IEN:Why this focus on professional learning networks, why now?
Chris Brown/Cindy Poortman: The focus on the power of collaborative learning of educators has been growing for years: both within and across schools. We call the variety of groups who engage in collaborative learning with others outside of their everyday community of practice to improve educational outcomes, Professional Learning Networks (PLNs (e.g. see Networks for Learning)). PLNs are associated with effective professional development and ultimately improved outcomes for students. At the same time, their success depends heavily on the way in which PLN processes are guided: with research reporting both promising and disappointing results. Moreover, research into PLN effectiveness is methodologically challenging. Many have studied networks and communities before us, and we aim to build further on their important work, having ourselves been involved in projects about Research Learning Communities and -Networks, Data Teams, Teacher Design Teams and cross-school Professional Learning Communities. We notice that schools in many different countries are motivated to participate in networks more than ever, while there is still much to learn in this area. Having mapped out what we think are the main areas that need further investigation, we are excited to work together with schools, partner organizations, and other scholars to further discover how PLNs can be most beneficial for educators and their students.
PLNs are associated with effective professional development and ultimately improved outcomes for students. At the same time, their success depends heavily on the way in which PLN processes are guided
IEN:What did you learn in working on this special issue that you didn’t know before?
CB/CP: Many factors influence PLN processes including collaboration, shared focus on student learning, reflective dialogue, and leadership. Even if PLN participants successfully collaborate and learn together within their group, they still need to successfully share and refine the knowledge developed within the PLN with other colleagues in their ‘home’ schools (as well as other institutions). Only then, will they be able to achieve the ambitious goals of school and system improvement. What’s more, they need to do this in such a way that their colleagues can incorporate this knowledge into their educational practice as experts. We call the process of creating, sharing and applying knowledge, knowledge mobilization(KMb). In our experience with schools, we noticed that PLN members often find it hard to communicate with colleagues outside their PLN about approaches and outcomes. At the same time, school leaders sometimes report they should have done more to support networking between PLNs and their member schools. This is why we were very happy to work with our ICSEI PLN network colleagues on this special issue.
And we have learned a lot. For instance, the paper from Livia Jesacher-Roessler addresses how and whether PLN-participants see themselves as knowledge mobilizers, but also explores how individual and organizational knowledge mobilization is linked to institutional change. It shows that much more is needed from the school as a whole than simply the participation of individuals in a PLN, who are sometimes not even aware of their role in mobilizing knowledge. The paper by Leyton Schnellert and Deborah Butler shows how inviting co-teaching partners into a PLN to engage in collaborative inquiry and engaging in cycles of inquiry with a co-teaching partner is helpful in this respect. The paper by Miriam Mason & David Galloway shows how evidence of student improvement can support further development of PLNs, while also emphasizing the value of a contextual approach. The findings of Joelle Rodway and her colleagues show the importance of both direct and indirect interactions for understanding knowledge brokerage, as well as the importance of different types of relationships (e.g., including both sharing information and giving advice). Those with formal roles are not always the ones most effectively brokering knowledge.
…much more is needed from the school as a whole than simply the participation of individuals in a PLN, who are sometimes not even aware of their role in mobilizing knowledge
Particularly significant post-pandemic, Pierre Tulowitzki’s paper addresses levers and barriers to success of a PLN that takes the form of a blended learning program, showing the importance of both informal and professional communication in this context. The combination of in-person with online meetings was essential. Although some of the other papers emphasized the importance of context, this paper shows how participants transferred models or concepts from other countries to their local context, after careful considerations of required adaptations and experimentation. And with a specific type of PLN, namely Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs) on the rise, Stephen MacGregor’s paper discusses co-production: shifting the research paradigm so that researchers and stakeholders co-lead research activities, and collectively apply their expertise, knowledge and skills within a team. Design, implementation and reporting on measurement tools for evaluating co-production would benefit from researchers engaging more openly and critically with psychometric and pragmatic considerations for a better understanding of the impact of co-production. Finally, Amanda Datnow’s commentary highlights a number of interesting areas for further development. For example, the extent to which PLNs contribute to achieving social justice goals, and the emotional aspects of PLNs.
