Pathways, Promising Practices, Teaching, Well at Work

In the Beginning Was the Ballroom…

The changing face of professional learning

“What links all learning moments is there is a change in understanding, a shift in awareness, a movement of the soul.” – Coral Mitchell and Larry Sackney1

 There was a time not that long ago, before downloadable books and online libraries, before email and Google hangouts, before Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, before PLN’s and PLC’s, when the most familiar face of professional learning was the large convention centre, hotel ballroom or high school auditorium. It was a time when big-event professional development was the norm, when large groups of teachers would be gathered together to hear the latest wisdom from the latest experts on a topic usually chosen by someone not directly connected with their classroom context. There would likely be a keynote speaker, breakout sessions led by more outside experts, an opportunity to purchase resources from the large publishers’ display, and coffee – plenty of coffee.

At the end of the day, evaluation usually took the form of a brief survey requesting feedback on the sessions, the facility and the food. And then people headed back to their schools, their classrooms and their teaching lives.

It was a time before we spoke about professional learning, per se. Instead, the emphasis was on development, on training or simply on professional activity. Usually, the focus was on the delivery of information – a chance to add to what teachers already knew about their work or announce new policy directions – with little emphasis on how the message might be received, implemented or developed back in the classroom.

While there was talk of new approaches to classroom practice, there was not a great deal of emphasis on large-scale change, school improvement or even student achievement.

From the perspective of those in attendance, professional development days were “sit and git” experiences. From the perspective of those presenting and leading the events it was, to a large degree, “spray and pray,” the hope being that some of the seeds planted would fall on good soil and take root.

While you’ll still find evidence of this traditional approach in many school districts, the past decade has witnessed substantial changes in the learning dynamic experienced by educators. Large-scale events like the ones described here have become much less frequent, as “professional development,” or “PD,” has given way to a more intentional focus on “professional learning.”

Today, the primary site for most professional learning experiences is not the ballroom, but the classroom. Today, the implementation is less future-oriented (what I might try someday) and more focused on the “here and now” of our local contexts (what I need to try today). And most important, today a very direct line has been drawn between the learning of educators and the learning of their students.

This shift has opened up the professional learning landscape in interesting and exciting ways. The single-source PD experience has given way to formal professional learning communities and networks, regularly scheduled Twitter chats, personal blogging and podcasting projects, grassroots gatherings like EdCamps and Ignite events, as well as LinkedIn and Facebook discussion groups. Some of these approaches and initiatives have been given the stamp of approval by school districts, ministries of education and the research community. Others, while still operating under the radar of what is considered official practice, are beginning to gain momentum and are affecting the way that many educators around the world are thinking and talking about their professional learning lives.

The challenge

Yet this important opportunity comes wrapped in a challenge. In our efforts to ensure that our vision for professional learning is more finely tuned to the learning needs of our students, how might we avoid replacing the traditional one-size-fits-all form of PD with a one-size-fits-all approach to professional learning? Stated differently, how might we begin to see and create connections between the growing number of ways in which education professionals are able to engage in experiences that result in powerful learning for themselves, for their colleagues and for their students?

Just as the early astronomers mapped the night sky by observing patterns, is it possible for us to map out constellations that will guide and enrich our professional learning, allowing us to critically reflect on the value of the many burgeoning stars in this expanding system?

While many of the existing criteria for effective professional learning are helpful in assessing the value of individual experiences, they may be less useful in helping us to draw the important connections between our traditional approaches and some of the powerful models that are on the rise. Yet three strong themes emerging from the research base on professional learning hold particular promise in this quest for greater connectivity:

  • the need for learning experiences to challenge existing assumptions and draw in other perspectives;
  • a focus on the student;
  • the value of accessing outside expertise.

Challenging assumptions

An important factor in ensuring that learning events and experiences don’t simply allow us to reinforce common, yet quite possibly ineffective, practice is the introduction of provocations, information or input that forces us to challenge our assumptions.2 By actively recruiting evidence that counters our perspectives or the prevailing status quo,3 we come face to face with our values, beliefs, biases and dispositions. Welcoming this diversity of opinion is an essential part of the type of learning needed to substantially shift traditional practices; it is an important element in our professional learning.4

Many researchers and authors also point out the fact that we are not naturally predisposed to having our perspectives challenged. In fact, as Katz and Dack suggest, quite the opposite is true. We are wired to prefer that our view of the world remain largely undisturbed and unchallenged. For this reason, real, transformative learning is difficult and somewhat contentious.

