Sunday, December 09, 2012

Effective Professional Development

Our School District 57 Superintendent Brian Pepper recently posted a blog about Effective Professional Development. While his blog does not currently allow comments, he notes in an earlier post that "this blog, if you can even call it that... will not be interactive. I just don’t have time to read, respond and monitor the interactive comments... I am confident you will be able to make your views known in other locations!" I'm not exactly sure if this refers to views about what he has posted or just views in general, but I thought I'd go with the former and take up the challenge to respond to some of the observations in his recent post on Professional Development.

Brian discusses Helen Timperley's book Realizing the Power of Professional Learning and the knowledge-building cycle of inquiry that promotes valued teaching and student outcomes:
Timperley’s book certainly adds credibility to the process our district has been using for some time: learning team grants. The grants’ primary purpose is to support teams of educators working together on inquiry-based learning that will be utilized in the participants’ classrooms. In addition, the grants create opportunities for teachers to work together, to learn from each other, to create and to innovate. The rich discussion and sharing of successful practice is motivating, deepens understanding about the process of learning, heightens awareness regarding the critical nature of assessment, and often leads to improved results for students and improvement in teaching practice. This year over 150 of our teachers are working on learning team grants, in the areas of curriculum and instruction, technology, aboriginal education, play-based learning and assessment.
We need to celebrate and share this important work in a more effective manner moving forward. We need to direct more funding into inquiry-based learning initiatives. We need to expand the circle of involvement and influence beyond the school and district and into a province-wide professional learning conversation and interconnected professional learning initiatives that benefit our most important resource: children!
I'll respond specifically to the use of Learning Team Grants (LTGs) and the need to celebrate and share this work. Our district's use of LTGs started about 10 years ago with what were called Action Initiative Grants, essentially release time for teachers who wanted to work on shared inquiry. We also had something called Technology Innovation Grants that offered funding and release time for teachers who wanted to employ some new technology-informed practices with their students. The LTGs succeeded these grants and are now the default means for teachers to get time away from class to work on curriculum & instruction projects. The other means available are to seek release or lieu time from a principal or the Curriculum & Instruction department directly, or to seek an Inquiry Project grant from the Pro-D fund administered by the teacher's union. This idea of taking a bit of time to sort out pedagogy and hone our craft is not new, it has been going on for decades but has often been arbitrary... "please sir, can I have a day off" kind of thing. I think a more formal process like the LTGs is a good move, it provides the potential for accountability, collaboration, and student-centered action.

The part where LTGs are not working, as Brian suggests, is the celebrate and share part. I've informally polled a few elementary and many secondary teachers; there are clearly some misgivings about the quality and quantity of work being done. The majority of these LTGs appear to be secrets within their own schools, let alone the district level, and we have no established means of communicating either their presence or the results. Our staff email system, primitive locked-down websites, and limited social media presence are not up to the communication task, and as a result the LTGs live and die in small pockets of usefulness. A colleague recently told me that he thinks he is part of a Math LTG but is not quite sure. Is he one of the 150? The "best-kept-secret" problem reminds me of the S.A.L.T. group we used to have at our school. I think the S stood for Secondary but it became known as the "Secret Assessment Learning Team" because most staff had not heard of it, did not know what the acronym stood for, did not know how it was formed, or what it involved. Why are we so shy about professional learning? We do have an "All Around Our Schools" feature in the local paper; this gets into some of the fun events and student activities, but is not really scaled to delve into the "province-wide professional learning conversation." More deliberate and interactive tools are needed to make the connection. My wife had a good suggestion -- a searchable database that would allow teachers and others to scan past and present LTGs and other professional learning to find good matches for their own needs. Something between a list on a website and a wiki perhaps. In the olden days, educators working on curriculum projects would type up their reports and photocopy their resources into a booklet that would be stored at the District Resource Centre and at schools. My classroom bookshelf still has some of these now-dusty publications: local history, enrichment, critical thinking in Social Studies, student questioning techniques, etc. with names on them like Garvin Moles, Calvin Cosh, Keith Gordon, and my dad Walter. What astounds me is that 30 years later, in our hyper-connected digital world, we're still having issues archiving and sharing our professional learning.

