professional development

Why we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation)

This blog post might end up with a nice title like “Why Collaboration is Key.” But really, it is about why as educators, we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation).

Imagine that you are a student and that the information on this infographic represents a student’s experience in school.



Some students will be able to transfer from one subject area to another on their own. For instance, a grade 7 student might be able to connect setting and character in Language and literature and then connect these concepts to geography and how geography shapes the thinking and behavior of people.

What are the chances of most students being able to transfer understanding without guidance?

We need to collaborate

Collaboration, and guaranteed time spent doing it, is key to a coherent experience for our students. A study of an impoverished school linked knowledge to teacher and student learning and found that the connection between collaboration and reflection and learning was missing.

The study focused on uncovering how teachers attained knowledge necessary to improve learning in their classrooms and throughout the whole school. The study used semi-structured individual interviews, classroom observations, and follow-up interviews to form a picture of teacher and classroom learning. The purposive participant sample in the study was chosen based on teacher’s individual traits, experiences in the teaching career, and a reputation as an effective teacher. As the investigator gathered data, he examined the narratives for themes that emerged and coded them for analysis. What he found teaches us about how teacher knowledge and practice is influenced by available opportunities for collegial discourse.

Teachers participating in the study classified professional knowledge into four types. Practical knowledge, or knowing the ‘what’ of teaching came in the form of teaching strategies. Pedagogical knowledge, or knowing how to teach, formed the basis of how teachers planned and carried out instruction. Curriculum knowledge consisted of currency with a field of expertise such as subject content knowledge. A fourth type of knowledge was relational knowledge, which was social in nature and addressed, for instance, how to deal with student behavior.

The teachers interviewed in the study found that they experimented with creative ways of delivering content, but received no feedback and so fell back to lecture as the preferred lesson method. Often as they used the lecture method, teachers used questioning, but the questions were found to resemble a script. Teachers asked questions about content, and students quoted facts and descriptions from texts. There was also a reported lack of classroom management knowledge since the only pedagogy teachers used was content transmission. Students were observed to be apathetic, showing no love for learning, and they also lacked self-management, often showing up late to class and not submitting work.

The study also found that there were no structures for sharing knowledge in the school. Teachers were isolated because no common space was provided to congregate and talk about teaching and learning. There existed a negative attitude towards discussion; one teacher admitted that discussion feels like debating and that colleagues did not accept others who wanted to discuss teaching issues. The timetable provided no collaborative time, and there were no other structures in place that would provide opportunities for discourse about teaching and learning.

In interpreting the study, the researcher pointed out that part of practical knowledge is reflective, consisting of knowledge of a teacher’s own efficacy and agency in their professional identity.

Schools impoverished of collaboration are impoverished of learning.

Without collaborative structures in place, teachers cannot be expected to construct understanding of practical, pedagogical, curricular, and relational knowledge apart from what they learn on their own through other sources such as textbooks about teaching. In this impoverished situation, teacher knowledge resides in a bubble, isolated and static. Pedagogy stagnates in this context since it is uninformed and unformed by any other tensions that would result from shared dialog and discussion.

How teachers structure teaching and learning often reflects constructive understanding of these events. In other words, teacher discourse is a source of learning, which in turn shapes how teachers teach and how their students learn. What we learn from the above case study is that schools impoverished of collaboration tend to lose focus on learning. The implication is that student achievement suffers.

From a personal standpoint, teacher isolation impacts teacher growth. More often than not, teachers tend to use curriculum materials that work in their classrooms. If an activity works one time or more, teachers file this away in their repertoire and are more likely to use the activity again. Over years of experience, the piles of activities grow into binders of ‘tried and tested’ activities. As student needs shift, or contextual circumstances shift, the binder of activities may not address learning needs. Rather than a repertoire of engaging activities, the teacher may find that what worked in the past is no longer working to engage students. In this century, when factual and topical knowledge is literally at a student’s fingertips and readily available to Google searches, what worked in the past may no longer be engaging to students. The isolated teacher, although experienced, may need professional revitalization to address current student learning needs. If the school is full of isolated teachers experiencing a dearth of collaborative professional learning, how might professional revitalization occur?

Removing teachers from isolation and providing them with opportunities for collaboration and reflection is not just a way to sustain professional learning. It is also a way to build a culture around inspiring practice.

Providing teachers opportunities, time and space for discourse is a way of putting collaboration into the structure of a school. As teachers transfer knowledge and understanding across groups, several things may happen.

