online content supported the overall learning experience
  • They were able to plan and self-manage their time across the course

However, findings from across the five courses also indicated that there is room for improvement in the overall online experience for the participants in using the online learning platform, and the ability to plan and manage time for their learning.


100% of respondents to the online survey agreed or strongly agreed they were motivated to use the content of the course in their everyday practice.


49% of the total respondents said they had ‘activated’ the learning in their school context by the end of the course.

Our Impact

In respect of impact, the following feedback and feed forward has been collated, and is reported, as being a representative sample of the evidence collected:


“Open up opportunities for professional learning like this to other staff ‘aspiring’ to Learning Specialist positions. Once you are IN the position you are able to IMPLEMENT, but how do aspiring leaders get a chance to learn, grow and undertake quality professional learning BEFORE they are successful in the role. A real hurdle is accessing quality professional learning like this to gain the knowledge and understanding for professional growth in content before practice.”

Delivery and resources:

 “This course was very comprehensive, flexible and valuable. As mentioned above, I found the facilitator to be very engaging, motivating and understanding of the current situation in which we are teaching and working. Thank you for the opportunity to complete this learning, it has equipped me with the many tools and resources required to fulfill my Learning Specialist role”

Blended learning:

 “We outlined what the course content was to our leadership team. It’s the first time we have done a course like this with the Department of Education and training so everyone was curious!”

We valued:

“Listening to ideas of others”

“The opportunity to discuss in small groups with other learning specialists”

“Not having to drive to Melbourne to attend PD!”

“Sharing information with other learning specialists”

Motivation and Activation:

 “During this course my goals have changed. I wanted to build my own capacity and I have had ample opportunity to do that- and I will continue to do so. I have learnt a lot of strategies/ ideas of how to strongly lead a team and support them in continuous learning”

“….. So many really helpful and insightful tips about maximising the effectiveness of our conversations. There are many things introduced to me that I had never considered and I have already started using these strategies within the conversations I’ve had and have also shared them with staff members that are wanting to become leaders. Great facilitators, cannot praise and thank them enough!!”

“The learning here was extremely relevant to my situation and I am very appreciative of the many tools it has given me and have been able to use straight away.”

“Already implementing ideas and strategies within our learning cycles”


Overall, Cognition and the DET agree that the discovery, design, delivery, and evaluation of the suite of professional learning provided to Learning Specialists in 2020 and 2021 has met the requirements and as outlined in the original tender, sometimes exceeded them and that this approach and model should be continued in 2022.

Cognition’s contract has been extended, and at the time of the development of this Case Study, the PMG, Advisory Board and Co-delivery Groups were working alongside Cognition to refine the approach and model to ensure it meets the needs of Learning Specialists in their current context, which includes consideration of the ongoing global Covid pandemic.

Cognition is proud to be working alongside the DET and supporting Learning Specialists to maximise their role and responsibilities within and across Government Schools in the State of Victoria.

Referenced Images

The percentages of Learning Specialists that have participated in the 2020 and 2021 courses from the different types of schools represented in the Victoria Government Schools were as follows:



Donald Kirkpatrick four-level Training Evaluation Model