IEN: What’s happened since you completed the special issue and what’s next?
CB/CP: It’s been busy for all of us! To provide just a few examples, first, both of us were invited to sit on the New South Wales (NSW) Curriculum Reform Teacher Engagement Advisory Group. We are advising on NSW’s teacher engagement model for teacher expert networks. We are also contributing to (video)lectures for the related blended learning program. Despite the distance, we truly enjoy being involved in this exciting and important work. In March a project run by Livia Jesacher-Roessler funded by the province of Tyrol started to unpack many of the issues she discusses in her paper: in particular, how different institutional logics of different professions impact on both PLNs and knowledge mobilization. Along with Stephen MacGregor we will also be working with What Works in Children’s Social Care to run a Research Learning Communities intervention for Looked After Children in England. With this iteration of the RLC programme, the team will be working with Subject Leads and Designated Teachers from at least 120 schools. The focus will be specific areas related to maths and English that virtual school heads and designated teachers feel are beneficial to improving key primary school outcomes for this vulnerable group. As series editors of the Emerald PLN book series, we are also looking forward to forthcoming books in the series, including a volume by Mason and Galloway on PLNs in Sub-Saharan Africa.
IEN: What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope your work on professional learning networks will contribute to it?
CB/CP: Since we started collaborating within the ICSEI PLN network, we have developed a research agenda for areas we think would benefit from further work, with input from network members and building further on their studies. In the book Networks for Learning, Alan Daly and Louise Stoll’s chapter helped us identify conceptual, methodological and impact challenges which were starting points for this research agenda. After several conceptual pieces, such as a systematic review on reflective professional inquiry, we are eager to advance to more empirical studies, also applying more innovative methodologies (e.g. using text mining and machine learning for analysis purposes and/or using data from blended learning PLNs). At the same time, we are looking forward to sharing practical guidelines with educators in a forthcoming handbook based on what is already known about effective PLN work so far. Of perhaps most importance, however, is that while learning outcomes are key, students’ wellbeing and issues of equity should be central to all of our PLN work (as Leyton Schnellert and Sara Florence Davidson describe in this blog post). So we are pleased to see both educators and scholars, such as our special issue discussant Amanda Datnow, advancing the field towards impact for children in this area.
This week, IEN shares an interview with Jeffrey P. Carpenter (@jeffpcarpenter), the latest in the Lead the Change (LtC) Series for the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Carpenter is an Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Teaching Fellows Program at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, and he has been a teacher in high schools and middle schools in Japan, Honduras, and the United States. A pdf of the fully formatted interview will be available on the LtC website.
Lead the Change (Ltc): The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educationalchange scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?
Jeffrey Carpenter (JC): Across all education sectors, it is clear that we need to do more to contribute to change in the interest of systematically underserved and oppressed students and communities. I primarily study self-directed teacher professional learning, and this past summer, many educators undertook various forms of self-directed learning around matters associated with racial justice and anti-racism. I’m engaged in several current research projects in which we study the opportunities and challenges of self-directed educator learning in this context. For example, I’m working with colleagues on a study of Instagram content from educators who identify themselves as anti-bias, anti-racist (ABAR) educators. I’m also interested in how educators can sustain self-directed learning that may make them quite uncomfortable or lead them into potentially complicated and contentious discussions. Although autonomy can be beneficial, it can also potentially be exercised to avoid or flee difficult but potentially necessary and powerful conversations. So, one step I am taking in my work, to support these aims, is to ask more research questions that pertain directly to self-directed educator learning that challenges the status quo and helps make our teaching and schools more justice-oriented.