One result of collaboration is better alignment across the board. Because people talk about curriculum, there are more chances to examine how it aligns, for instance. As teachers talk about aligning the taught curriculum, the written curriculum might begin to reflect this coherence. There may even be discussions about assessment and how this needs to be coherent.

Marzano (2006) has pointed out that a “coherent, viable and guaranteed curriculum” (p. 15) is necessary to improve student achievement. Discussions between teachers, which center the development of teaching around student learning is a start to guarantee a viable learning pathway for each student in a school.

But again, we cannot leave this phenomenon to chance. Just because we institute new staff rooms doesn’t mean that teachers will automatically engage in professional discussions that will transform practice and improve coherence in a school. Like all systematic processes, we have to develop ways to sustain the discourse and make it purposeful, impactful work.

As we end another school year, we might reflect on these essential questions:

  • How will we guarantee a coherent experience for our students?
  • How might we use collaboration to guarantee that coherence?




Marzano, R. (2006). What works in schools; Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo credit: Red arrows radom by via Wikimedia Commons.


Professional Development and Ways of Knowing

People don’t stop learning after they cease to be students. If you believe this, keep reading.

The changing landscape of expectations for learning leaders – teachers, administrators, coordinators – has changed the work we do to develop our programmes and our selves (Drago-Severson, 2009). The changing expectations for school and professional development are visible in the practices that are nurtured in our contexts. We speak of ‘pedagogical leadership’ and ‘collaborative planning and reflection’ practices, which explicitly describe the changing ways of knowing and working in our schools.

In designing how we work together, we might deliberately consider pedagogical planning, not just for our young learners, but also for our colleagues and ourselves.

Drago-Severson (2009) cites Kegan’s work on developmental stages of adult development, suggesting that adults have stages of development directly influencing how they learn and engage. The chart below summarizes the stages, characteristics of each stage, and the dispositions present in the learners at each stage (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2013).

Stages of Adult Learning. Copyright Powell & Kusuma-Powell (2013).

Stages of Adult Learning. Copyright Powell & Kusuma-Powell (2013).

The authors suggest that attending to the ways of knowing for individuals at each stage is key to professional development because these are the approaches that our colleagues use to make sense of the work we do together. They further caution that the stages of development are not linear; adults do not complete a stage and then move on to the next (Drago-Severson, 2009). Instead, the growth of adults is iterative and cyclical, and complex in that stages that precede others are incorporated into the complexity of stages reached (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2013).

In simple words, we are evolving as learners, and this evolution is messy work.

How might awareness of these ways of knowing shape how we design professional development?

Instrumental learning

Concrete tasks that are personally relevant require adults to work at instrumental levels. Learning a new Subject Guide, for instance, is a necessary concrete task. Instrumental learners appreciate guidance in knowing how to apply the principles in a subject guide to their own classroom.

Socializing learners

Collaborative planning and reflection is a social task. Perhaps collaborative planning, for instance on interdisciplinary units and subject overviews help social learners to feel psychologically safe that all in the group are tuned in to the same task with similar goals.

Self-authoring learners 

Self-authoring individuals appreciate clear vision underlining tasks. They appreciate opportunities to evaluate for themselves what they might learn from collaborative situations. They might seek to augment and enhance their own learning through self-chosen PLNs and focus groups.

Transformational learners

Transformational learners have the ability to tolerate ambiguity during times systems are incomplete or in progress. They see connections between systems in place to abstractions, paradoxes, and changing continuums. It’s OK with these folks that we are ‘building a plane in the air’ as illustrated in this video.

Professional development is no longer a one-size-fits-all design. Although we need quality-assured PD for our programmes to sustain implementation, we also need to differentiate in our planning so that all adult learners have pathways to learning that are personally significant to their own stages of growth as professionals.

The suggestion here is that perhaps the open-ended tasks that we set ourselves to achieve a healthy MYP (or any programme for that matter) require us to embrace the changing landscapes of expectations that take us forward. A set of metacognitive strategies might support the growth of our communities, wherein the answer “Read your subject guide” is just one of the ways to solve problems of changing practice. We must co-construct and support ways to learn for all ways of knowing.


Drago-Severson, E. (2009). Leading adult learning; Supporting adult development in our schools. New Delhi: Sage.

EDS. (2007, October 8). Airplane. Retrieved from

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your school’s organizational intelligence; How schools can become cognitively, socially and emotionally smart. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt.

It’s About You…and it’s Not About You at All

In our classrooms, we know that not all students are at the same place in their learning. Some have more background knowledge than others, maybe because they read regularly and read a variety of material. Some have more developed skills than other students, and each student has had more or less rehearsal of one or more skills. The classroom is a matrix of different learning trajectories, and as skillful teachers we must recognize where each student is and address each one’s learning accordingly.

