Creating engagement is not about driving a particular set of behaviors. It is much more about creating an environment in which people feel energized to do the best work of their lives.
Massive and global changes in the ways that we learn, connect and live dictate fresh approaches to professional development (PD). The confluence of accelerated learning and the vast array of possibilities with connected and engaged educators creates exciting and challenging conditions for changing practice. PD in a networked organization is fundamentally different from PD in the traditional hierarchy. The difference is that the focus is on exponential change created and promoted by networks of field-based educators committed to sharing their practice and spreading the change. These networks act in concert complementing the more formal structures of the organization.
Professional learning practices, innovation and social movements are inextricably linked. With ideas spreading exponentially, there is indeed an opportunity for a radical social movement among educators. For the purposes of professional learning, this can be best described as an increasingly rapid contagion of ideas, projects, stories and practices that spread. The movement becomes self-propelling, reaching critical mass and, over time, results in new behavioural norms. These norms become habitual and when widely adopted by members of an organization, shift the basic assumptions underlying the culture. The ultimate outcome: widespread adoption throughout the system, and tacit positive transfer of learning creating an enduring impact for all learners.
Effective PD is as individualized for teachers as is learning for students. In many respects, it is about creating the optimal conditions for teachers to flourish in their practice. We believe these conditions are created by embracing uncertainties, encouraging exploration, play and risk-taking with instructional practices. Indeed, this might be the most profound and wonderful time to be a teacher in education. There is much opportunity to change the nature of learning, the path of our students, and ultimately, impact the world. At the heart of it all, educators want to make a difference and are poised in an essential position to do just that. In truth, many educators have been waiting for this time.
FRAMEWORK FOR INNOVATIVE SYSTEM PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Our framework is a recursive cycle of action, attraction and shared learning that evolves as more and more educators adopt innovative approaches towards their professional practices. We call it Leap, Pull and Play. When applied at the school district level, the framework embodies guiding principles for PD that are leveraged across a systems context, such as:
- exposing educators to innovative ideas (latest research);
- offering multiple opportunities to experiment and explore;
- focusing on evidence of student learning;
- seeding innovative pilots based on professional inquiry;
- keeping projects teacher-led, teacher-driven and school-focused;
- building the capacity of teachers and administrators;
- creating networks of learning communities;
- maintaining commitments to ongoing staff development;
- offering multiple projects aligned with district priorities;
- adopting a strategy of diffusion for replication; and
- sharing of learning through social media.
LEAP: DECLARATIVE ACTION AND COMMITMENT
I jumped in with both feet and haven’t looked back.
Where do we begin? Despite knowing that the loss of enthusiasm and disengagement of students is increasing and that there is an urgent need to adopt innovative ways of teaching, school systems and their educators struggle with getting started. Leap is a dramatic action that requires courage and determination to do things differently. Grade 1 teacher Nikki Leech best expresses it:
“The longer you wait the more scared you will be; sometimes you just need to take the leap.”
PD strategies in large systems need to create the following: opportunities to challenge the status quo, individual and organizational dissonance, and a compelling vision of a new future that is worthy of adopting. The leap requires courage, commitment and choice. Early adopters and innovators demonstrate their convictions as they springboard into action. They create a model of inspiration and compel others to also take the leap.
Organizational cultures that can embrace uncertainty are more adaptive and this is key in creating an environment where teachers can flourish. For professional learning to cascade across the system, organizations must build a supportive and permissive culture that encourages, acknowledges, validates and celebrates the leap into exploration of new ways of teaching. Multiple diffusion strategies, from the use of social media to creating networks of connected educators, allow the story to spread, creating a tipping point so that innovation, best practice, inquiry, and deep engagement become the norm in the schoolhouse.
System leadership acknowledges this risk-taking, supports early leaders, and provides recognition-creating opportunities to share successes. Highlighting centres of excellence, lead teachers, classrooms, and schools provides a window for others to realize it can be accomplished. When educators leap and are declarative they move their practices and their thinking from conformity to positive deviance, from incremental changes to exponential changes, and from ordinary to extraordinary.
How do we gather the courage to think in these big and bold ways? What creates the motivation and the desire to learn? How do we support teachers to be braver, bolder, and more declarative as we aim for exponential change? How do we pull the organization along in this new direction?
PULL: HARNESSING INFLUENCE AND ATTRACTION
People have to be pulled to innovation. You have to craft activities that draw people to innovate.