Also, I agree that researchers, myself included, often do too little to make our findings actionable to educators. The implications of our research cannot always just be, “Well, it looks like we need to do more research.” To try to get my work in front of more educators’ eyes, I have tried to translate some of my research into practitioner-oriented pieces for outlets like Educational Leadership (see Carpenter, 2016) and Kappan magazine, and to present at practitioner-oriented conferences like ISTE and ASCD. I also share summaries of all of my research articles via my Twitter (@jeffpcarpenter). Recently, I’ve tried doing a couple livestreams where I talk about my research. I know, however, that this is an area where I can improve and need to do more. I’m also aware of the risks of going too far or too fast with implications and actionable findings; sometimes it does require time for knowledge to build and accumulate
LtC: Given your focus on various form of technology and its role in teacher professional development, collaboration and student learning, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?
JC: Research on teacher learning has paid a lot of attention to formal interventions or programs targeted at developing teacher knowledge and/or skills in particular areas. Research on online teacher learning has also tended to explore formal online programs. We’ve learned a good deal from such research, but we also know teachers do not just learn and engage in professional activities in such formal contexts. I don’t think you can fully understand educational change without paying some attention to teachers’ organic, informal, self-directed, grassroots professional learning. My work has therefore been more focused on the ways educators use different technologies outside of official programs or courses for professional learning and networking. I’ll highlight four studies my co-authors and I published recently that should be of interest to the field. The first two studies deal specifically with change in relation to professional learning that includes digital elements.
First, I’ve co-authored several papers with Torrey Trust and Dan Krutka on professional learning networks (PLNs), and we recently published an article in the Journal of Educational Change on how educators’ PLNs change over time (Carpenter, Krutka, & Trust, 2021). In 2018, we followed up with respondents to a 2014 survey on PLNs and asked them how their PLNs had changed since that earlier survey response. The respondents described a variety of changes in their PLNs and attributed those changes to a multitude of factors; we analyzed these changes using a social ecological model. Participants were most likely to reference changes in the people in their PLNs, and shifts in jobs or job responsibilities were the most common factor influencing changes in PLNs.
The second study that specifically addressed change is part of a series of studies I’ve conducted with Bret Staudt Willet on teaching-related subreddits (Staudt Willet & Carpenter, 2021). In this most recent study, we analyzed more than a million contributions from close to 100,000 users to two subreddits over a three‐and‐a‐half year timespan. The two subreddits were quite different in nature and culture, which demonstrates how online spaces for educators are not monolithic, even within the same platform. Subreddits are also different from many other social media in that users primarily remain anonymous, which creates both opportunities and challenges with educator professional activities.
“Online spaces for educators are not monolithic, even within the same platform”
Two other studies that should be of interest relate to recent trends in educators’ uses of technology. First, I’m working with Matthew Koehler, Catharyn Shelton, and Spencer Greenhalgh on research into the online educational marketplace TeachersPayTeachers.com (TPT), which is widely used by educators but to date has barely been researched (Koehler et al., 2020). It appears that many teachers are making use of resources and curriculum from sites like TPT, and these sites operate outside of the regulation and approval processes associated with more traditional sources of curriculum. There’s little understanding of how sites like TPT may be contributing to education change. We recently published the results of the first stage of this project, which focused on the money side of the platform. We found that despite some of the democratizing rhetoric around the site, TPT sales were dominated by a small group of elite sellers who may in many regards be akin to small publishing houses.
Finally, Instagram has become the site of a fair amount of professional activity among educators, and my Elon colleagues and I conducted the first survey of educators on their Instagram use (Carpenter et al. 2020). Instagram’s role in education will be interesting to follow, as the rise of social media influencers has been important in other industries and we are beginning to see more education influencers on Instagram and more recently Tik Tok. What kinds of change influencers may bring to education will be important to explore.
Across these four studies, it is apparent that by using social media and other online platforms, educators can adjust their professional learning activities according to their evolving interests and choose different spaces that meet their various needs. However, the same openness that may attract educators to these media mean that issues of quality, expertise, and commercial motivations inevitably complicate the use of social media platforms
“By using social media and other online platforms, educators can adjust their professional learning activities according to their evolving interests.”
LtC: In some of your recent work, you highlight the possibilities and challenges of self-directed learning in social media spaces. Such work has implications in terms of how we can best promote meaningful change in learning delivery and orientations across educational institutions and the field writ large. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice to address these issues in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike?
