New Roles, New Challenges, Same Solution(s)

The following post originally appeared in CBE 182

Where to start? This week saw me step into a new role in a new school. I immediately felt a kinship with our new Grade 7’s as they came in wide-eyed and excited with this new experience, but also a little anxious that there is so much that they don’t know, and that we don’t realize we don’t know it until someone tells us we don’t know. What I have learned this week though, is that whether you are a new student, new teacher or new administrator, your success is largely dependent on the support of your peers, mentors and external partners.

As many of us across the system step into new roles and take on new responsibilities, it is crucial that we lean on our existing networks while attempting to tap into new ones. Students and staff need to feel safe, they need to feel cared for and they need to know that a mistake is not the end, but an opportunity for further learning. In our school I see students being welcomed into a safe and caring environment by our amazing staff who look for ways to engage students through clubs, athletics, the fine arts and a host of other co-curricular and extracurricular activities. I see students being connected with outside agencies and partners, ensuring that a holistic approach is being applied to support the whole student and I see it through the conversations we have around students and how we can best support their learning.

For myself, I have learned that I am only going to be successful through, not only the support of my Principal, but also the Area Based teams and Service Units. Already I have leaned on HR, Finance, IT and Learning to help support my work. I also rely heavily on my own network of colleagues. I feel good about this year, I feel challenged and I feel supported. If our students can say the same thing every day when they leave to go home, we can feel confident that we are making a profound difference in their learning.


What is the End Game?

I have always considered myself to be an individual who is constantly looking for ways to leverage technology to improve student learning. I still do, it’s just I find myself asking a lot more questions these days. Whether it is reading about the massive potential within the EdTech market or the near daily concerns around student data and privacy . I find myself asking more questions and being more critical of the choices we (I include myself here) make when introducing and using technology with our students. Gary Stager talks about how technology grants agency to either the student, the teacher or the system. This post has had a profound impact on my practice. I find myself constantly questioning the tool I am introducing and why I am introducing it. It is through this lens that I have become increasingly uncomfortable with what is being offered.

From here on out, please consider this post just thinking out loud, I simply have the time to reflect and this is the space that I have chosen in the hopes of generating a conversation. As always I welcome any push back.

I continually question the value programs such as reading or math programs and a host of others provided within a school. I do not question that these tools can be a resource, I just wonder whether schools should be investing in these tools as an instructional tool. What message as teachers are we communicating when we have students sit in front of a computer and work through a set of problems, all in the name of personalized learning? If we use instructional time to sit kids in front of computers instead of a teacher, what is the end game here? Likely questioning the value a teacher provides and whether spending money on computers instead of teachers is more economical. I would encourage you to read Phil McRae’s piece on the history of teaching machines.

I struggle, I really do. I struggle because I see technologies that simply replicate practices of learning where “I tell you something and you learn it”. I struggle because personalization has become a buzzword associated with EdTech instead of focusing on the key components of authentic experience and student agency. I wonder aloud whether we are reinforcing practices that fail to improve learning, and lessen the value of a teacher. What technologies do we use with students that provide agency to the learner and not simply provide teachers with an easier way to assess or document learning? Does the system restrict/dictate tools that constrain us from serving the best interests of our students? How much are we willing to give up (money, privacy, control, etc…) in the name of learning?

I worry that as companies set their sights on education through free offerings, collection of data and expensive solutions that we are both not serving the interests of our students or appreciating the value teacher’s bring.

To close, I have to say that I believe that technology in learning is absolutely critical. I believe that students should be making/creating with technology through things like coding and design. It should be leveraged to connect learners with others in authentic learning experiences. I also think that technology can facilitate greater student agency. A blog or even better a domain of one’s own where they dictate what is there and what is shared is one such example. Ultimately, I think we are at a fork in the road, we either accept that technology can more effectively and efficiently teach students or we can leverage technologies to have students create knowledge, engage in real problems and challenge our own understandings of what is possible.

Remembering Joe

I have sat and read the various tributes to Joe Bower over the past couple days and have wondered whether I had anything to say that has not already been said. I am not too sure if I have any new insight, but I do know that I want to share how Joe influenced me and what I learned from him over the years.

