Key concepts for leading professional learning

A recent report purports to dispel myths about professional learning, including the apparent ‘commonly held’ beliefs that ‘professional learning is a waste of time and money’ and that ‘districts should implement research-based PL programs with no modifications’. These claims run counter to much literature around professional learning which argues that effective professional learning is a lever for improving student learning and achievement by improving teaching, and that context is crucial for any education model (and that therefore any model should be tailor fit to context).

This week I presented to a group of school leaders about leading professional learning. Part of my preparation for the presentation took me back to the roots of my work in this space, and those concepts I have come across that have stuck with me, become part of my thinking, and continue to anchor my work. I explain some of these below, in addition to others I discussed on the day, such as trust, context, teacher expertise, and teacher agency, self-determination and self-efficacy.

HOLONOMY

Holonomy is an ecological concept that has captured my attention for years, drawing together the individual and the larger system. Art Costa and Bob Garmston (2015) base their conception of holonomy on Arthur Koestler’s work around the word ‘holon’ as something which operates simultaneously as a part and a whole. Holonomy encapsulates the simultaneity that each person is both an independent individual and an interdependent part of the larger system, at once self-regulating, responsive to the organisation, and able to influence those around them.

This speaks to me of what we must consider when leading professional learning: balancing the needs of the individual and the needs of the organisation or system.

HOLDING ENVIRONMENT

Introduced to me through the outstanding work of Ellie Drago-Severson on leading adult learning, is the notion of the ‘holding environment’. With its roots in Donald Winnicott’s psychology concept, this is an environment of psychological safety in which members of the community or organisation feel ‘held’ in a culture of high care and high challenge.

Ellie was the first to really challenge me to consider how we honour where each adult learner is at, differentiate learning for adults in schools, and take an invitational, growth-focused approach to professional learning.

MEANINGFUL COLLABORATION

In Chapter 4 of Transformational Professional Learning, I explore that 1) collaboration does not happen by calling a group of people a ‘team’, or by organising for a group of people to be in a room together; and 2) feeling good working with colleagues is not professionally learning. Politeness, compliance, avoidance, and silence may make for an easy, harmonious-feeling meeting, but do not result in rigorous collective work that moves individual, team and organisation forward.

Rather, collaboration occurs when there is a clear shared purpose, collective accountability, collaborative norms, a focus on data to inform, and protocols for collaborative ways of working. Taking the time to create the conditions for skillful collaboration, to structure and nurture intentional collaborative practices, and to develop people’s skills in graceful disagreement and productive conflict, facilitates meaningful collaborative opportunities that develop teachers and positively impact students.

SEMANTIC SPACE

The importance of language is explored by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001), and Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman (2016). The notion of semantic space—‘how we talk around here’—is outlined by Stephen Kemmis and Hannu Heikkinen (2012), and Rachel Lofthouse and Elaine Hall (2014).

Talk defines and drives emotions, relationships, belonging and action. Talk is a terrific barometer of professional culture, allowing us insights into beliefs, values and behaviours. We can ask: What are the staff water cooler conversations like at our school? How do we collectively talk about our work and practice? What questions do we ask? What contributions do we make? What shared language, and ways of speaking and listening, do we use? How do we talk around here?

In a recent episode of my podcast, The Edu Salon, Adam Voigt says: “The language that the leaders of a culture use, shapes the kids that grow in it, and they leave speaking that way as a result. If you’re looking to transform culture you can’t do it without changing words.”

I have this year written on my office whiteboard something I remember Rachel Lofthouse saying at a conference in 2017:

The talk is the work.

We need to value, focus on, create space for, and put effort, intentionality, time, and learning, into the talk in our schools.

References

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2006). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools (2nd ed.). Heatherton, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Drago-Severson, E. (2004). Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development. Teachers College Press.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Rowman & Littlefield.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. John Wiley & Sons.

Kemmis, S., & Heikkinen, H. L. (2012). Future perspectives: Peer-group mentoring and international practices for teacher development. In Peer-group mentoring for teacher development (pp. 160-186). Routledge.

Lofthouse, R., & Hall, E. (2014). Developing practices in teachers’ professional dialogue in England: Using coaching dimensions as an epistemic tool. Professional Development in Education, 40(5), 758-778.

Netolicky, D. M. (2019). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Routledge.

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