JC: Self-directed educator professional learning is commonplace, but school districts and re-certification regimes often accept only certain types of activities for continuing education credit or licensure requirements. This can mean school districts potentially miss out on some of the benefits of the collective knowledge and resources educators develop through self-directed learning. It can also mean that there are missed opportunities to scaffold and improve the quality and impact of self-directed professional learning. Policy makers could consider how to accommodate and support the admittedly messy variety of participant-driven, voluntary professional activities that exists. Yes, formal, school-mandated PD can positively impact teacher and student learning, and it will remain part of the professional learning landscape. But it is apparent that educators do not learn and network purely through such PD formats. Meaningful learning and professional connections can occur via social media. Why not try to leverage that? Many, many educators do not want to learn only about the topics their state, district, or school decide to prioritize. Different educators begin professional learning experiences from different starting points and seek to implement what they learn in unique contexts.
School administrators should seek to understand and support the full scope of professional activities and learning in which educators engage. Self-directed learning activities may sometimes be less explicitly linked to institutional goals or strategic plans, but some such activities can likely be harnessed to the benefit of schools or districts. Educational institutions and policy makers have often attempted to curtail teachers’ social media use, especially their interactions with students, and such policies often fail to consider the ways educators use social media for professional learning. Educators can use platforms like Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter, to connect with others and engage in various kinds of professional exchanges. School leaders, policymakers, and teacher educators alike should consider ways in which wise professional uses of social media could be scaffolded and encouraged, while pitfalls and problems could be minimized or avoided. For example, some school districts have developed systems by which educators can earn continuing education units (CEUs) through submitting documentation for and reflective writing about some of their self-directed professional activities on Twitter (Carpenter et al., 2016).
LtC: Educational Change requires those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?
JC: That so many teachers appear to be willing to engage (largely voluntarily) in self-directed professional learning via social media suggests to me that there are a lot of teachers who are hungry for educational change. However, social media stereotypically is not associated with “deep and often difficult transformation.” Now, some of that stereotyping of social media is a little unfair, as there are deep and difficult discussions that happen among social-media-using educators. But discussions don’t inevitably lead to transformation, or even humbler forms of change. It is possible that some or even much of the education discussion on social media amounts to idle chatter that does little to contribute to changes in teaching practices and student learning. There is important work to be done regarding how to help educators derive the most possible benefit from the wider networks they can establish and conversations they can engage in thanks, in part, to social media. For social media to have more positive impacts in education than negative ones, teachers will need to be able to manage a variety of tensions; the field of Educational Change may be able to impact how those tensions are navigated and mitigated. For example, social media is lauded for lowering barriers to participation and giving voice to users who may struggle to be heard elsewhere, but this lowering of barriers to participation also means that the quality of the shared content via social media can be problematic. Educators who use social media must be skeptical and critical consumers, aware of the pitfalls and perils associated with these media, and they may need assistance to become such users.
“Educators who use social media must be skeptical and critical consumers, aware of the pitfalls and perils associated with these media, and they may need assistance to become such users.”
Another tension the field of Educational Change can further attend to is exploring the optimal balance between self-directed professional learning and system-directed professional learning. Administrators, school boards, and policy makers understandably are interested in PD that is related to the approved curriculum, educator performance standards, and school and district strategic plans. They may have very good reasons for wanting groups of teachers to have shared PD experiences and common understandings of certain topics. If every educator pursues a completely self-directed PD path, educators in a district or school could lack the shared understandings that would help them to collaborate and push forward bigger change initiatives. Some educators may be self-aware enough and engage consistently in reflection such that their self-directed PD is maximally beneficial, but others may need external nudges to recognize their own areas for growth. Also, students could encounter a dizzying array of strategies and expectations if there are no shared experiences of any kind in the professional learning of their teachers.
LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?