Traditional PD events have been rather poor at providing this type of challenge. By contrast, collaborative, school-based Inquiry Teams, in theory, seem an ideal context for these challenging conversations. But depending on the size of a school team, the degree of trust and the presence of strong and courageous leadership, attempts to disturb thinking meet with varying levels of success.

The good news is that educators are actively and independently reaching out and engaging in this type of provocative behaviour in several contexts beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. Twitter conversations, particularly those that are organized around questions of practice, can often put participants in touch with alternative perspectives, research links that supply a selection of contradictory evidence and the space to enter into lively discussions.

The expanding blogosphere has become a place where the daily practice of educators – both the challenges and the successes – is often discussed rather explicitly, allowing for a unique type of normalization of learning struggles and opportunities that might otherwise remain hidden or secret in one’s own school. While comments are generally supportive, a growing trust and respect among participants is allowing for the type of diversity of perspective and challenge that can make learning come alive in a virtual setting.

This is a rich opportunity for provocative thinking, making contradictory evidence and ideas more accessible – an opportunity that can, at the very least, support and enhance conversations already taking place in the school setting. At its best, the conversations taking place outside of the local context have the potential to raise the bar on those that are happening at the school level.

Focus on the learner

One of the hallmarks of the school-based learning team is the ability to gather thinking and resources around a particular set of students and a particular set of challenges. In her work on professional learning, Helen Timperley presents a context for learning that conjures up the image of a set of Russian nesting dolls. Teachers are asked to consider what specific things these students need to learn to achieve greater success. Principals and school leaders are asked to consider what specific things these teachers need to learn in order to meet their student’s needs. In the same way, district leaders are asked to consider what specific things these school leaders need to learn in order to meet the needs of their teachers. Everyone has a class of learners to consider and the ability to hold these considerations in a local context is vital to being able to respond effectively.5

We are wired to prefer that our view of the world remain undisturbed and unchallenged. For this reason, real, transformative learning is difficult and somewhat contentious.

Gary Hoban offers a slightly different perspective by encouraging us to look at schools as a complex fabric, with many interrelated threads woven in and out, back and forth to create a rich context. Hoban warns us that in trying to affect just one thread in the fabric, other parts of the context also become involved.6 An important point to be made here is that our professional learning needs to be grounded in the unique setting in which the problem of practice occurs. Actions must be imagined, developed and tested in that same context. Teaching practice is not something to be mastered, but something to be continually examined in light of this environment at this time.

To be sure, initiatives that establish and nurture reflective school-based conversations and inquiry teams represent an important development but, again, other modes of interaction are presenting themselves as promising models for how professional learning conversations might be deepened and enlivened in school contexts.

One of the bright stars making its way above the horizon is the EdCamp model. Often referred to as an unconference, EdCamps are participant-driven events that recognize and leverage the fact that some of the best learning conversations at traditional PD events occur in between formal sessions, over coffee and on the way to the parking lot at the end of the day. By enabling participants to bring their own questions for conversation and by acknowledging the expertise of those gathered, the EdCamp model places the learning experience in the hands of the participants. EdCamp participants come to learn; they also come to share their knowledge and experience.

“Anyone who has taken part in an EdCamp or any other type of education-related unconference format will attest to the fact that the conversations almost always circle back to students: their learning, their well-being and their engagement.”7

There are at least two promising results of the proliferation of EdCamps across the country. First, participants new to the process are seeing value in using the model in their own districts and in their own schools. Voices are being gathered in promising ways to engage in learning conversations that matter to them and to their communities. Second, in the desire to keep conversations alive after the events, new professional relationships and networks are being forged, strengthened and expanded.

Bring in the experts

A final theme that holds some connective power has to do with accessing outside expertise to inform our conversations, our perspectives and our professional learning. Without attention to the inclusion of informed experts, our most valiant attempts to centre learning initiatives in our local contexts will likely suffer from a lack of fresh insights or knowledge. Expertise is one of the ways that we can seek that contradictory evidence that will help us to challenge our assumptions. This is not to diminish the knowledge and skills already available in our own learning communities. Instead, it recognizes the fact that learning often requires external input to help us approach challenges from new perspectives.

