Opt-in interest groups for teacher professional learning

Source: pixabay.com by @rawpixel

I wrote earlier this year about the individualised professional learning pathways model that my school is trialing this year. Teachers and leaders are now able to have more voice and choice in the internal process of professional learning in which they engage. Where before staff were allocated a school-based development process (such as coaching) based on their place in a three-to-four year cycle, we have in 2018 opened up a range of new options and each staff member negotiates with their line manager the one most appropriate to their career stage, interest and development needs.

One of these options is what we are terming ‘Professional Learning Groups’. These groups have been opted into by staff from PK to 12, from various faculties, and in a variety of roles including teachers, leaders and staff from libraries or co-curricular arenas. This year, of our 140-odd teaching staff, 40 chose to be involved in one of these groups, so each group includes about ten people. The following groups were on offer.

  • Teaching best practice
      • Members of this group have a particular interest in teasing out classroom teaching. From evidence-based methods to transfer to ensuring that they are able to ‘reach’ all students in their classes, they have come with a desire to focus on their core business as teachers: teaching!
  • Pedagogies of learning spaces
      • This group is made up of a range of teachers and leaders working in various learning spaces across the school, some of which are newly refurbished and some of which are well-established. There has so far been vibrant discussion and sharing of the practices, challenges, and benefits of co-teaching and teaching in open or flexible spaces.
  • ICT for teaching and learning
      • Members of this group have a range of expertise and needs surrounding the use of technologies for teaching and learning. They have so far been very interested in one another’s expertise and also in the targets each person is setting for themselves, and challenges each is facing. They have been able to offer one another advice.
  • Post-graduate study
      • My idea for this group came about when I was doing my PhD. Working in a school while moonlighting as a post-graduate student can be incredibly isolating as you rush from work to study. There are often few people with whom teachers and leaders can discuss their study, especially when it involves self-directed research. This group is as much about solidarity, support, recognition and acknowledgement of those engaged in further study as it is about research methods or dissertation writing.

As the recent Gonski 2.0 report surfaced, teachers would like time to talk about and collaborate around teaching. Groups like these can provide this opportunity. While from the outset I had a loose idea of what these groups would do—such engage in scholarly literature, reflect and workshop problems of practice together, share practice, visit one another’s classrooms, collaborate in online spaces—I am facilitating them in a way that allows the group’s interests and needs to lead the way the group operates. This means employing structures for collaboration and coaching-style language, but in a way that is open to the groups operating in ways that are unexpected or taking directions that are surprising. These are not groups at which I am the expert at the helm or the instructor filling colleagues with my knowledge. They are groups of expert practitioners whose value is in the rich expertise around the table, and the potential of professional conversation and collaboration about our daily work.

Each person has come to each group with a particular intention, and we fleshed these out in our first meetings. The opt-in nature of the groups has meant that staff have generally arrived with enthusiasm for being involved; they have chosen this pathway for themselves. As my leadership role is PK-12, and in a previous role I coached classroom teachers across the school around their classroom practice, I get to see the potential symbiosis between disparate areas of the school (like the co-teaching in Year 3 and in Year 11 Physics, literacy approaches from PK-12, common strategies for behaviour management and developing classroom culture or addressing students with particular learning needs), but many staff do not have the opportunity to see the connections between themselves and others in the organisation. How might a Year 12 Design and Technology teacher know that their design thinking process mirrors that of the Pre-Primary classroom? The luxury of spending time with colleagues who share similar interests and challenges cannot be underestimated, especially in the environment of a PK-12 school where so often we can be siloed in our year level or faculty teams. So far there seem real benefits to those from vastly different areas of the school workshopping similar challenges and goals, ones they may not have known they shared with colleagues until coming together.

Teachers and school leaders need professional learning opportunities that are at once self-chosen and self-directed, but also collaborative and supported. Often internal expertise goes unrecognised and untapped in schools. Looking outside and borrowing others’ practice has its benefits, but schools can and should consider the expertise of those within their own walls, rather than looking tirelessly to external ‘experts’. Teachers are experts in their own classrooms. School leaders are experts in their own school contexts. They deserve to be recognised as such, and to be given time and permission to deeply and collectively engage in the core aspects of their work.

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The power of clear messaging

Cervantes sign

Cervantes sign

While professional learning is the internal process of knowing, learning and becoming, professional development tends to refer to activities, courses, sessions, talks or conferences that teachers attend, voluntarily or otherwise. While it’s more trendy now to say ‘CPD’ (continuing professional development) than ‘PD’, one-off rather than sustained learning continues to pepper the lives of teachers as they and their schools attempt to improve themselves, keep up to date with the profession and meet legal and professional requirements.

