Guest Author: Pamela Adams, University of Lethbridge – School leaders and central office administration often express to me their frustration or uncertainty that, despite all good intentions, and not insignificant amount of funding, the jury is still out on the extent to which professional development translates into enhanced teaching practices or increased student learning. For their part, teachers report that they are not always inspired, motivated, or activated by their profession development experiences; that even after the most informative conference or provoking guest speaker, restraints and demands of schools simply do not afford them time to apply their new ideas in a systematic and purposeful way.
For years, I’ve been curious about the kinds of shifts that can be made in thinking about and delivering professional growth experiences that are more likely to captivate teachers and mobilize them to convert their learnings into student learning. I was pleased, then, to present at the RVSD Research Conference in August, where we considered this and other questions about professional learning and instructional practice. At the conference, I provided the synopsis of a recent study titled Implementing a Coordinated and Comprehensive Professional Learning Framework, conducted over four years with 175 teachers, administrators, central office staff, and student teachers across south and central Alberta. During this study, I was able to explore ways in which the use of an alternate paradigm of professional learning—collaborative inquiry— might impact teaching practice and student learning.
It turns out that using an inquiry-based model of growth to guide teachers’ professional learning attends to a number of areas that teachers appreciate (for the full report, please contact me). It is a personalized process that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual teachers, even as the work is easily aligned with school and district goals and the provincial Teaching Quality Standard. It is collaborative and based on professional dialogue about learning and growth in teaching effectiveness. It is appropriately accountable and evidence-based, yet honors the notion of shared responsibility.
The study produced some other commentary around the processes, structures, and delivery of professional learning, including the following:
- Who should be responsible for professional learning?
Participants felt that teachers should play a very important role in this regard, taking initiative, ownership, and responsibility for engaging in reflective practice and sharing with colleagues. Participants also felt that, as an equal partners in teacher professional learning, school administrators were very important in creating the climate and structures that would support teachers’ goal setting and achievement, particularly those that involved taking risks and trying alternate instructional strategies. Central Office leadership was seen to be next in importance in supporting teacher professional learning; participants suggested that it was the role of central office to articulate, align, and establish the structures that would promote collaboration and authentic learning.
- What structures are essential to support professional learning?
Participants identified specific types of on-site structures, such as changes in timetables and release time, to encourage and sustain collaboration, self-reflection, a sense of community and learning. The notion of job embedded and site embedded time was identified as the most valuable in facilitating personalized and collective goal achievement.
- What strategies would strengthen teachers’ commitment to integrating their learning into practice?
Participants saw collaborative inquiry and communities of practice as two strategies that were very important ways to strengthen educators’ sustained participation in professional learning. These two strategies were defined by three characteristics: regularly scheduled time to meet, talk, and learn; a process based on inquiry and curiosity; participation based on the role of teacher-as-researcher.
- What types of leadership activities facilitate professional learning?
Participants suggested that school leaders were very important contributors to teacher learning and that they could facilitate growth in several ways. First and foremost, all participants agreed that in order to enhance teacher learning, school leaders must couch all professional development in the language of student learning. Next, participants suggested that teachers are more likely to engage in professional learning when school leaders do the following:
- Provide explicit permission to innovate and think differently about teaching
- Model reflection and professional learning as an expectation of practice
- Meet often to help teachers achieve their professional goals
- Put into place collaborative structures and strategies to promote team learning
I look forward to having further conversations about these ideas. Please feel free to contect me at firstname.lastname@example.org.