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?