When we take our class on an excursion, we have the whole damn thing mapped out meticulously in our heads, our clipboards, our inboxes, on our phones/tablets, and in the heads of our co-workers and students. Not just in this reality, either. We’ve got plans, backup plans, and contingency plans for every possible eventuality across a number of parallel dimensions. Ok maybe that’s a slight exxageration, but it along with the week, term, and year planners that correspond to even broader scoped & sequenced curricula should be enough to make my opening point that schools like to plan things pretty thoroughly in advance.
Why should the Professional Learning organised by our schools be any different? Sure, the way we approach it and our goals will have an entirely different focus, but surely something as powerful as an engaged, motivated staff that are constantly and infectiously building upon their own skills deserves a level of strategic attention, right? The power of it lies in the balance that you strike. A great school professional learning program demands a balance between the career growth planning of the people involved and the demands of the school’s context and projects. The trick? Making that balance not feel like a chore. The big-picture stuff needs explicit purpose. The self-development stuff needs ownership. Sound familiar, classroom educators?
Leaving the Doors Open
We all know that one of the biggest flaws of the traditionalist industrial model of education is that it’s all about control and teacher omnipotence. I’m the boss, I’ve got the real details, and I’ll decide what you find out and when. Call it “jug to mug,” “sage on the stage,” or whatever you want, it demands and assumes that the teacher has all the information or (especially in these heady days of standardised testing culture) all the answers. The problem is that there’s a hearty slice of the profession who have actually come to believe it. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a pretty oppressive way to go to work. Sure, if I was Obi-wan Kenobi I might find it a little less daunting, but do or do not, there is no try to get me to pretend I’m equipped to deal with every question a student might throw at me. Especially if I’m doing my job right and getting their brain cogs turning independently.
The enduring point is that knowing everything on the syllabus is no longer relevant in an age where access to information is democratised rather than institutionalised. More importantly, that kind of curricular dynamic places a socio-cognitive barrier between teacher and student. Albert Einstein’s mentality of not memorising anything he could look up began to go mainstream when we started carrying mobile phones with address books built in. Our kids are much more comfortable with this mode of thinking than the traditional way of doing our job is. The truth is that in a lot of cases for formal assessment, those young’uns need to get some kind of comfy with it. The truth is also that as learning itself becomes more associative rather than authoritative, being able to demonstrate a mode of thinking familiar to the students lends us credibility, and stops us looking like out of touch fuddy-duddies in the eyes of our second-harshest critics.
Based on the programs I’ve experienced as an observer, participant, and facilitator, you need a few key things firing away in your staff culture before you can really start rolling your sleeves up. Your staff culture needs to value independence & curiosity. A good way to start building this is to introduce a self-help approach to tech support. It builds confidence and independence in your staff, acts as an under-the-radar introduction to DIY professional learning, and also frees your IT team up to do more interesting things.
Next, your entire school needs a focus on learning, not schooling. Promote the idea that within those walls, everyone learns, and everyone’s in the same boat together. I know for some folks that creates an uncomfortable grey area that houses the concepts of student respect and staff authority. In that case, stick with the boat analogy. All aboard, but the Cap’n has a fancier hat. The most important part of this learning culture is that it is highly visible. If students can see their teachers engaged in learning within the environment as well, then you’re not only making tangible steps towards promoting lifelong learning (how many schools say it, then how many schools do it?), you’re also offering another layer of proof to the kids that you’re on their side. But really, it’s not the kids you need to sell on this. Teachers are generally pretty good at making school some kind of interesting and enjoyable place. It’s the teachers that you have to sell on a participatory, all-hands-on-deck PL model like this one. I’ll go into more detail about this in my post on the role of leadership, but suffice to say that if you’re promoting the idea that nobody’s exempt from learning as the basis for your PL system, then everybody is involved. Part time classroom support staff through to principal, everyone learns visibly. If you get that right, even the most reticent “I’ve taught one year 25 times” sticklers will have a hard time working up tantrum traction.
Next time I’ll talk about the multi-tiered model we used for PL planning in my last school. Partly schoolwide, partly departmental, and partly independent & crowdsourced, there’s a little piece of the cake for everybody.