Two further complications are the LTG criteria and format. The LTGs are limited to release time and won't cover other costs such as professional materials or technology, so the only way to take advantage is to prepare for a substitute and dodge class (which many teachers are loathe to do). One of our district LTG groups was surprised to find that their agreement to meet on their own time in exchange for some software related to their inquiry would not be met. That LTG, then, had a financial value of $0; a definite challenge in the "celebration" department -- might as well have stuck with twitter. The dilemma is that enrolling teachers (that have kids in seats everyday) have to incur substitute teacher costs every time they want to interact. 150 teachers using three release days costs the district about $135,000, more than the entire Professional Development Fund for the district's 900 teachers. How do we turn face-to-face professional learning from something one needs to escape their class to do into something embedded in our day-to-day routines? How do we schedule and fund that? Many schools have tried various schemes over the last 10 years to build "collaborative time" into the weekly schedule, but a variety of issues have made this divisive, especially at the secondary level. How might we listen and learn from the schools where formal collaborative models have resulted in "buy-in?" How do we remove the coercive elements (and major source of division) from collaborative models and shore up our capacity for mutual (peer) accountability?  Is there a role for the board to examine timetable/calendar adjustments to afford more paid time for professional learning?

The format can also be an issue -- it seems that all it takes to be approved for an LTG is that one frames a project idea in the form of a question... this apparently makes it an inquiry. Teachers and educational leaders often have the bad habit of confusing asking a question about work that is already firmly established and classic inquiry-based learning, where the outcome is less certain. Perhaps we've developed this habit from 10 years of writing school growth plans that muddle this process. We play a lot with data without a clear understanding of correlation versus cause, and almost none of what we write down in school or district plans would withstand statistical analysis. That's a problem outside LTGs, but I wonder if our notion of academic inquiry and action research is related to our lack of training and leadership in these areas (spoken by someone who failed a first-year stats course!). One way the district could improve the quality of inquiry is to provide facilitators, curricular specialists, or mentor teachers (different roles) that are available to meet with LTG participants. I have seen the value of this recently at Pro-D Rep training with a BCTF facilitator Teresa Fry (and our Pro-D chair Kim Rutherford) who guided us through the Inquiry Project model and a basic EdCamp. Adding experts to the groups would, of course, require an investment in more release time, part-time or full-time secondments, or other arrangements and appointments.

These LTGs provide nice little breaks for teachers to "work on stuff" and as a result are greatly appreciated, but do we know much more about them? A more thorough sharing of how they turn out is crucial for providing accountability for these projects; having a public audience for one's work is a very effective way of kicking up the quality of reporting and amount of professional pride invested in the work -- and helps ensure that the focus is on students success. If one digs around on the district website it is possible to find a list of the LTGs from the 2011-12 school year. To be blunt, many of them appear to be release time for teachers to do lesson planning, project design, and other work they would or should do anyways.  I can understand why that appeals to busy teachers -- this is a chance to work creatively with others and build some student activities that would be arduous without the collaboration and extra time... I've used release time for this "relief" before, so I am not condemning the process. We should be careful, though, to mistake this for innovation. Some of the LTGs appear to be replacements of district committees and ad hoc leadership groups that used to exist -- district-wide professional development and meeting time for core interests like literacy and numeracy. Among the LTGs from last year, there are a few that were probably innovative, but we have no way of knowing without the sharing and celebration part -- the lists do not contain detailed project descriptions or links to their work.  I also do not know of any formal invitations to share their work, although anyone can host a session at our annual Professional Development Conference (next one March 8, 2013). The LTGs will become less invisible as we make sharing habitual and not accidental. The tools and even the provincial network are already in place; many of our teachers and educational leaders are engaged at the district and provincial level through Social Media and their own channels of communication -- increasingly educational leaders in other parts of the province are interconnected and accessible. Our district has a lot of ground to make up -- an uncontroversial place to start is a concerted effort to bring the hidden success stories into the conversation. Much needed and more provocative work can follow.