According to John Hagel in his book The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, professional learning is most effective when educators are pulled into their learning by the attraction of the opportunity for change. Pull allows us to harness and unleash the forces of attraction, influence and achievement. Instead of central office pushing teachers to change, educators pull the learning and the requirements they desire to meet their needs. Educators are drawn into and pulled towards the innovation that they find attractive. This pull activates the adult learner’s choice, autonomy, engagement and commitment into the transformation process. “Pull platforms harness their participants’ passion, commitment, desire to learn, thereby creating communication that can improvise and innovate rapidly”. The innovative opportunity acts like a magnet, pulling individuals and the collective organization towards a new way of being, understanding, and delivering their practice.
Hagel describes this change of pull as one of the big shifts in creating scalability. Leaders design opportunities for the organization to experiment, explore and take risks with their practice and structures for learning. A culture of innovation goes beyond giving mere lip service to good ideas but creates conditions so educators can translate ideas into action. Sometimes our motivation to learn lies dormant and it take exposure to others, to fresh ideas and altered practice to create a desire to learn. As educators take a leap towards new behaviours, they are pulled by the attraction inherent in the change. This pull, together with the leap, invites and encourages the rest of the organization to follow suit.
As Hagel identifies, “The power of pull will become the governing principle for success and those who learn how to use these tools and methods most effectively are the ones who will pull their institutions into a new era of higher performance and achievement, often through the use of edge practices at the core.” It is the invitation to innovation that attracts the educator that is prepared to be an edge player, innovating outside the norms of the organization. These innovative edge practices, as more and more become attracted by the pull, are moved from the outside of the organization into the centre.
PLAY: SPARKING DISCOVERY AND EXPLORATION
Play doesn’t just help us explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.
According to Greg McKeown in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, purposely designing opportunities and allowing educators to experiment, explore, take risks and play with their practice is fundamental. He indicates that play is important because it fuels explorations in three ways: broadening the range of options available to us; improving the brain’s executive functions like planning, prioritizing, anticipating, deciding and analyzing; and being an antidote to stress.
Colleagues come together, think/learn together, are inspired by experts, have conversations, wrestle with significant issues, and share what does and does not work. They explore and apply what they have learned and then share in multiple ways with their peers. When they are engaged in learning together, it becomes a form of play. Educators become inventive. Learning becomes fun and reinvigorating. The joy of learning returns to us and is echoed in our classrooms in our work with students. The joy of play and learning becomes contagious.
The significance of play is amplified in a social context of a shared learning experience and a shared supportive communitiy. This is where the diffusion strategy is activated and creates networks of educators committed to creating the best learning conditions for students. What is most important is engaging in the learning journey together.
In our context, this is really about the power of connected educators committed to a common purpose. It is creating the impetus for educators to begin identifying with and self-organizing a transformational movement. Creating and building social networks is a powerful strategy. Great minds, great ideas, and open sharing across boundaries create new opportunities for accelerated growth, inspiration, and impact.
MAXIMIZING PROFESSIONAL LEARNING
The solution, which I have seen work astonishingly well, is a second system that is organized as a network…It makes an enterprise easier to run while accelerating strategic change. This is not a question of “either/or.” It’s ‘both/and:’ two systems that operate in concert, a dual operating system.
How do we influence the conditions for teachers to shift their practice to create authentic, rich, and deep learning experiences offering students voice, choice, ownership and inspiration? Where do we find the leverage points for schools/districts to adapt their organizational structures in order for learning to take place in a 24/7 digital world? The viability of our public education system requires today’s educator to wrestle with these questions, engage the whole organization in these essential conversations and create a bias for action that delivers results. Professional learning requires a systemic lens that looks beyond the classroom to the schoolhouse and beyond.
Intentionally creating connections across the organization maximizes networks focused on relationships and results in more joy and satisfaction. However, it is the growth in numbers of participants, the depth of learning and the changed behaviour of participants that demonstrate the impact of these innovative approaches. This growth takes place when transformative practices from the edges move to the center.
The real test, however, and the true measure of a system’s approach to professional learning asks two fundamental questions: Does it change teacher and student learning? And, is it changing our institution of education? We need to think beyond the one classroom/one teacher pro-d strategy and look to the transformation of the whole organization. We are not settling for the status quo. Our vision needs to be much grander. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A social movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” We are in for a revolution, are you?
 Hagel, J., Brown, J.S., & Davison, L. The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion (2010). Deloitte Development LCC, Philadelphia, PA.
 McKeown, G. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (2014). Random House: New York, NY.
This blog post was part of CEA’s focus on the state of Teacher PD in Canada, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Teachers as Learners theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, What is Effective Teacher Professional Development? It has been re-posted here.
This post was co-authored by Dr. Elisa Carlson and Dr. Donna VanSant. Both share a fascination for innovation, leadership, organizational health, school culture and system change.