Waking into Light

I had to hug a teacher today.

She has taught for a decade, and this week has been delving into Marcia Behrenbruch’s Dancing in the Light, Marcia’s monograph on classroom inquiry. With tears in her eyes, the teacher told me how the stories in the book made her feel that she was awakening from a slumber, “emerging from a matrix where I had lain sleeping as a teacher.”

I hugged the teacher because for years, I’ve wrestled with the question of how a pedagogical leader can facilitate for teachers a glimpse into reality that they haven’t experienced in their own education. For most faculty in schools in 2017, how many of us were in schools which used systems to promote self-directed, conceptual, contextual, authentic learning? And how can these dreams we have for our students become reality when we struggle with what that looks like?

In my laptop bag is a set of questions from a workshop I led in November on using concepts to frame units of inquiry, and the sticky notes on which the questions are written are getting frayed at the edges. Teachers wrote the questions at the end of the workshop, as a wishlist for their own learning, for future collaborative inquiry.

  • How do we scaffold successful inquiry?
  • How do we inquire in lower phases of language learning?
  • How do we create performances of understanding?
  • How do we construct units of inquiry that integrate skills?
  • How to we learn concepts in depth?
  • How do we transfer understanding to practice?

That last question in the list, How do we transfer understanding to practice? seems to be the one that holds a possible universe of answers, a new matrix of professional inquiry our community can sustain. As I work on the professional learning community framework for the next school year, the teachers’ question suggests a readiness to deepen a culture of learning in the school.

Why this is The Question

The question above reminds me of an article in TeachThought and brings to mind a phrase overheard at our Dream Summit. Fran Prolman challenged our community to embrace intellectual humility as we began our Dreaming. The teachers’ question, How do we transfer understanding to practice? embodies intellectual humility, the openness to wonder and awe that most often sparks an authentic, personally meaningful inquiry. This is The Question we have to ask as a community of learners now, as we find ourselves in the thick of a future we don’t as yet have a fully formed picture.

Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

For 23 years I’d been in schools where the budget for professional development was ridiculously large. If we needed to implement something, we’d PD the heck out of it and didn’t think too much about the cost. Now, honestly, I’m a little more prudent when I think of what PD we might spend on. It has involved stepping out of my comfort zone, and rethinking high-impact (and not too costly) strategies to “transfer our understanding to practice.”

Like the teacher I hugged today, I am awakening from slumber and stepping into light. I can’t just throw money to address an issue of implementation, it’s just not an option. We needed to strengthen our Professional Learning Community (PLC), calling resources from within to launch our inquiry.

Embedding Professional Learning in the Day to Day Reality of School

Embedded, situational professional learning is not new. We know from research that separating professional learning from practice tends to hinder change in teacher practices. There’s a boundary, that education has seemingly encouraged, between what we do and what we are learning. The boxes that provide this boundary are packaged in weekend workshops, and the expectation might be that we find a deficit, unpack ‘the box’ of the workshop, and get what we need to be able to do. It’s expensive not only in terms of financial cost, but also in terms of sustainability: when the workshop leader leaves, what might guarantee that what we learned becomes reality? Another consideration is, How do we ensure that the one workshop addresses the diversity of adult learners in the school? Because of these concerns and more, professional development in schools has evolved to include many layers, including embedded, situated and differentiated professional learning through Professional Learning Communities (PLC) in the offerings.

Contextualized learning through the PLC is identified as one of the principles of effective professional development. This inherent strength of embedded professional learning may occur because of its proximity to practice, ensuring greater cognitive links between the teachers’ experience and visible impact they see as they apply their learning. Brody and Hadar (2011) for instance, found that teachers who persisted in their collaborative work reported changes in their practice as they internalized the learning and began to redesign classroom learning to reflect what they had learned. In addition, teachers documented changes in practice while working on both personal and professional goals, and reported a new sense of empowerment and agency as their practice evolved.

Peter Senge and colleagues (2000) discussed how learning groups promote new ideas in the workplace. To address change and build teacher capacity, teachers are more able to learn to address these needs by learning with each other in a collaborative context. Professional learning fosters reflection and making sense of problems that emerge in practice and provides a venue for problem-solving solutions relevant to the work context. In the design of a PLC, the collaborative professional learning structures would mirror the problem-solving process that teachers needed to experience the ambiguity of inquiry approaches that we need to internalize within its learning culture. If we want to facilitate the learning of transfer thinking skills for our students, we need to experience this skill ourselves.

At the same time, the PLC structure needs to address the need to build a sense of readiness to change. The design needed to include a process, which helps teachers to become more aware of their own practice and its impact on student learning. This is a key to building the school culture whose purpose is to deliberately impact change through learning.

The key to the PLC design is not in the procedural structure, those visible behaviors that emerge above the surface of the school culture iceberg. The key that we find is an invisible and organic structure, resting in the cognitive networks that the structure facilitated as the PLC functioned. The actual form of our PLC is in how minds, and the knowledge and understanding residing within, are deliberately networked so that teachers’ learning formed the fabric of the ways the school behaves.

Riveros and Vizco (2012) did a study on learning nestled within practice. Their study focused on the structures facilitating enactment of knowledge in practice, as opposed to within the content of the collaborative professional learning. They examined teachers’ conceptualizations of workplace policies in light of their involvement in co-constructing understanding of these policies while simultaneously working to enact them. The authors found that knowledge of practice is actively constructed in a social system through teachers’ connections within the PLC.

We learn that learning communities are not imposed but rather emerge from the work that communities engaged themselves in. As the teachers enact policies, the environmental and contextual factors of application and process provide parameters for enactment. In other words, how teachers apply their professional learning seems to depend on processes and social interactions rather than as a lock-step sequence of events that are predictable (Riveros and Vizco, 2012).

Conversations are easy to arrange, and they don’t cost a lot of money

What this means for our PLC design is that we might be mindful of a separation of professional development and practice, which could be a function of where knowledge of practice resides: in teachers’ minds. Since understanding of practice resides in individuals’ thoughts, the goal of embedded professional learning within PLCs is not to address the cognitive processes of the learners. What we learn is that the design of the PLC has to provide the social processes that allow communities to network knowledge and make useful the connections between what individuals understand through these social processes. We need more professional conversations, steeped in research and fueled by data from student work. We need conversations around learning, and we need time to have those conversations.

The ambiguity of what outcomes might emerge from the PLC leaves us breathless with energy that comes from possibility.

The light is beautiful here.


Further Reading:

Bahrenbruch, M. (2012). Dancing into Light; Essential Elements for an Inquiry Classroom. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Brody, D., & Hadar, L. (2011). “I speak prose and now I know it.” Personal development trajectories among teacher educators in a professional development community. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27, 1223-1234.

Riveros, A., Newton, P., & Burgess, D. (2012). A situated account of teacher agency and learning: Critical reflections on professional learning communities. Canadian Journal of Education, 35, 202-216.

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents and everyone who cares about education. New York, NY: Doubleday Dell.

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