This is also a great opportunity to forge a positive culture, to reverse some of the malaise that afflicts true partnership between the various employee groups in the district. We need to break the cycle with a few positive habits and narratives around professional learning that serve as a common "hearth" for us to hear each other and set new directions. To start, the innovative stories from among these 150 teachers should be profiled, posted, and praised -- tweet, blog, web, news media -- there has got to be at least one great story a month of how district-supported teachers are innovating and bringing benefit to students. I had a chance to drop in on a LTG group that was using a "critical friends" approach to review each other's designs for project-based learning. It was well facilitated, exciting for the participants, and had as an outcome the subtle turning of familiar designs for learning into innovative plans. I also had some lingering doubts and questions addressed about the value of the "project tuning process." This is what we hope for out of "co-creative" collaboration. How could this group's success be shared with others? How could we speed up the rate of "contagion" related to their excitement? We seem to be doing a good job with Timperley's knowledge-building cycle at the classroom level and likely within these LTGs, but are we serious about trying this openly at the organizational level? How often do our staff meetings capture this cycle?

Brian relays a good question: “What will it take for what we know to change what we do?” I would suggest that what we know is that some of our systems of communication and collaboration are broken and that we've known this for many years. The "sustainability" process of 2010 and last year's labour dispute exposed some wounds across all employee groups that have been long untended (or even unexamined) and as a result we deal with a high level of distrust and reluctance to engage at the organizational level. Knowing this has been a keen push for many teachers and parents to change what we do. I've seen the board of trustees (that includes my wife Kate!) and others make some strides here, but much of the change that needs to happen takes place outside of the board's usual gaze. The realization of broken systems and seeing the potential for positive change has spurred me to get more involved with educational advocacy and professional discussions over the last five years. Thankfully I am not alone in this. It has also been the impetus for thinking about what my own professional growth plan should look like and to consider how I can step up my approach to professional learning and leadership at the district and provincial level.  The "need to celebrate and share this important work in a more effective manner" also poses a challenge to the work of our district teacher's Professional Development Committee. We try to do a lot with limited funds, and much of the work is done in isolation of the LTGs even though the focus is very much the same.

I have seen plenty of vibrant "interconnected professional learning" in our district and elsewhere -- learning teams, personal learning networks, and individuals that keep being awesome regardless of what goes on around them. Maybe the informality of this work is what makes it work? But if we want to turn these into "interconnected professional learning initiatives" that are part of the "province-wide professional learning conversation" we first need to get out LTGs out of the closet, or look at other means of supporting and communicating professional learning. Too much of the best work in our district happens "underground" -- we need to be more deliberate about coaxing educators out of their bunkers. There are barriers that need to come down (I've blogged about that ad naseam), but more than that we need coaxing that is welcoming and progressive -- more freedom and means to speak freely about our issues and successes, more freedom and means to experiment wildly with improvements to teaching and learning conditions, and sometimes simply to temper wild ideas with actual research and planning. How do we do this? What does that look like? Where's the best return on our effort or bang for the district buck?

Challenge: What would you change about how our district celebrates and shares the work of teachers? What would be the most effective use of district funds to support professional learning among teachers and other educators that results in a benefit to students? Feel free to comment, share the success of your LTG, or relate your own experience if you are from another jurisdiction.


Hybrid Fitness said...

It seems as though you painted a picture that portrays the district as doing nothing to celebrate or share the work of teachers. Therefore, the change necessary is to just do something rather than nothing.

What would be the most effective use of the district funds to support professional learning?
I see the value in most LTG's however there should be a more effective reporting out of results. I have been a member of 2 LTG's in the past 3 years and found the reporting back to the board office as us justifying that the release time was worthwhile. Colleagues were never made aware of our results to my knowledge.

I believe a meaningful addition to the LTG's is to publish your results to the district (every teacher in the district can view) to provide the opportunity for teacher to learn from your project rather than replicate it again and have the same findings.

Who is to take the responsibility to share and celebrate the professional learning in our distrcit? The board office or the teachers?

Thielmann said...

Thanks for the comment. I think one can find examples of the district celebrating the work of teachers, but none that I know of related to LTGs. I agree that "something" -- anything almost, would be a good start. I like your idea of a district directory, a place to compare notes and learn from colleagues.

Your final question is powerful... I think both parties need to step up. In general, I think teachers need to model the collaborative and professional practices (including sharing) that we want to see, otherwise it won't happen. Some do this by blog and twitter, others in conversation among colleagues, for most professional learning that is enough -- not everything needs to be public or promoted. I think our March Pro-D COnference is also "celebratory" in nature and a chance for many of us to connect with district success stories related to students and professional learning.

