When schools find it difficult to learnUnfortunately, I think the story is only too familiar. A school decides to improve student learning by way of a particular pedagogical tools, e.g. clear learning goals and high-quality feedback. A number of professional learning networks (PLNs) are established. The school year starts. Some PLNs do some work, others way too little.
"the only thing that is truly learned is that the organisation finds it very difficult to learn"
And at the status meeting with the school leader all the hurdles and difficulties and impracticalities and examples of bad student behaviour and the lack of time and objections to pedagogical theory are pointed out, and we spend almost all our time discussing whether all these factors are real or imagined and how to work around them. And, sadly, the only thing that is truly learned is that the organisation finds it very difficult to learn. Status quo comes up trumps once again, and five years down the road someone will say: "Oh, we tried that once. Failed miserably."
What goes wrong? I am in the process of learning that three factors are crucial:
1) Time and competing priorities.
2) Lack of vision
3) Lack of didactic reflection in the context of PD
ad 1) We often talk of a lack of time when it comes to PD. All school leaders must have learned the lesson by now: allocate time for PD! But even if the advice is heeded, PLNs will still point to a lack of time as the main obstacle. Why? Because %-time and now-time are two different things. There is the kind of time that involves year planning. The kind of time where leadership will tell the teacher that 7% of her time has been allocated to PD and work in her PLN. Leadership is happy. We've done what the books tell us to do.
"With %-time, the project becomes a slave to the calendar, with now-time the calendar becomes the servant of the PLN"
The teacher is, at first, happy. They've appreciated my need for time. But it won't do the trick. Because the first kind of time, the % kind of time, is very different from the feeling of now-time. Now-time, as the name suggests, gives the teacher a feeling of when there is actually time for the needed activity. And it makes sure that the other teachers in the PLN are available at the same now-time. With %-time, the PLN becomes a slave to the calendar, with now-time the calendar becomes the servant of the PLN. This is crucial. PD deserves and needs now-time - and it is a leadership responsibility.
"We all learn from experience, but we also learn from our dreams and visions"
ad 2) In broad terms we might know what we want, but do we really have a clear vision of where we're headed? In the context of student learning and feedback, we now know that it is extremely important for the student to know where she or he is going. Students must be familiar with model examples of their work. We all learn from experience, but we also learn from our dreams and visions, because they serve as feedback in relation to where we are at any given stage. I want to go there, but am I there yet? So, do we always present a clear vision that PD can learn from? Far from it. We might in general terms express a wish for clearer learning goals and better feedback, but what does that look like? What does the school look like if we get there? What would student or teacher life be like if we get there? And, basically and perhaps most importantly, what would the outstanding course and lessons look like? We as school leaders really do not deserve results if we can't answer these questions.
"If we disrespect pedagogy and didactics in the context of PD, how can we respect it in the context of student learning?"
ad 3) We expect all teachers to make pedagogical and didactic decisions when it comes to teaching and student learning. We are all well aware of the fact that different learning goals require different pedagogical tools, variations in lesson design etc. Yet, when it comes to PD, we rarely take the time to reflect on didactics and pedagogy. Granted, there will be PLNs that have reached a stage of meta-learning where they will, in fact, make conscious decisions concerning didactic approach, but it seems reckless to generalize from these outstanding few. For PD to have broad effect, we need all PLNs to work - also when they are only just coming to grips with the form itself. So, we need to teach PLNs how to create learning experiences, and we need a broad range of techniques, because different goals and priorities will simply require different techniques. It seems unlikely, for instance, that a PLN will be able to rely on the technique they used to improve their leadership of class discussion in a situation where they want to improve their course design. And using the wrong technique leads to a high degree of frustration because there will be a feeling of having done all the right things and achieving very little. Some school leaders, myself included, might not feel completely comfortable with this task, but then we (indeed: I) will have to learn or seek help. If we disrespect pedagogy and didactics in the context of PD, how can we respect it in the context of student learning?
There's so much we can do to improve schools, so much we can do to make the lives of students and teachers more fulfilling. But without tackling the three factors discussed above, we are not going to get very far. So, let's get to work!