My first introduction to Joe was through Twitter, he seemed to have every second post on the #abed (Alberta Education) thread, where he spoke passionately and persuasively around his ideas on assessment along with commenting on the politics of education in this province. He seemed fearless, he took on ministers, journalists, other educators and engaged in the most difficult of conversations while maintaining professionalism, principle and humour. It was this exposure in my early days on Twitter that helped me find my voice in the medium and slowly shift from lurker to someone who shares to someone who engaged in the occasional debate.

I first met Joe at EdCamp YYC in 2013, I remember him being one of the first registrants after @paulgenge reached out to him. He helped get the message out to others and was a big part in the success of the event. In the years that followed, Joe would be a regular at EdCamp YYC, with him facilitating the most popular session discussing assessment practices and moving away from grades. I remember mentioning to him at the pub after last year’s event, that it was great his school was able to free him up to come down. He replied that he was not provided time, but used a personal day. That really epitomizes the kind of guy Joe was to me. He was willing to give up a precious personal day to drive 90 minutes and share his experience with others. There was nothing in it for him, no stipend, no travel costs covered, but he saw the importance of collaboration and sharing with others.

It is clear that Joe has had a profound impact not only in Alberta, but globally and the thoughts I have shared here have been shared by many. He was incredibly down to earth and despite his strong opinions there was never a sense of ego.  His contributions are large and he will be missed, I will especially miss the chance to catch up with him at EdCamp YYC this year, but I believe his leadership and willingness to share over the years will live on as we all consider what is best for students.

The Importance of Relationships

This post also appeared in CBE 182

392672_orig 2.jpgLast week I was lucky enough to work alongside close to 50 teachers at Design the Shift Summer Institute, a three-day professional learning opportunity. What set this professional learning opportunity apart from others was the deliberate time that was set aside to learn about one another.

As teachers we know that learning is largely relational, students need to feel welcome, safe and to a certain degree a willingness to be vulnerable and acknowledge what they don’t already know. Developing such an atmosphere can take time and as teachers we all know that time can often be a luxury. However, as we all sat in a circle and each teacher spoke to an artifact that they brought that defined them as an individual, a teacher or in some cases both,I was struck by how the stories ranged from deeply personal to very humorous, but they all provided insight into who that person was. This exercise took time (close to an hour) and you could sense at the start of the activity a great deal of apprehension as they wanted to get on with planning their task or building on their ideas. At the end of this hour though, I found the group to be more connected, more committed to each other’s success and a willingness to share ideas with one another.

I couldn’t help but think of how often I had sacrificed depth for coverage in my teaching and that it is by stepping back, taking the time to get to know our students that we personalize learning. Personalizing learning is not done by an app or a program, but through the connections we make with each and every one of our students, there are no shortcuts and the work is not always easy work, but the exercise at the summer institute with a group of teachers giving up three days of their summer vacation taught me that it is work worth doing.

Re-thinking Professional Development

CC courtesy of flickr photo contributed by nervivo.

CC courtesy of flickr photo contributed by nervivo.

I have typed this post up a few times and every time it seems too long, too academic and too boring. With that said, I do want to reflect a bit on my last two years of graduate work and share some of my work (for those interested). I have found myself consistently drawn to the topic of professional development, a term I find to be negative and rooted in believing that teachers need to be fixed. I prefer the term professional learning, but that is another post.

What I have become to believe is that professional learning today, strips teachers of their professional autonomy and agency, that improvements in the name of action research and Professional Learning Communities are steps in the right direction, but continue to view schools and school systems as hierarchal linear systems that do not consider the unique context in which teachers and schools work. Attached I have shared a paper that I wrote (some have asked that I share) that builds on these ideas, really the literature review and findings are probably the key places to look. Below is also the abstract to give you an idea of things.