But for something "official" and district-funded like the LTGs (and future expenditures around "inquiry-based learning initiatives") I think the board office should take the lead with clearer expectations for planning, facilitation, reporting and venue(s) for sharing. Celebration is a good fir for the board office as well -- they are the ones with access to the district website and staffing flexibility. They don't need to lead in isolation though... plenty of teachers around to offer help and input. I think getting this right is crucial if we want to avoid rough starts to new initiatives and the tendency for institutional withdrawal. Somewhere in the middle here there is also a new role for the PGDTA Pro-D committee, although budget and time constraints limit how far this can go

Jp Martin said...

Another thoughtful post about all things education. It certainly got me thinking again about best practices. We talk about assessment all the time these days it seems - and we argue about the best way to interpret that - yet, when it comes to our own assessment we seem to be so hypocritical.
What is our assessment of the LTG’s? What are they? Who are they? Where are they?
I know I don’t know. I actually asked about LTG’s at our staff meeting the other night and some hands shot up. You mentioned the example of a colleague in Math who ‘thought’ they might be on one, and in our meeting I saw a colleague actually say to the person beside them that they should put their hand up because ‘you are on one’. It was quite amusing in context to your article. At that point people did share a bit but that was the FIRST we had ever heard of it in our building.
So, how do you share? It seems pretty simple in this day and age doesn’t it? As simple as a published database of the projects associated with the LTG’s could be a start. After that it would just take someone to take the lead and say, ‘this is the standard by which go by’. Be it, Pro-D presentations, published reports, video….the standard really doesn’t matter either I suppose, it just needs to get done.
Who disseminates the information then? Well, I would think those whom are ‘granting the grants’ would want to show what they are getting for their money (or maybe they have seen the product and they don’t want it out there? Scary thought.). But, as professionals I think that those who are part of a LTG should certainly be thinking about how they share, or celebrate, what they have done. Otherwise, how do we ‘take what we know to change what we do?”

Thielmann said...

Thanks for the comment. Your staff meeting story is not atypical. How do we share? I think the informal part is working great... face to face, twitter, blog, etc. but I agree that the "granters" need to step up.

Maybe we should have more than one type of grant...
1. Offer release-based LTGs for folks that just want to work on stuff, or are part of the mystery Math team -- light on reporting and assessment, celebration can be informal or can form a pool from which someone can publish success stories on the district website. This would be status quo.

2. Offer true research or leadership or innovation grants that have public accountability, peer review, deliberate/professional publication and celebration, and mutually (employee group) agreement for criteria and assessment. These should have release or blocks attached, could involved financial award or costs beyond release time (e.g. equipment or travel), and an expectation of student benefit, public presentation, and scholarly standards.

I dunno, there are lots of ideas to improve what we do now (based on what we know now). Put 5 of us in a room and we can invent 50 fixes (I think we've actually done that). It is sometimes embarrassing how we abandon our academic roots as educators, talk about collaboration but balk at up-front planning that requires collaboration, and mistake fads for meaningful change. These are three more things I "know" that motivate what I "do" -- it's a bit of a grim way to find hope but it works for me. Kind of like old grim Bard the Bowman, always prophecying doom and wary of good tidings but ready to cheer on the villagers when the dragon Smaug comes around. Whoops... off topic and thinking about The Hobbit again.

In Brian's post he mentions Mike Schmoker's idea: "instruction could improve significantly and swiftly through ordinary and accessible arrangements among teachers and administrators.” Ummm, ya, what are we waiting for?... the lack of these accessible arrangements is a significant elephant in our district room -- if you want an example just look at how hard it is for teachers to communicate their technology needs (pilot devices, wireless access, tech planning, etc.) to senior admin. We have a learning agenda and management agenda working at cross purposes when it comes to technology --Schmoker encourages us to work through this to an "ordinary" arrangement where we are working together.

Schmoker also encourages schools to abandon fads, innovations, and ever-changing programs in order to focus on meaningful reading & writing, coherent curriculum, and effective whole-class instruction. I think it would be cool if we made that the "new normal" arrangement between teachers and administrators.