JC: The pace and quantity of social media activities and content are relentless and potentially overwhelming. This contrasts sharply with how much of the work of education change is slow and incremental. We are experiencing a historical moment where there is finally, and rightfully a lot of demand and momentum for educational change. The immediacy and public nature of social media may help keep up the pressure for change, and that pressure may at times be helpful and on other occasions it may not be. I am excited by the prospects for helping pre-service teachers (PSTs) to make wiser use of social media. Many PSTs will at some point explore professional social media uses. To increase the chances that they use social media in ways that contribute to positive educational change, teacher education programs could help PSTs learn how to leverage the learning affordances and mitigate the challenges of social media. Teacher educators may be able to play a key role in helping PSTs understand the dangers associated with different social media platforms. Social media can provide PSTs with access to resources and educators otherwise unavailable to them, but managing the quantity of content and assessing its quality can prove difficult. Many PSTs could benefit from activities that help them consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of tools such as Instagram and heuristics that help them assess the content and ideas they find via such media.
ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung Kim, Graduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.
Ben Jensen began his presentation with the questions, “What is at the core of high performing professional learning systems? What is the strategy to ensure effectiveness?”
Jensen argued that we need to move past the idea that there is a single answer. Instead, we need to understand the fundamentals behind effective professional learning. We need to think about an overall strategy for change, rather than specifics, such as how many hours should be required, or the regulatory environment. According to Jensen, high performing education systems around the world all have one thing in common. They are all really clear in their belief that school improvement = professional learning.
While countries such as Australia and the United States set high expectations for outcomes and leave it up to schools and teachers to meet those expectations in any way they see fit, top performing systems such as Shanghai and Singapore don’t take the same approach. Instead they look for broad policies that will make sure organizations have great professional learning, and talk about accountability as being a cornerstone of good practice for professional learning. While Australia and the U.S. see a dichotomy between development and accountability, higher performing education systems look at the two as interconnected, with several individuals directly accountable for the quality of professional learning.
Jensen explained that assessment of student learning is at the heart of professional learning in high performing education systems. These systems recognize how difficult it is to assess student learning well, and yet how fundamental it is to good teaching. They start by identifying student learning needs, and then how to change instruction. They look at evidence, try new things, work together, and evaluate impact. This inquiry approach has different names in different countries. For example, Singapore has Professional Learning Communities, while Shanghai has Learning Groups. Yet, these approaches are all focused on teacher learning and aligned with accountability (not focused solely on outcomes). Responsibility is shared, and individuals are held accountable for how well they collaborate with each other.
In his opening remarks, Tucker asked the audience to imagine working in a high performance law firm:
You start as associate. If you work hard, you have a chance to be partner. If as partner you succeed, you can be a senior partner. Then, you have a shot at managing partner. What happens as you move up? You get more compensation, authority, responsibility, status in the firm and community, and also you get esteem. How do you get to move up the ladder? You get better at the work. But if you look at how the firm works it depends on your capacity to develop others. The way you get to move up is by having people higher up take you under their wing. You learn from them. There is a craft and the way you learn a craft is from a master. That’s how it works. It depends on how well you develop others. Also, depends in part on meeting others, to get the work of the org done. Unless people moving up ladder have leadership skills, those committees won’t work well. Everything depends on you getting better at these things.
How do you get better? You read everything you can get your hands on. You ask people to critique you. You get people to mentor you, and you get the most out of them. You are learning all the time. It’s all about learning, but the learning does not take place in an off-site scheduled workshop. It’s built in to the work.
Tucker went on to contrast this law-firm model with the U.S. model of professional development in schools. As he argued, U.S. teachers “get workshopped.” This workshop model often involves lectures directed at teachers, agendas set from those in higher up positions, and as a result teachers think of this as time away from the work they need to do. This professional development model is often disconnected from the classroom and the life of the school. Tucker noted that teachers in the United States get better and better in the first 3-4 years of their career, but then it tops out. He described this as a disaster, because research on expertise tells us that in any field it takes about 10 years to become an expert. Therefore, teacher expertise is not being developed. After 3-4 years most teachers have learned how to do their jobs well enough, and there is no incentive to get better. There is no increase in pay, authority, responsibility or status. Teachers are treated as if they do the same job equally well.