Earlier models of PD were very good at presenting important expert knowledge but, quite often, it has been both delivered and received out of context, leaving participants with the challenging task of bringing it to life in their own schools and classrooms. With new models of site-based professional learning, the challenge is flipped, with a need for ready access to relevant expertise that addresses learning needs in situ.

Fortunately, there are several very powerful ways to bridge the expertise gap in a way that is both cost effective and sustainable. Beyond the increased availability of online research libraries and databases, more and more traditional “keynote” addresses are available through services like YouTube and Vimeo. In addition, some of the most sought-after experts have already had important ideas published as TED Talks. Some school districts are investing in simple video conferencing software that allows for virtual interaction with researchers, university professors and authors. Closer to home, and perhaps one of the most under-utilized sources of expertise, are the educators among us who are enrolled in advanced qualifications courses and graduate studies programs. They represent an exciting link between current research and school-based practice.

Never before has expertise been more readily available and easily accessible!

Keeping our eyes on the skies

The transition from large-scale PD to more responsive, site-based systems of professional learning will, no doubt, continue. While it might be tempting to raise up one or two single models as best practice, a mindset that encourages us to intentionally look for ways to connect the rich and diverse ways in which modern educators are approaching their learning will likely serve us better.

We know that learning teams rooted in local contexts are essential to meeting the needs of specific groups of students. Yet, we also know that it is often challenging for local school teams to engage in the provocative conversations and access the outside expertise that will effectively disrupt their own assumptions and ways of thinking.

By remaining attentive and open to the many ways that educators are embracing their learning, drawing in a world of expertise and feedback and eagerly engaging in new ways of thinking about their practice, the professional learning happening in more local contexts stands to become more enriched and enlivened.

Developing a type of astronomical mindset could very well help us to make the important connections, highlight the effective patterns and open up powerful possibilities for both professional and student learning.


The right kind of learning

In their book, Intentional Interruptions: Breaking down barriers to transform professional practice, Stephen Katz and Lisa Dack8 insist that not all of what’s being done in the name of professional learning holds value in our mandate to focus on student learning. In fact, much of it may not count as learning at all.

Their definition may seem rather stark: Real learning always results in a permanent change in thinking or behaviour. It is not something that sees us trying something for a short time, only to fall back into our old ways of doing things. Instead, it truly changes the way we think about the work we do, or the way that work is conducted.

Somewhat more poetically, Coral Mitchell and Larry Sackney make a similar point about the results of learning: “What links all learning moments is there is a change in understanding, a shift in awareness, a movement of the soul.”


En Bref – De plus en plus d’attention est accordée au lien étroit existant entre la réussite des élèves et la qualité des pratiques du personnel enseignant, amenant un passage marqué de la formation et du perfectionnement professionnels à l’apprentissage professionnel. Dans cet article, l’auteur prévient qu’il faut éviter de remplacer le perfectionnement professionnel uniformisé par un seul modèle d’apprentissage professionnel. Il soutient plutôt que la métaphore d’une constellation peut nous aider à reconnaître la valeur intrinsèque du vaste éventail d’approches dont disposent maintenant les éducateurs. En constatant les types de liens entre les équipes d’apprentissage d’école, les activités émanant des conseils et commissions scolaires, les événements locaux et les réseaux de médias sociaux, nous pouvons engendrer des possibilités diversifiées et riches d’apprentissage professionnel approfondi.


Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, March 2015

1 Coral Mitchell and Larry Sackney, “Extending the Learning Community: A broader perspective embedded in policy,” in Professional Learning Communities: Divergence, depth and dilemmas, eds. Louise Stoll and Karen Seashore Louis (Maidenhead, UK: McGraw-Hill/Open UP, 2007), p. 31.

2 Helen Timperley, Realizing the Power of Professional Learning (Maidenhead, UK: Open UP, 2011).

3 Steven Katz and Lisa A. Dack, Intentional Interruption: Breaking down learning barriers to transform professional practice (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2013).

4 Mitchell and Sackney, “Extending the Learning Community.”

5 Timperley, Realizing the Power of Professional Learning.

6 Garry F. Hoban, Learning for Educational Change: A systems thinking approach (Buckingham, UK: Open UP, 2002).

7 Timperley, Realizing the Power of Professional Learning.

8 Katz and Dack, Intentional Interruption.

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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