Supporting adult learners is not unlike supporting young learners. Adults in any MYP are at different stages of understanding of programme elements and implementation. They come from a variety of teaching backgrounds and frameworks, they have different learning preferences, and they each have a different context and conception of their identity, of who they are as professional learners.

Because each learner comes with different strengths and needs, coaching as a support function is a way to value each learner’s existing knowledge and help him or her to find resources to set goals, achieve them, reflect on implementation of intentions, and solve problems encountered along the way.

Coaching as a differentiated support function

Coaching is allowing each individual learner to form a self-portrait of the self as learner in his or her own words. The narrative he or she provides through the coaching process is a “process of authentic self-presence, thinking and choosing as a way of discovering and knowing the nature and meaning of significant experiences in identity formation and selfhood” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 63). The coach functions as a mediator of this learning.

Feuerstein and colleagues (2000) suggest that this type of mediative learning includes being able to “experience that thing at deeper levels of cognitive, emotional attitudinal, energetic, and affective impact through the interposition of the mediator between the learner and the experienced object or event” (p. 275).

The coach is someone who conveys another person through their thinking from one state to another, more desirable state. Costa and colleagues (2013) use the metaphor of a stagecoach to represent coaching—a vehicle for taking a person from one place to another.

Source: US National Archives & Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

Source: US National Archives & Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s about you…and it’s not about you at all

If you are the coach, the coaching is about you, but it is not about you at all. The role of the coach is to attend to the other’s thinking.

When I first trained to be a cognitive coach, I thought I was a good listener. As I learned about the quality of listening necessary to be other-centered as a coach, I realized I was wrong.

In fact, when I used to listen, I engaged in either one or more of these:

  • Autobiographical listening – listening so I can connect to or chime in with something from experience
  • Solution listening – listening so I could help the person solve the problem
  • Curiosity listening – listening because I was curious

It is about you, the coach. The biggest change for coaching to become a successful support function is for the coach to struggle through the challenge of having to stop listening from these positions. We have to give up our own thinking and context to truly attend to the other person’s thinking.

Ways to listen thoroughly 

The skills needed to adopt a coaching attitude necessitated a change in the coach’s own cognitive behavior. If a coach is to convey a person’s thinking from one state to another, the coach needs to listen so that he or she can do the following:

  • Paraphrase the thinking to clarify it to the other person
  • Pose questions to move thinking forward

We might notice that with these two behaviors, we do not need our own experience, we are not the problem solvers of the case, and we only need what we are listening to, nothing more. These behaviors eliminate the necessity for autobiographical listening, problem-solving listening, and curiosity.

To be effective coaches, we must let go of our own attitudinal predispositions and practice complete empathy.

The values of cognitive coaching

Teaching and learning occurs through three valuable stages: intention, action, and reflection. (These are familiar to us as the curriculum: plans, teaching, assessment. It is also a reflection of our inquiry cycle: inquire, take action, reflect.)

Coaching helps to clarify how action addresses intention, and supports reflection on how this relationship between intention and action might be strengthened (Costa and Garmston, 1994). This function of coaching helps people work toward their goals for teaching and learning.

It helps people solve their problems. Often when people are stressed by challenge, it means their skills and understanding necessitate a stretch toward crossing what Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development” or what we might recognize as an implementation dip. Coaching helps the person find cognitive resources to continue their work toward stretching, through learning, to meet the challenges they face. In a coaching conversation, the listening, paraphrasing helps to acknowledge the emotions, and posing mediative questions helps elevate the thinking to the cognitive level, where problem solving can occur.

Leading learning is ‘messy work’

Each learner is on a different trajectory toward understanding. As leaders of learning, we need to allow each learner to follow his or her own trajectory at his or her unique, optimum pace. We also have the privilege of helping them find their cognitive resources to support them along the way. If we continue to be the assessors of each one’s learning, how might we help learners become independent, self-directed learners?

Leading learning, whether in a classroom or in a programme, is messy work. If we are mindful of what each person needs to learn and help them help themselves through coaching, we can cultivate a culture of self-directed learning in our schools.



Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (1994). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for renaissance schools. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.

Costa, A., Garmston, R., Ellison, J., & Hayes, C. (2013). Cognitive Coaching Seminars foundation training: Learning guide (9th ed.). Highlands Ranch, CO: Thinking Collaborative.

