Transformational professional learning: What, why, how and what now?

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Below is the text of a piece I wrote late last year for the Independent Education magazine on transformational professional learning (Issue 1, Vol 50, 2020, pp.32-33).

I am sharing it here because now, more than ever, teachers and school leaders are changing our practice. This global crisis–and our experiences of emergency teaching, rethinking schooling, distance learning, pandemic pedagogy, redesigning or cancelling assessments, isolation, sickness, empathy and community–is changing what we do and how we do it. We are revisiting the basics such as ‘Maslow before Bloom’, explored here in our independent report on Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic (Doucet et al., 2020).

Ways in which professional learning is happening during this pandemic include:

  • Job-embedded ‘learning as we go’, trying, iterating and refining practice as we go.
  • Colleagues helping colleagues with planning, learning technologies, remote pedagogy, feedback strategies and ways of assessing.
  • Webinars offered by professional learning providers.
  • Schools, where possible, providing one-on-one, online, or telephone support from IT, either internally or from outside experts.
  • Social media platforms in which teachers, school and system leaders, and education organisations around the world are sharing resources, processes and learnings as they address education needs in this uncertain time.

Many may emerge from our current situation having also changed what we believe about teaching, learning, assessing and the purpose of school. As I note in the article, however:

“Teachers and school leaders won’t change practice unless they believe the outcomes for those in their care will be better.”

Are some of the things we are now implementing better for our students? Are we desperate to get back to our old ‘normal’, or are the things we are learning now enhancing equity, improving practice and helping us to make better decisions for students?

As I say in this previous blog post, in considering our ‘next normal’ we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is it that we’ve desperately missed that we want to bring back in to schooling and education?
  • What is it that’s been removed that we don’t want to return to?

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In 2019 my book—Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools—was published. The book weaves together what research literature says about professional learning, what my doctoral study found about professional learning, and the insights my own personal and professional experiences have provided about professional learning. This approach reflects my belief that we get the best outcomes in education when we consider research alongside context, lived experience and professional judgement. Education is, after all, a complex human endeavour, and the answer to the question ‘What works?’ is often ‘It depends’. As my co-editors and I suggest in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, a better question might be: ‘What matters?’ or ‘What should matter?’ (Netolicky et al., 2019).

Professional learning matters because it is a key way for us to make education better, but the way we define, implement, engage in, and seek to determine the effectiveness of professional learning also matters.

In this article I outline the what, why, and how of transformational professional learning for teachers and school leaders. What is it? Why care about it? How do we do it?

What is transformational professional learning?

Many professional learning providers offer certified hours of professional learning. But—just as our students haven’t necessarily learned because we’ve taught something—attending a professional development course or event  does not automatically mean that meaningful learning has occurred. In fact, my doctoral research found that professional learning for educators is highly individualised. Those experiences that shape our beliefs and practices can be professional and personal, formal and informal, in and out of educational contexts, and singular and collaborative (Netolicky, 2016a, 2016b).

Transformational professional learning—learning that makes a difference in and for schools—as I define it, is “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals. It is tied to an individual’s personal and professional identity” (Netolicky, 2020, p.18).

My framing of transformational professional learning draws on the work of Professor Ellie Drago-Severson and Dr Jessica Blum-DeStefano (2018) who describe transformational learning as that which actively changes how a person knows through shifts in cognition, emotion, and capacity. This learning influences our ways of knowing as well as what we know. My definition also resonates with the work of Associate Professor Nicole Mockler (2013) who argues that teachers’ professional learning is deeply tied to who we are, not just what we do or how we do it.

Transformational professional learning acknowledges the complexity and humanity of teaching. Learning that transforms what we do needs to also shape who we think we are as teachers, and what we believe is in the best interests of our students. Teachers and school leaders won’t change practice unless they believe the outcomes for those in their care will be better.

Why transformational professional learning?

It is important that we in education care about and work towards incorporating transformational professional learning in the practice of systems, schools and individuals.

