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.

INTERVIEW: Collaboration in schools

Deb WES pic

I was recently interviewed by Ben Reeves, ahead of the Wisdom in Education Summit to be held in May at Wesley College in Melbourne. At the conference, which aims to explore collaborative practices that enhance student learning, I will be speaking on collaboration that makes transformational professional learning possible. Other speakers include Andy Hargreaves, Summer Howarth, Tracey Ezard and Selena Fisk.

A snippet of the interview appears below.

This is the part where we talked about collaboration that might be transformational, rather than collaboration done as unthinking practice of being together as a group, or as a practice of feeling good rather than really doing good work together.

Ben: What makes collaboration a type of transformative learning, rather than merely a group meeting; or feeling good in a team; or perhaps least desirably, a toxic team environment?

Me: What is often called ‘collaboration’ doesn’t necessarily involve or incite learning, let alone that which is transformational. Putting a group of people in a room together does not mean collaboration is happening. Feeling good, enjoying doing something in a group, or experiencing something fun or memorable together, also doesn’t mean learning, growth or effective practice is happening. Politely agreeing with each other is another way that being in a team or group becomes about compliance and forced harmony, a kind of pretend collegiality where members nod or remain silent, waiting for a meeting to be over or avoiding conflict at all costs.

Our best and most transformational collaborative work comes when a group can engage respectfully in productive conflict with one another, using data analysis and dialogue to find a solution to a shared problem for which they take collective responsibility. High-functioning groups are those who can gracefully and robustly challenge one another within an environment of trust and psychological safety, while adhering to agreed norms of behaviour, using skills of effective collaboration, and employing deliberate collaborative structures.

So often in schools, teachers or leaders get together in meetings, teams or committees. However, these crucibles of apparent collaboration have no guarantee of actually allowing effective collaboration to occur. Sometimes we seem to be meeting because there is a meeting in the calendar, because it’s ‘what we do’, or because we’re expected to meet. How do we make meetings, team work or professional collaboration effective or even transformational? As I indicate in the response above, true collaboration requires skills, norms and intentionality.

In my book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools I spend a chapter discussing collaborative professional learning and collaboration as a  vehicle for learning. In it, I explore examples such as professional learning communities and lesson study. On his recent trip to Australia, Michael Fullan pointed to the key takeaways from that chapter. In my book I outline them like this:

  • Professional collaboration can benefit students and teachers, but needs to be deliberately designed around research-based principles and practices. Putting educators in a room together is not enough!
  • Professional collaboration should be based on the clear shared purpose of improving outcomes for students, by developing teachers in meaningful and sustained ways.
  • Key to collaborative professional learning are relationships, norms, protocols, processes, and data analysis that allow productive conflict, collective responsibility, and peer accountability. Getting along, enjoying the process, or patting each other on the back, does not equal collaboration.
  • Examples of effective collaborative professional learning modes include professional learning communities, observation and reflection processes (such as instructional rounds and lesson study), moderation marking meetings, less formal peer observation, collaboration over curriculum planning, and interrogation of research literature in journal or book clubs.
  • Within school and between school collaboration should be considered.

Michael summarised these points in the following slide.

Fullan TPL pic

You can read the interview in its entirety on LinkedIn here. In addition to collaboration, Ben asked me about pracademia, praxis, identity and transformation.