The start of term staff professional development day is a rite of passage. We turn up on the first day back from holidays, armed with crosswords and left-over marking, and we often expect some big name speaker to entertain us. If the speaker can make us laugh they are considered a success. Any time allocated to meet in subject departments is spent on administrivia. The thought of improving our practice might enter our heads, but the current professional development paradigm ensures that we tend to be thinking more about the lessons we need to teach tomorrow. We know we are not really needed at school today at all, yet we yawn and carry-on, connecting with colleagues, thinking wistfully about the just lost holiday and approaching the first real day tomorrow with some trepidation, but in truth we also look forward to the students returning and our first real day back at work.
How much of this rings true for you?
Top-down compliance measures and listening to “spray and pray” guest presenters are ineffective for building learning communities. We know that the strongest influence on teacher professional practice is advice from colleagues, and teachers get better by working in teams on teaching issues. We also know that the most powerful source of information about teaching and learning in a school is the student and teacher work that occurs in classrooms, and we are beginning to recognise that teachers have a professional obligation to share their learning in public.
Peter Senge (1990) popularised the concept of learning organisations. Any answer to the question “How do schools learn?” has to begin with the realisation that schools learn collectively in teams. However, as Richard Elmore (2011) is quick to point out, “watching most teams operate in schools is like watching Astroturf grow.” Norms of autonomy and privacy are entrenched among teachers, and the isolation of cellular classrooms discourages professional interdependence. This professional isolation operates as a bulwark against school improvement. Teachers cannot become better teachers in isolation from each other. For a school to truly learn, these deeply embedded structures have to be challenged and teaching must become infused with a genuinely collegial, collaborative ethos. Breidenstein et al. (2012) state that there is
a substantial professional knowledge base that highlights a strong connection between student and adult learning. Student learning increases in schools where there are educator communities that are reflective, collaborative, and focused on issues of teaching and learning… Adult learning in schools is best supported when teachers…regularly engage in meaningful dialogue with colleagues about improving their practice.
In her book Teaming, Amy Edmondson argues that generating ideas to solve problems is the currency of the future and teaming is the way to implement and improve these ideas. She emphasizes speaking up, listening intensely, integrating different facts and points of view, experimenting iteratively, and reflecting on ideas and actions. One of the key points is about the importance of psychological safety. Team members feel more comfortable suggesting alternatives when their leader has previously modelled that it is OK to make mistakes. A leader’s role is to cultivate a culture that encourages risk-taking and allows teachers to question the status quo. Every school has its own nondiscussables and teachers must be able “to name, acknowledge, and address the nondiscussables—especially those that impede learning” (Barth, 2002).
This year we killed our traditional staff professional development days at the start of terms. We moved to an 8:00am-9:10am timeslot on alternate Monday mornings for professional learning (with students arriving late, for period 2). This “Team Learning Time” is an opportunity for sustained, collaborative adult learning, with meaningful opportunities to innovate, plan high quality pedagogy, distribute leadership, and reflect. Each subject department co-constructed plans for the use of the time. Some plans were specific and structured; others were flexible and loose. Discussions commenced about how to: build disparate individuals into a team, resolve tensions within a team, take advantage of the expertise within a team, monitor what the team is learning, share weaknesses and struggles, ensure that all voices are heard, flatten structures, and reflect as a team.
One of our key wonderings has been whether there is a crucial difference between teacher “learning” and teacher “work.” Most of what we do as professionals on a day-to-day basis seems to be described as “work.” What would happen if we managed to transition to workplaces that focused more on adult learning? We posited that this perspective shift might function as the driver for constructing genuine learning communities in contrast to teams that just planned together.
We held a leadership retreat, where Heads of Department concluded that we learn in teams by:
They posited that we lead team learning by:
Finally, they considered that we can reflect on and share team learning by:
As a school, we are discovering the value of discussion protocols. Protocols enable educators to deeply examine student work and teacher tasks, and address problems of practice. They create a team learning structure where everyone contributes and reflects. Large numbers of protocols are available from the websites of the US-based School Reform Initiative and the National School Reform Faculty. Both organizations also offer excellent training in how to lead team learning. Some helpful examples include:
At our retreat, Head of Department Matt reflected, “The revelation for me at this conference has been the effectiveness of ‘the protocol.’ The structure it brings to discussion and the fact that it is a very inclusive way of dealing with a problem or discussing a strategy. I think this is going to be a very valuable tool for our department when trying to move forward with certain issues.”
One of our telling insights has been that language is important and there is a difference between teacher “learning” and teacher “work.” Clearly we can do something collaboratively in teams that goes beyond our usual daily preparation. One Head of Department reflected, “I think the desire to make our teams a place of learning is being resisted. I wonder if we can accurately describe resource development and new ideas being implemented as learning. Is developing a new assessment task for Year 9 really learning? Perhaps co-creation does involve learning but this seems to be a question that is still being worked out.”
As we seek to create a school that genuinely learns, we are continuing to wonder: Would cross-curricular teams operate more effectively than subject-specific teams? Are Heads of Department the best people to lead learning teams? How can we bring more students into the conversations we are having about their learning?
Killing off PD days and transitioning to team-oriented learning environments seems to have been a crucial first step on the journey for us, but there are still significant challenges. Two years down the track, some departments are flying with the new changes: building community, extending the team’s vision, and creatively designing fantastic learning opportunities for students. Others wish for the way things used to be, rely too much on one individual to drive “team learning,” and wonder what they will do with all of the team time they have been allocated. In a strange twist, some teachers have gone from complaining that there was not enough time to work/learn together, to complaining that there is now too much team time.
The critical signposts that enable us to know that we are enroute from “work” to “learning” are the clear provision of regular sustained time to learn together; the acceptance of structures, routines, and protocols to guide our learning; documenting and giving visibility to our learning; the use of evidence and work samples to keep us focused; and ensuring that we are all regularly pushed and challenged towards greater understanding. The team that has made this change most successfully spent time building a team ethos before breaking into small self-selected groups to attack an issue of personal professional interest and later report back to the whole team. The greatest changes seem to have been ensuring that team members have a voice, all are listened to, and everyone takes responsibility for the success of the team.
Barth, R., (2002). The Culture Builder. Educational Leadership. May, 59 (8), 6-11.
Breidenstein A., et al (2012). Leading for Powerful Learning: A guide for instructional leaders. New York: Teachers College Press.
Edmondson, A. (2012). Teaming: How organisations, learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Elmore, R. (2011). Leadership for Instructional Improvement class,.Harvard Graduate School of Education. Spring.
National School Reform Faculty. Retrieved from: http://www.nsrfharmony.org/protocol/a_z.html
School Reform Initiative. Retrieved from: http://www.schoolreforminitiative.org/protocol-alphabetical-list-2/
Senge. P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation. Milsons Point: Random House.