Part of the argument for a focus on professional learning is that teacher professional learning is positively correlated to improvement in student learning and achievement. Teachers learning and improving their knowledge and skills, it is argued, reaps dividends for students in those teachers’ classrooms.

Teachers are additionally required to undertake professional learning as part of their work. In Australia the minimum figure is twenty hours per year. Teachers are required to reflect on and be assessed against professional standards. In Australia, the sixth of seven standards is to ‘engage in professional learning.’

Wellbeing is also a consideration for professional learning. We need to ask the question: Is the professional learning undertaken adding to workloads, or empowering teachers and school leaders to be valued, autonomous professionals? Processes such as coaching and effective collaboration have the potential to enhance and support the wellbeing of teachers and school leaders.

So not only is professional learning a way to improve student outcomes, it is also a professional requirement and a potential tool for wellbeing.

How do we ‘do’ transformational professional learning?

As I say on the Teachers’ Education Review podcast in an interview with Cameron Malcher (2019), knowing what might work best in professional learning helps us to make better decisions. Being informed about what research suggests is most likely to be effective in shaping teacher beliefs and practices, can constructively influence what kinds of professional learning we invest in, and how we go about implementing those for positive results for students, teachers, schools and systems.

The best professional learning—that is, learning most likely to be transformational—comprises a balance of high support and high challenge. It is targeted and ongoing. It is differentiated for context, sector, circumstance and the individual.

In schools and systems, effective professional learning interventions are underpinned by shared vision and are implemented slowly, initially using volunteers, applying judicious measures of success and generating honest feedback from stakeholders to inform, iterate and refine the model for its specific context.

Those professional learning forms backed by research and practice include:

  • professional learning communities;
  • observation and reflection processes, such as lesson study and instructional rounds;
  • post-graduate study;
  • mentoring; and
  • coaching.

Daily collaboration between teachers within and between schools also fits the brief of collaborative, targeted, ongoing learning, as do long-term relationships between schools and consultants or academics.

Professional learning is one-size-fits-one, so not all transformational professional learning is collaborative or ongoing. Attending a course or conference can also provide an ‘a-ha’ moment for a teacher. Deeply positive or negative professional experiences can change our beliefs and behaviours. Personal experiences, too, such as becoming a parent or travelling, can shape professional identities and shift the ways in which we interact with students and their families.

As is the case for our students, enjoying ourselves or having a nice time does not equal learning. We can feel engaged and energised without learning occurring. We can be in a room with colleagues without effective collaboration actually happening. One thing I have learned as a school leader is to seek out dissenting views and seek to understand them. We need to be okay with discomfort and with respectful, robust disagreement if we are to transform our beliefs and practices for the benefit of our students and communities.

What now?

There is a danger that professional learning is driven by political, corporate or school improvement agendas. Rather than surrendering our professional judgement to those citing league tables, standardised tests or products for sale, we must reclaim professional learning for teachers and school leaders in ways that makes a difference for and with students.

While there is a place for evaluation, we need to focus our efforts on growth, not systems of rewards and punishments that seek to pit teachers and schools against one another. Rhetoric of teachers, schools or education systems ‘failing’, ‘coasting’, ‘flat lining’ and ‘falling behind’, based on oversimplified measures, is unhelpful and harmful. Schools benefit from designing their own measures of the success of professional learning interventions in their own context. Schools can ask: How might we know that conversations are more productive, that teachers are more knowledgeable about teaching strategies, or that the student experience at our school is shifting? Rather than relying on the measures imposed by others, schools can look for indicators of the successes to which they are aspiring, which might be relational, conversational and emotional, rather than numerical or easily quantified.

As I write in Transformational Professional Learning, we teachers and school leaders “are not objects that need professional learning done to us, or incomplete entities requiring development by external forces acting upon us. We are capable professionals who are willing and able to take responsibility for our learning” (2020, p.123). We are not technicians enacting unthinking compliance, but experts looking to grow and develop over time.