The Australian school year has begun, which means that teachers have been given the opportunity to enjoy or endure staff days. Staff days prior to the commencement of the academic year tend to include time for planning, collaboration and setting up classrooms, as well as guest speakers, seminars or the kind of scattergun PD that hopes to land somewhere in the audience and maybe make a difference.

How do schools make decisions as to what kinds of development, collaboration and individual growth they facilitate for their staff? Especially in light of provocative reports like that from the TNTP (2015), The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development, which suggested that we do not yet know what helps teachers to improve the quality of their instruction? The TNTP report (of a two year study into teacher professional learning of over 10,000 teachers and 500 school leaders in three USA public school districts) found that, despite schools and systems investing time and money into professional learning of teachers, no clear patterns emerged to suggest which deliberate efforts improved teacher performance, as measured by teacher evaluation scores (using the education district’s final evaluation score, calculated using the district’s official methodology).

The TNTP report did note one school system whose teachers and students consistently performed better and improved more than the three public school districts. The report states that this better-performing, teacher-developing system had a more disciplined and coherent system for teacher development, a clear vision of success, and a network-wide culture of high expectations and continuous growth. Coherent system. Clear vision. Cohesive culture.

This year, my school decided not to invite a dizzyingly inspirational guest speaker or enlist the services of an external expert to run PD with our staff on those days. Instead our focus was on honouring, respecting and utilising internal expertise, and on communicating clear messaging around the school’s strategic priorities for the year. Valuing tacit knowledge and lived professional experience was important, as the strategic priorities were not new, either for the school or in education. The message, from the school executive and senior leadership team, to teachers, psychologists, education assistants and non-teaching staff, was that there are three key priorities for the year, summarised as three simple words. And that none of these was new, but rather things that teachers and non-teachers engage in every day, in and out of their classrooms.

What we aimed to do on our staff days was what Hargreaves and Shirley describe in their book The fourth way: The inspirational future for educational change as “explore the nitty gritty challenges of their practice through thoughtful exchanges with colleagues and in relation to relevant research” (2009, p. 93). We provided presentations from internal experts and leaders, including a panel of community members, as well as accessible readings and time for colleagues to collaborate with one another, both in their teams and with others from across the school.

The sense I got from our staff days was that staff were:

  • Relieved at the lack of new initiatives and the deliberate slowness in rolling out current projects; we continue to move forward, but in a measured way.
  • Comfortable with the clarity, simplicity and consistency of the messaging.
  • Grateful to be informed of and included in the strategic direction of the school.
  • Energised by the opportunity to work in a structured way with colleagues, around how the school’s strategic priorities would come alive in their own contexts.

I am often inspired by Ellie Drago-Severson’s work on adult learning, and the notion of the ‘holding environment’ as one of high support and high challenge, where people feel both ‘held’ and encouraged to be their best. Additionally, plenty of literature around school change talks about the need for shared vision, as does the 2016 ACER Professional Learning Community Framework for Australian schools. It is worth considering at length how to share school vision with the community so that it is lived, breathed, understood and propelled by those across the organisation. Everyone from the principal to parents and students have a part to play in knitting a community together around a common purpose. This year, those three words communicated from the executive down are helping to bind our community more closely together with common vision and shared purpose.

Everyone is coachable: we are all capable of change & growth

All who wish to continually improve their craft … never lose the need to be coached. ~ Art Costa & Bob Garmston

dedicated to those who dream, by @debsnet

I was recently asked a question on Twitter: ‘Are some teachers un-mentorable?’ My response was along the lines of, ‘No-one is unmentorable or uncoachable; a person always has the capacity for growth.’ This belief underpins my ideas about school change and my school’s teacher growth model on which I presented at researchED conference in Sydney and ACEL in Melbourne.

In scholarly literatures, coaching (sometimes used interchangeable with the term ‘mentoring’, such as in the writings of Ellie Drago-Severson, who I talked with last year) seems to be divided into expert coaching and peer coaching.

Expert coaching involves an expert or master who provides guidance to a less-experienced apprentice. This includes Jim Knight’s instructional coaching in which the expert instructional coach provides judgements, feedback and suggestions, based on their expertise.

The other kind of coaching is peer or reciprocal coaching in which someone is paired with those of a similar level of expertise. These peers proceed to coach or mentor each other in a collaborative and non-hierarchical way. This approach, which is intended to develop a collaborative learning culture as well as the individual’s practice, includes models like instructional rounds, in which teachers form small professional learning groups which collectively work to enhance their practice.

Both coaching trends are based on use of data for growth (in a teaching sense, this would be some kind of classroom observation data) but are underpinned by different principles and beliefs. Expert coaching models assume that people learn best when someone with more knowledge and experience provides them with specific, targeted feedback for improvement, while the peer coaching models assumes that it is by working together that we can improve.