In contrast, teachers in Shanghai experience a very different model of professional development. Tucker argued that the Shanghai model–which applies to other high performing countries as well—looks a lot more like that law firm example. There is a career ladder, with a focus on developing the expertise of others. Teachers in the upper range of the career ladder are responsible for mentoring and everyone has a mentor. Teachers are also taught how to do research and they are regarded as researchers. They work together to collaboratively define projects with specific goals. They engage in a highly disciplined approach to improving the school and every aspect of it.
In this model, where is the professional development? It’s woven into work. Teachers are in each other’s classrooms – observing, critiquing. Teachers are doing research-action research published in journals read by other teachers. Teachers are taking workshops of their choosing – to build expertise that will be rewarded in career advancement.
*Stay tuned for an upcoming post focusing on Ben Jensen’s presentation: Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems. Jensen’s presentation expanded on Tucker’s introduction and argues that high-performing countries have in common the belief that school performance = professional learning.
Linda Darling-Hammond focused on what the TALIS report can teach us about teachers in the United States. She explained that teachers in the U.S. have insufficient time for planning and collaboration during the school day, which means that they are often left to do this work alone at home. U.S. teachers report that they experience less helpful feedback (coming from principals more often than peers), and sporadic professional development. Yet, collaborative practices and self-efficacy were indicated as drivers of job satisfaction.
Andy Hargreaves argued that while collaboration can be important to job satisfaction, we need to develop a much deeper understanding of what effective collaboration looks like. He argued that we need to know more about why collaborative practices are not always embraced by teachers. As self-efficacy was also related to job satisfaction, Hargreaves suggested that we also think about collective efficacy—the belief that we have in what we can do together, not just alone. Further work needs to be done, he explained, to develop our understanding of when collaboration is useful, when it is simplistic, and when it takes the form of “contrived collegiality.”
With this attention to collaboration and professional development, I decided to conduct a scan of education news around the world to see what I could learn about how different countries are addressing the topic. This scan showed that countries are grappling with several issues, such as the quality, time, and funding for professional development.
In British Columbia, the government is proposing to create professional development standards. Education Minister Peter Fassbender views the establishment of such standards as an act that would put the teaching profession on par with other professions, such as the legal, accounting, or nursing professions. While teachers are currently required to attend professional development sessions, new legislation would determine what those session cover; however, Fassbender says there will be no increase in funding to support the new standards. Concerns have been raised about the privitization of professional development, and the lack of teacher input.
In Australia, ACT teachers have spent a year arguing that they need guaranteed time each week for professional development and collaboration. According to Union Secretary Glenn Fowler, “Teachers do not trust their employer to protect them from snow-balling workloads, and we say to the employer if there is no guaranteed and quarantined time made in the new agreement, we will never see it, and that time may continue to get stripped away from teachers.”
Meanwhile, teachers inIreland oppose a plan for mandatory continuing professional development (CPD). While most Irish teachers place high value on CPD, a majority fear that “if compulsory, it would promote a ‘compliance mentality’ with minimal real engagement.”
New Zealandhas established Communities of Schools as part of their Investing in Educational Success initiative. These schools will set their own achievement goals and will be funded to allow teachers the time to “work with and learn from each other, supported by new teaching and leadership roles.” While funding for these new positions is proving controversial, as one principal shared, “You have to change things. You can’t stay in your same structures, if you do you will end up with the same result: busy schools that are too busy to share.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), has noticed how busy teachers in Scotland are as well, and called for a period of “consolidataion and calm.” Flanagan said teachers needed breathing space after the delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and new exams:”The last thing Scottish teachers need to hear at the moment is that the pace of change needs to be stepped up.” He called for additional resources and support for professional development.
We had a fascinating visit recently to the Koulumestari School in Espoo (a small city just outside of Helsinki), a school of almost 350 students from first through 6th grade (ages 5-12). The school is designed specifically to support students with special needs (20% of the students have that designation) and also focuses on the integration of new technology into learning. The visit gave us a better understanding of several aspects of the Finnish education system, particularly around professional development and the sharing of knowledge among teachers.