For too long teachers have had little say in the direction and means of their own professional learning. In fact, the term professional learning is often substituted with the term professional development and based on a deficit model. Traditional professional learning opportunities often times do not account for context, prior knowledge & understanding or allow the teacher to deviate from the group. By acknowledging school districts as complex adaptive systems rather than linear systems, I will argue that when proscriptive rather than prescriptive conditions are established, teachers and schools are empowered to make context specific decisions and that patterns will emerge in order to inform whole system directions. Any move towards a model of professional learning based on the principles of complexity however, need to be well supported by leadership. Leaders in this model will be required to have a strong understanding of the necessary conditions that allow for self-organization and emergence to occur. This paper is designed to provoke discussion amongst, teachers, school based and school district leaders while also providing tangible steps that could be taken to realize this model for professional learning.

Keywords: complexity, professional learning, complex adaptive systems, leadership

Complexity and Professional Learning

Establishing a Common Vision, Values and Beliefs and Distributed Leadership


Establishing a Common Vision, Values and Beliefs

It is imperative in any model of distributed leadership that all members are working off a shared vision, values and beliefs. The importance of shared vision, values and beliefs is evident throughout the literature. Wagner et al. (2006) use the example of a school superintendent. Traditionally in this school district, problems were identified by senior leadership, strategies were developed and it was then up to the schools to implement. It is clear through this description that no regard for the unique context each of the schools lived was considered in such a model. This superintendent however, reframed the problem, the problem was no longer something he was going to solve, but instead a problem that the entire organization was to solve collaboratively. The first step in developing a collaborative culture was to invite more individuals into the problem solving process.

This invitation is essential in order for any shared vision, values and beliefs to develop. Halverson (2006) insists that it is essential that one “relax the cultural barriers to collaborative action.” This relational trust cannot be established unless individuals are able to come together in order and share their vision, values and beliefs. It is through these interactions that an understanding of where people are coming from, that a collaborative culture can begin to develop. Wagner et al. (2010) discuss the importance for formal leaders to establish cultures that are built on trust, respect and openness. It is argued that in such environments individuals are more willing to step up and lead, whether they be teachers, student, parents or another member of the learning community.

Distributed Leadership in Practice

 It is clear as one reads through the literature that there are several definitions of what distributed leadership can look like. Coleman (2011) speaks directly to this issue arguing that the biggest problem with distributed leadership is that the “term remains vague and misunderstood”, that while there are many definitions, not enough research has been done to see how these models operate in practice.

Margolis and Huggins (2012) believe that formal leadership and delineation of roles serves a purpose and role in distributing leadership. It is in my opinion however, that this model of distributed leadership is superficial and does not provide the conditions necessary for leadership to emerge from all areas within a school or organization. One of the key challenges in allowing for a model of distributed leadership that encourages all to participate is the challenge of time. It is widely believed within a school building that when teachers have the opportunity to collaborate and to work together, that greater trust and understanding can be developed amongst a staff. Hargreaves and Fink (2006) explain that teachers learn best when they regularly work together and break down the isolation that exists within schools. With increasing cuts in education and more complex classrooms, providing the time and space needed to form these connections has been an ongoing challenge within schools.

While distributed leadership has been largely linear in approach through a hierarchical organizational model, I believe that new patterns of leadership are beginning to emerge. These environments recognize that leadership is not positional, but rather relational. Watson and Scribner (2007) discuss how examples of emergent leadership exists outside formal leadership structures. I have seen this in my own context, with individuals pursuing a project of personal interest and/or passion. These pursuits however are in addition to instead of embedded with a teacher’s mandated responsibilities. While pockets emerge, they often have to emerge outside of formal school structures, teachers meet on their own time in order to develop creative solutions.


While distributed leadership is largely considered a positive way to lead, but how it is interpreted and ultimately applied varies greatly from school to school. Successful implementation of a leadership model that allows for the emergence of leadership to occur from all areas within an organization is dependent on a shared vision along with the open sharing of values and beliefs amongst members. It is the role of formal leadership to establish conditions that facilitate connections between different members within the organization and to allow to create structures where these ideas can be shared effectively with other members.