In the conclusion, I argue that we need to do the following:

  • Consider identity and humanity, because those in schools are human beings and teaching is complex;
  • Offer voice and choice, differentiating professional learning for staff at different career stages and with different strengths and aspirations;
  • Focus on context, culture, and relationships;
  • Enable collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, and sometimes uncomfortable;
  • Broaden our definition of professional learning; and
  • Invest time, money, and resources into professional learning.

Professional learning should empower, enrich and sustain our profession, not undermine, stifle or demoralise it. So, let’s focus on building and refining cultures of trust, collaboration, and vibrant professional conversation. Let’s give teachers the space, time and resources to identify and improve their knowledge, skills and understandings. Let’s work towards being and becoming the best educators we can be, by simultaneously pursuing individual goals, organisational goals, and the greater good.

References

Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2018). Leading change together: Developing educator capacity within schools and systems. Alexandria: ASCD.

Malcher, C. (2019). 2019, 27 October. Teachers’ Education Review [Audio podcast]. ‘TER #141 – Transformational Professional Learning with Deborah Netolicky’ Retrieved from: https://soundcloud.com/ter-podcast/ter-141-transformational .

Mockler, N. (2013). Teacher professional learning in a neoliberal age: Audit, professionalism and identity. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38(10), 35-47.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Abingdon: Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016a). Down the rabbit hole: Professional identities, professional learning, and change in one Australian school (Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University).

Netolicky, D. M. (2016b). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of professional capital and community, 1(4), 270-285.

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J., & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

COVID-19 forces educational and societal reform

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The last couple of weeks have been hectic around the world and the pace of change at all levels has been rapid and relentless. In Australian schools, leadership teams and teachers have been preparing for distance learning. Parents have been making decisions about whether or not to send their children to school. Worry in households and panic in shopping centres have reached climactic levels. School leaders are doing their best to remain calm and methodical while preparing their schools for what seems like imminent closure in the near future.

It is surreal to watch corporate and education reform happen at such a rapid rate. We are reforming the workplace and rethinking how we go about our work. We are reimagining how we interact and collaborate. We are reframing education and redesigning schooling on the fly.

Those who have been calling for the abolition of standardised tests and the rethinking of university entrance are seeing education systems transform before their eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancelling of standardised tests (GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK; NAPLAN in Australia so far) and the consequent abolishing of league tables derived from these tests. Those who have been calling for the end of traditional schooling are seeing the swift move to remote learning and the upskilling of teachers in learning technologies and online platforms.

Australian teachers and school leaders, whose jobs are already incredibly complex, are supporting increasingly anxious students and parents. They are communicating work to students who are not coming to school. They are preparing for a move to teaching remotely. They are considering how learning might look different, authentic and meaningful when done from home. They are considering issues of equity and access for their communities. They are worrying about their own children, parents, families, livelihood, groceries.

Educators are collaborating within schools, they are collaborating with other schools. They are sharing their distance learning plans and teaching resources, because as a profession and as a society, we are better together.

We are one society, one humanity. All of our jobs and job descriptions are now in flux. What does our workplace, our clientele, our society need now, at this moment in time? Grounded flight attendants stocking supermarket shelves? Military personnel assisting surgical-mask-producing and toilet-paper-manufacturing facilities? Consultants training teachers to use online technologies? Office staff filling bottles with hand sanitiser and disinfecting workplace surfaces? All of us rearranging furniture and staying at a distance from one another?

We are needed in new ways, and there is an almost wartime redeployment of labour and a need for banding together as whole workplaces, as a whole society and as a whole world.

This is a time for us all to think about what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can, even though isolation feels like it goes against our biology. We can consider carefully where we get our information, and how we respond to that information. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another, and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action.

During the current crisis, Canadians began a ‘caremongering not scaremongering’ campaign. This week is Kindness Week, a week to think about how we move beyond fear and individualism to compassion and courage. Australia has not yet seen the full force of COVID-19 and its real, human ramifications. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.

Innovation in schools

Today I’m home from a thought-provoking day of professional learning workshops: Jan Owen on building the education ecosystem and Peter Hutton on creating an adaptive culture for school transformation.