While there is considerable emphasis on teacher education in many of the reports on the Finnish education system, professional development for teachers often gets less attention. In part, that lack of attention may stem from the fact that, reflecting the autonomy that Finnish teachers have, decisions about what kind of professional development to pursue are generally left up to teachers to decide. Many choose to participate in courses or workshops offered by Universities, the National Board of Education, or perhaps their municipality. Furthermore, for the most part teachers in Finland develop their own class and work schedules, and when they finish teaching their classes they can go home for the day (more on teacher autonomy and scheduling in a later post). While there may be a mandatory meeting of a whole-school faculty once a month, in many schools, teachers can also decide when and to what extent to meet with their colleagues in grade level teams or for other purposes. In other words, from a US point of view (and the perspective of many other countries), collective and collaborative professional development seems to be relatively limited.
The Koulumestari School, however, offers an example of the effort that some in Finland are pursuing to develop more collective professional development. In another indicator of the respect for the autonomy of teachers and schools, these efforts often focus on a networking strategy: creating opportunities for teachers and schools to come together to share information, resources and expertise. For example, the staff of the school has decided to have what they call a “pedagogical café” four times a year, during their regular monthly staff meetings. At these times, the teachers share with one another what they are doing with their students, particularly pilot experiments using different technologies. Participation in a variety of other meetings, including meetings among grade-level teams as well as theme-based teams (such as one focused on assessment and evaluation) also facilitate networking and collaboration. “Benchmark” days—in which the teachers can choose to visit the classroom of another teacher or grade level—and “headmaster’s hours”—in which school administrators and teaching assistants take over the regular classes of a group of teachers so they can meet together—create more time for common work. One outcome of these opportunities has been the development of “combined classes” in several grades in which two teachers with classes of about 20 students and one teacher with a class of about 10 special education students all work together to share the teaching for all of the roughly 45-50 students. These combined classes grew out of an initial experiment when several teachers at one grade level decided to try combining their classes; as other teachers learned how it was working, it spread to other levels and groups of teachers. (Interestingly, for the purposes of coordination, the school leader needs to know when teachers are planning to be out of the classroom for professional development, but the teachers themselves are responsible for getting substitutes.)
Illustrating a network approach at a municipal level, Koulumestari opened in 2007 after the City of Espoo put out a call for applications for new schools that could serve as “learning centers” with particular themes (something akin to “demonstration” schools). These learning centers were designed to focus on issues like special education and the integration of technology (in the case of Koulumestari) and to share what they were doing and learning with other schools in the area. As is often the case for new US schools in places like New York City, the application process included a formal proposal with a design for their school that was submitted by the current leaders and selected from a number of applicants. In addition to participating in meetings and visits with members of other schools in the network, teachers at Koulumestari have now started to offer professional development classes for other teachers in the municipality as part of the regular roster of professional development courses that Espoo offers every year. The school is also pursuing the same networking approach at the national level, as the school applied for and was awarded funding to serve as national learning center for technology and innovation. Through that network, the Koulumestari school is working with 65 partner schools throughout Finland, sharing practices, participating in joint professional development, and working together to develop a model for innovative schools. They also started piloting a global innovation network this past spring
While these networking efforts illustrate one approach to professional development in Finland, it is also important to point out that these efforts share many features with networking initiatives in other countries but they run against the grain in some ways of the same professional autonomy that is often cited as a key strength of the Finnish system. While teachers can choose to work together and share ideas, they also can choose to work on their own. There is a fundamental tension between autonomy and the kind of interdependence and collaboration that many would argue is needed to enable workers and organizations of any kind, including teachers and schools, to be more effective.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) reported that the number of public school teachers who took a leave from their schools due to mental health reasons in year 2011 was 5,274. While this number is down 2.4% since 2010, the number is still twice as many compared to 10 years ago. The main reason for the increasing depression is a decrease in a healthy work-life balance.To improve the working environment for teachers, the ministry proposed two plans. One is to assign experienced teachers to new teachers as mentors. The second is to implement training programs for returning teachers, who took a leave from their work, to facilitate their re-entry.