Coleman, A. (2011). Towards a blended model of leadership for school-based collaboration.Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 39(296), 296-316. doi: DOI: 10.1177/1741143210393999

Crawford, M. (2012). Solo and distributed leadership: definitions and dilemmas. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 40, 610-619.

Foundation, E. (2012). Edcamp homepage. Retrieved from

Fullan, M. & Donnelly, K. (2013). Alive in the Swamp: Assessing digital innovations in education.  

Halverson, R. (2006). A distributed leadership perspective on how leaders use artifacts to create professional community in schools. Informally published manuscript, Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison.

Hargreaves, A., & Fink, D. (2006). Sustainable Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jones, S., Ryland, K., Lefoe, G., & Harvey, M. Distributed leadership: a collaborative framework for academics, executives and professionals in higher education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34, 67-78.

Margolis, J., & Huggins, K. S. (2012). Distributed but undefined: New teacher leader roles to change schools. Journal of School Leadership, 22, 953-981.

Natsiopoulou, E. & Gioroukakis, V. (2010). When Teachers Run the School. Educational Leadership, 67(7),

Watson, S., & Scribner, J. Beyond Distributed Leadership: Collaboration, Interaction, and Emergent Reciprocal Influence. Journal of School Leadership, 17, 443-468.

Wagner, T., Kegan, R., Lahey, L., Lemons, R., Garnier, J., Helsing, D., Howell, A., & Rasmussen, H. (2006).Change leadership: A practical guide to transforming schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Developing and Sustaining a Collaborative Learning Community

Wahlstrom et al. (2010) make mention of the fact that often times leadership is something that “is born and not made” (p.32). I too, when thinking about leadership, envision a general leading men into battle, or the athlete who refuses to quit. The truth however, is that in a world of constant and accelerating change, this view of leadership is not only outdated but unsustainable. When considering how collaboration can be sustained and used to engage the entire learning community, two themes emerged. First was the idea of leading by example was evident. Wahlstrom et al. (2010) identify principals, second only to teachers as having the greatest school based impact on student learning. I thought about what it would mean to lead by example and what would that look like in a school. The vision I kept coming back to is positioning the principal as the lead learner within the school. Much like the outdated view of leadership residing in one person, teachers and principals have long been viewed as holding all knowledge and when I was in school, it was unheard of for a teacher to say “I don’t know.” Instead, I remember getting a response along the lines of “You will not need to know that” or “you will learn about that in another year.”  How powerful would it be for principals, teachers, students and parents to openly reflect on their own learning? Astin & Astin (1996) discuss the importance of such self-reflection and the role that it plays in deepening one’s own self-awareness. Branson (2007) builds on this idea and explains that when one reflects, they begin to view the world through another’s eyes.

The second theme that emerged was the importance of creating a space or culture where individuals, whether they be students, teachers or principals to exercise informal leadership. What if we were to publicly reflect, what impact would that have on an organization? What if principals, teachers, parents and students shared what they had learned, the struggles they encountered and questions moving forward? Could this change the mindset many still have of the infallible leader or the holder of knowledge? Could this new openness illustrate learning as a process and lifelong? A core component of any formal leadership is having an understanding of one’s core values and beliefs. I believe that sharing these values and beliefs is important, as it provides opportunities for those values and beliefs to be respectfully challenged and built upon. Leaders such as principals have a lot of responsibilities, but I believe they can lay a foundation that builds capacity amongst staff through the leading by example and developing a reflective mindset that builds in opportunities for reflection. This capacity will outlive the tenure of any single leader and will help establish a school as a learning community where not only the students are learning.


Astin, H., & Astin A, (1996). A social change model of leadership development. (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

Branson, C. M. (2007). Improving leadership by nurturing moral consciousness through structured self-reflection. Journal of Educational Administration, 45(4), 471-495.

Pauken, P. (2012). Are you prepared to defend the decisions you’ve made? reflective equilibrium, situational appreciation and the legal and moral decisions of school leaders . Journal of School Leadership, 22(March), 350-384.

Wahlstrom, K. L., Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., & Anderson, S. E. (2010). Learning from leadership: investigating the links to improved student learning. Alexandria, VA: Educational Research Service.