Feuerstein, R., Feuerstein, R. S., & Falik, L. H. (2010). Beyond smarter: Mediated learning and the brain’s capacity for change. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.



Weaving threads of understanding into school culture

When faced with the challenge of implementing new practices, often organizations go through an implementation dip because previous expertise no longer suffices in the new programme.

The organization can support teachers through some processes, which when combined provide what Drago-Seversen (2009) calls “holding environments” for professional learning. Holding environments are specific structures and processes, which help practitioners feel safe as they experiment, innovate, and create to enact implementation goals.

Support functions for teachers in implementation

MYP schools are fortunate to have teachers remain. Having knowledge and understanding of the MYP remain within a school as schools grow is a benefit to the overall culture of a school. How might a pedagogical leadership team provide support functions for teachers, as they grow and develop their MYP practice?

How might we support teacher thinking as teachers implement their plans in their classrooms?

The four support functions available to pedagogical leaders have inherently distinct purposes and ways of communication, and they each use assessment in very specific ways.

Evaluation as a support function

Evaluative Support is a more direct form of supervision. This is most familiar to us in many of the traditional appraisal systems, where the supervisor provides a formal process and criteria for teacher evaluation; there is a formal set of conversations that accompany the evaluation, and the teacher is bound to provide a formal, documented response to the evaluation. Evaluations are often useful when teachers are perceived to be not meeting expectations in a school, and the communication between the supervisor and the teacher consists of judgments of the teacher’s practice.

Evaluation as a support function usually comes from the supervisor. The assessment stance of evaluation comes from the formal appraisal system and its purpose seems to hinge upon a transactional contract, specifically the transactional contract between the teacher and the school as employer. The limitations of the evaluative support function lie in its inception; since the assessment is from a point of view outside of the teacher’s identity, the teacher’s default response to the evaluation is compliance. The response may take on more in-depth self-assessment, but this may not be an inherent element of the evaluative support function, unless it is specifically spelled out in the process itself.

 Consultation as a support function

Consultation as a support function is more two-directional in that its initiation can come from the supervisor or the teacher. Consultation means the direct instruction of aspects of practice, for which the consultant (often the supervisor) has expertise, which he or she transmits to the teacher. Either the supervisor can provide the consultation by directly arranging instructional meetings with the teacher, or the teacher can ask for consultation from the perceived expert. Whether the start of a consultation is from the consultant or the teacher, consultative conversations have a more flexible transactional contract than evaluation; if the teacher is the one asking for a consultation, there is an implication of prior self-assessment that has led the teacher to seek advice.

In both evaluation and consultation, the relationship between the two parties is not collegial, in that one party is providing the instruction for changes necessary to practice, and the other party receives or responds to this instruction.

Collaboration as a support function

Collaboration as a support function is collegial in nature. In a collaborative situation, colleagues gather to engage in dialog or discussion. Dialog has the purpose of reaching a shared understanding, while discussion has the purpose of reaching a decision together (Garmston and Wellman, 2013). Both of these conversations require that colleagues equally participate in meaning-making, and they use collaborative norms to contribute to the shared outcomes.

Because collaboration helps group members to contribute to shared outcomes, collaboration might be less stressful as a support function and more engaging. Each colleague contributes, each idea is honored and acknowledged, and all have ownership of the outcomes. Successful collaboration involves active listening, and norms, which when practiced make for effective, powerful work (Costa and Garmston, Ellis and Hayes, 2013).

Collaboration is multi-transactional, in that each person independently finds his or her contribution, but the group also finds its collective co-constructed contribution. This support function increases interdependence, or what Costa and Garmston (1994) term holonomy. Collaboration might also be transformational, in that the process and outcomes of collaboration increase a sense of agency and efficacy in individuals and groups (Brody & Hadar, 2010).

By Zarood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Zarood (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Coaching as a support function

Finally, coaching as a support function shifts the focus of the relationship in the support structure. Whereas collaboration requires that “we pay attention to self and others” (Costa, Garmston, Ellis and Hayes, 2013), coaching is wholly other-centered. Coaching is being attentive to another person’s thinking, and helping the person’s thinking move from one state to another, desired state. A coach conveys the person, through reflective paraphrasing and mediative questions, from a state of pondering into a state of knowing and understanding.

These support functions help teachers in implementation, and the pedagogical leadership in a school can thoughtfully apply each of these support functions in a range of situations deliberately assessed and provided the support to help teachers develop and grow their MYP practice, and embed understanding of the MYP within the cultural fabric of the school.

