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 The truth however, is that in a world of constant and accelerating change, this view of leadership is not only outdated but unsustainable.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 Much like the outdated view of leadership residing in one person, teachers and principals have long been viewed as holding all knowledge and when I was in school, it was unheard of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.

References

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.

Shifts in professional learning

I believe that there are three key issues in professional development and have begun to see a shift in each of these areas. These key issues are moving away from one-off workshops, facilitating environments for greater collaboration and pursuing ways to communicate the impact this learning has on student learning.

Early in my career, professional development resembled that of a one-off workshop. These workshops were often presentations from outside providers or individuals from the district office. While the information was always important and somewhat useful, it often lacked context and therefore applicability for many. Bolt (2012) says “Problematically, face-to-face professional development has often been delivered as one-off workshops off site, whereas best practice models recommend embedded learning tailored to meet individual needs in the workplace (Bolt 2003, 2009; Guskey 2000; Lloyd et al. 2005; Zepeda 2012).” Despite evidence that embedded learning serves as a more effective model, we continue to go down a path that focuses on PD that is one-size-fits all and is often not tied to a teacher’s practice in the classroom (Spelman and Rohlwing, 2013). The shift however has begun to see opportunities for teachers to engage in their own learning within their own context on a more regular basis, through the emergence of PLC’s and the introduction of a mentoring program.

Both of these initiatives share a commonality and that is the opportunity for teachers to collaborate with one another. Showers and Joyce (1996) explain that teachers who “planned together and pooled their experiences practiced new skills and strategies more frequently and applied them more appropriately than did their counterparts who worked alone to expand their repertoires.” The opportunity to collaborate has been widely seen in my school as a positive thing, Bolt (2012) discusses how “collaboration with others in communities led to participants’ engagement with professional development as a process rather than as an event” (p. 288). While staff are generally more positive and engaged, I still feel this shift leaves many of the same questions unanswered, namely, how can we effectively assess and/or communicate transference of professional learning to the classroom?

The effectiveness of professional development is something that I have never really thought about. I know that I have come out of days saying that was amazing and I was energized, but I have never truly, deliberately reflected on what difference this learning has made on my students. Accountability and assessment can be loaded words with teachers as they are closely linked with evaluation, but Zepeda (2012), correctly states that “No doubt, all schools and systems experience the press for accountability.” The question I have moving forward is how can we share our learning safely, safely meaning open and free of criticism. How can we demonstrate our learning and the impact it is having on our students? I do believe that blogging can provide a powerful outlet, but also wonder if more private reflections could be just as powerful? Curious to read and hear our some of you demonstrate the impact of professional learning on students.

References

Bolt, S. (2012). Professional development: Then and now: International conference on cognition and exploratory learning in Digital Age, 287-290.

Guskey, T. R. (2002). Professional development and teacher change. Teachers and Teaching, 8(3), 381-391.

Zepeda, S.J. (2012). Professional development. What works. Larchmont. NY. USA: Eye on Education, Inc.