One form of coaching which can be conducted by a peer or an expert is Costa and Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching which is based in brain research like this which suggests that we are most likely to grow when we do thinking ourselves, rather than receive thoughts doled out by others. Cognitive Coaching focuses on developing individuals as self-directed learners who consciously reflect upon, conceptualise and apply understandings from one experience to the next. It is a data-based, non-judgemental, developmental and reflective model for conversations for planning, reflecting and problem resolving, as well as a tool for developing professional communities that value interdependence and individual capacity for self-directed learning.

The goal of Cognitive Coaching is the growth of individual and organisation through the development both of autonomy (of the individual) and interdependence (the development of a holonomous organisational culture in which individuals function as both autonomous, independent individuals and interdependent, responsive members of the larger system).

Unlike expert models of coaching which involve specific coach feedback, judgements and suggestions, Cognitive Coaching involves mediated processing. The Cognitive coach does not offer judgements, feedback or advice, but asks ‘artfully vague’ questions or presents impartial observational or other data, followed by silence, in order to encourage the cognitive and reflective processes of the teacher. There is certainly an art to the asking of well-crafted cognition-provoking questions, as I have found in my journey as a coach. This approach is intended to create personal change through new connections in the brain and reconstruct knowledge through a conscious, reflective approach to new experiences.

By avoiding positive and negative value judgements and opinion, by coaching ‘without manipulation,’ Cognitive Coaching aims to transform an individual’s beliefs about learning and refine their cognitive maps by encouraging them to talk and think about their decisions. In this way, talking aloud leads to examination and refinement of choices and behaviours.

The use of a Cognitive Coaching process for teacher learning and development is supported by Charlotte Danielson’s work (you can find my conversation with Charlotte here) in which she notes that mentors, supervisors, evaluators and colleagues should beware of imposing their own styles or preferences when observing. The question is not “Is this how I would do it?” but “Given the context, what is appropriate?” She also advises that classroom observations must be accompanied by conferences before and after observed lessons.

My own experiences as cognitive coach and coachee have shown me the power of this kind of coaching to allow people’s own internal resources to kick in to gear, their own passions and thinking to light up, and their confidence to solve their own problems and forge their own paths to soar. It has shown me the power of really being listened to and being given a safe, trusting place in which to verbally explore situations. It has also shown me that when you own your ‘a-ha’ moments, the learning sticks. Change happens. Practice shifts.

So, returning to the question of the uncoachable or unmentorable teacher, I wonder about the intent of the coaching or mentoring.

Cognitive Coaching aims to ‘convey a valued person from where they are, to where they want to be.’ There are some important assumptions being made here. The person is valued. They are assumed to be motivated and capable of reflection and growth. And they are helped on their learning journey to a destination to which they aspire. This model of coaching is not a deficiency model based on where the manager wishes the person would go or what an expert has identified as an area of growth. It is about the person. And. Where. THEY. Want. To. Go.

Do I believe that absolutely any teacher, any person, can be coached or mentored into professional growth? Absolutely.

We believe that all human beings are capable of change, that we continue to grow cognitively throughout our lifetime and that we all possess a vast reservoir of untapped potential. ~ Art Costa & Bob Garmston

buddha, by @debsnet

Social media for teacher professional learning

Teaching is forever an unfinished profession … never complete, never conquered, always being developed, always changing. Grundy & Robison, 2004

One thing that is emerging from my PhD research into teacher learning is the power of social media, Twitter in particular, as a professional learning tool and community.

For educators and researchers, Twitter means we can find like-minded individuals, even when those in our own organisations don’t share our passions or practices.

Social media connects us outside of our physical sphere – our schools, districts and countries – to professionals, thinkers and writers around the world who generate and share information, ideas, practices and activism which inspires, incites or affirms us.

Imagine my delight when global school change titan Andy Hargreaves responded to my first (ever) blog post. Here was social media linking me to one of education’s thought leaders whose work shapes my classroom teaching, my school leadership practice and my PhD research.

In 2013, Kathryn Holmes, Greg Preston, Kylie Shaw and Rachel Buchanan published a paper which found that “Twitter is a valuable conduit for accessing new and relevant educational resources on the internet and also as a viable means of social support for like-minded educators. The cost effective nature of the microblogging platform ensures that it can act as a medium for sustained professional development, while leaving the individual participants to control and take ownership of the learning.” So Twitter can be socially and intellectually supportive, and it can facilitate and drive sustained engaged learning which is owned by the individual.

Jon Tait explains Twitter’s role as professional development platform in his blog post and has designed this infographic to summarise Twitter uses for teachers.

JonTait_TwitterTeacherInfographic

As I move for the first time from content curation to content creation (this being my second-ever blog post), the functions of the professional social media world and those who engage in it are a point of reflection.  Who will read my words and see my images? Who will interact with my thinking and add their own? How might social media support, connect and educate me?