Supporting the Implementation Dip


“There’s a lot of assumed knowledge here.”

This statement by a teacher who was struggling to successfully transform his teaching in an MYP classroom was overheard almost a decade ago during a faculty meeting. It stuck with me because in transitioning to MYP: Next Chapter this year, I have heard similar sentiments as teachers make the shift from the previous MYP model to the current one.

The Implementation Dip

Fullan’s (2006) work on change management gives us some reassurance that learning is a way out of what he calls the “implementation dip,” that temporary slump in practice as practitioners struggle to learn new ways of practice and let go of the old ways, to enact a necessary change.



The “implementation dip” happens when we have to learn new ways of practice because old ways do not address necessary change.


The dip happens because old ways no longer suffice for implementation to occur. The way up and out of the dip is through learning the new ways of practice.

For those of us tasked with supporting teachers in enacting the MYP, we are mindful of the dip and each teacher’s approaches to learning and implementation. Perhaps, avoiding assumptions that teachers naturally learn to enact change, and providing support for these adult learners as each one struggles out of the implementation dip into approximations of mastery, help us to transition into new practices and transform our classrooms. Through supportive facilitation, pedagogical leadership helps teachers to transition and transform practice.

Unit planning as an approach to learning

From a teacher’s perspective, the daily teaching and learning is the priority. The way in to the professional knowledge necessary to transition to new practices might rest on careful and thoughtful planning for units of work.

By giving support in unit planning, we actually learn so much about MYP practice. What can we learn about the MYP through the practical planning we do for units of work?

Form and Function

Just in the first section of the unit planner, we uncover some pressure points for transition.

The first section of the unit planner asks for key concept, related concepts, global context, and these are synthesized into the statement of inquiry. The statement of inquiry is then unpacked through factual, conceptual, and debatable questions.

The structure of the Inquiry section of the planner assumes that teachers are familiar with key concepts, related concepts, global contexts and how each of these function. By asking teachers to synthesize these into a statement of inquiry requires understanding of the “structure of knowledge” (Erickson, 2008) which hold concepts as key to arriving at generalizations by seeing topics and facts become illuminated and organized through concepts. Breaking down the statement of inquiry into questions helps the teacher to grasp the interrelatedness of concepts to content in the unit.

Factual questions have content-based answers, so these questions show direction and scope of learning through content.

Conceptual questions engage students in analysis and synthesis. Conceptual questions ask for concept formation and attainment by students before application, analysis and synthesis. This helps a teacher understand the work that must be accomplished before asking students to express synthesis.

Debatable questions bring in the global context into the students’ engagement. Debatable questions necessarily call upon a choice of critical lens, or perspective, allowing students to draw upon authentic connections between the concepts and content learnt in a unit to the wider world beyond the classroom.

Pressure Points

A teacher’s pressure points in developing the conceptual framework of a unit might be implied in some of these.

  • How is concept formation and attainment facilitated?
  • How does an inquiry approach look like, sound like, feel like in my classroom?
  • How do I approach conceptual teaching and learning through inquiry?
  • How do I help my students learn to ask the questions?
  • What might it mean for me to allow students to ask the inquiry questions?
  • What might it mean for me to let go of some control and hand it over to the students?

Some of the above questions imply different levels of thinking that teachers engage to plan a MYP unit. All of the above are conceptual questions, in that they require teachers to examine concepts like form, function, structure, context, and even identity.The implications we might extrapolate from the questions above could be:

  • Knowing the Subject Guide and Principles into Practice documents thoroughly.
  • Understanding how concept based teaching and learning differs from content based teaching and learning.
  • Understanding inquiry approaches to teaching and learning.
  • Applying requirements in the Subject Guide and in Principles into Practice.
  • Analysing what is required in the subject criteria, what it looks like in student performance
  • Synthesizing knowledge and understanding
  • Evaluating what works
  • Creating new pedagogy that supports new learning objectives
  • Reforming professional identity as a teacher who uses a constructivist approach to teaching and learning

As we progress through a unit planner, we touch upon essential elements in the MYP framework. We learn that MYP teaching and learning is:

  • learning how to learn (ATL framework)
  • inclusive (differentiation)
  • constructivist (learning engagements and teaching strategies)
  • authentic (service as action)
  • reflective (reflection before, during, and after teaching)

At each step of the planning process, the teacher is challenged with new knowledge and understanding, new pedagogical opportunities, and even perhaps tensions within their professional identity. How these challenges are provided support directly impact the successful negotiation over the implementation dip.

How might we support learning toward successful implementation? Share your ideas in the comments.