An ecosystem is a complex community of interconnected organisms in which each part, no matter how seemingly small, has an active, agentic part to play in the community. There are constant interdependent relationships and influences. The notion of an ecosystem of education resonates with Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s third Adaptive Schools underlying principle of what they call ‘nonlinear dynamical’ systems: that tiny events create major disturbances. This principle reflects the way change often happens. The little things we change or do can have unexpected, chaotic, incremental effects that are difficult to quantify or not immediately noticeable.

As we consider the education ecosystem, to what extent is innovation needed in education?

Certainly, there is a case often made for the need for radical change in education and schooling. Often the future of work is cited, the jobs not yet invented, automation and artificial intelligence disrupting industry. Jan Owen today spoke of globalisation, the flexible economy, job clusters, the need for meaning and purpose in work, diversity, equity, enterprise skills, micro-credentialing and the need for ongoing workplace learning. The Gonski 2.0 report talks about individualised learning, tracking student data, increased emphasis on teaching General Capabilities, and community partnerships as ways to address ‘declining performance’ and improve apparently ‘cruising schools’.

Skills and capabilities are increasingly the focus of futures-focused thinking in education. But knowledge remains crucial. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said in his speech to the 2018 Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference:

“I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and 6 before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down. They were asking for T-shapes, and getting flat lines – but the flat line wasn’t lifted up and anchored by that all-important vertical pillar.”

We need people with specialist knowledge as well as transferrable skills. As I say to my students: we need to know stuff and also be able to do stuff.

French artists around 1900 depict the future of school. Source: publicdomainreview.org

Those commenting on the need for innovation in education often shown slides of classrooms that have students sitting at desks in rows. The argument is made that we have an industrial-age factory model of schooling in which inflexible schools manufacture homogenised experiences for students with little regard for difference, readiness, prior learning, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

And yet.

My research into and practical experience of schools and education is that today’s schools and classrooms are not factory-esque machines focused on creating compliant workers and unthinking drones. Audrey Watters wrote in 2015 about the invented history of the factory model of schooling, which she argues is used to justify the need for an ‘upgrade’.

To accuse schools and teachers of rigidly and unimaginatively churning students through regimented, authoritarian, one-size-fits-one education, is to do teachers, schools and school leaders a great disservice.

As I wrote recently: education is not broken and teachers do not need fixing. Education is not operating in the deep deficit that is sometimes the subject of media headlines, reports or popular rhetoric. Teachers deeply know their students. They use a range of data to adjust planning, teaching and assessment to address their students’ needs. They are experts in their fields who know their content and how to teach it. They use a range of resources and technologies to deepen content knowledge and skills, and to allow individualisation and accessibility of learning. They give a range of meaningful feedback. They build productive relationships with students, parents, one another and those in the wider community. Our teachers are working hard every day to empower students and develop their capabilities, relationships and citizenship as well as their knowledge and skills.

Yes, we can consider how to better structure schools and build in further agility. Yes, we can develop the ways in which we harness technologies to do education better. Yes, we can all work to improve our policies, processes and practices, to serve our students and communities more effectively. Yes, we can challenge the measures of success in education and the ways in which students, teachers, school leaders and schools are judged in terms of their positive impact. We can resist external pressures and consider what really matters. We can imagine and enact better ways of doing things. We can consider relevance, authenticity, values, purpose, agency, identity. We can respectfully challenge one another and those leading education systems. We can advocate for our students, families, communities, teachers and school leaders, their learning, their voice, their wellbeing.

Flip the System Australia argues for equity and democracy, and for the elevation and amplification of those in schools and classrooms: students, teachers, school leaders. As Adam Brooks said at the Perth launch of the book: We (teachers and school and system leaders) are the system. We can drive change from the ground up, as the original Flip the System book argues. Peter Hutton today challenged those educators present to “do what you can do now.” “Do what you’re allowed to do,” he said, “and then do a little bit more.”

For me, innovation in education is about interrogating where voice, power and agency reside. It is worth asking: who has power and influence? Who has control of measures, expectations, systems, norms and processes? Who has autonomy, voice and ownership? And what can we each do, now, that is productive and meaningful for our students?