When leaders create an environment where experimentation, exploration, discovery, creativity and innovation is embraced and nurtured…we are opening the door to make the transition from small pockets to scalability and organizational impact. (D. Culberhouse)
In January 2009 I embarked on an edu-venture with a group of nominated teacher leaders from the nine regional secondary schools. Up until this year we were the AfL Team navigating through the complexities and challenges inherent in implementing Assessment for Learning into their everyday practice. Like a support group, the AfL team met regularly to share their insights, struggles and successes. Through seminars, professional reading, workshops and field experiences, the monthly sessions serve to disseminate, demonstrate, discuss and discern current and relevant “Big Picture” ideas.
Now five years later we have rechristened ourselves as Lead Learners. In renaming ourselves, we have redefined our mission and vision: “We strive to make schools a more engaging, motivating, and inspiring place for students to question, explore and learn. As teachers we are life-long learners, inquiring and learning alongside our students.”
“As we move forward, we have to determine if we are vainly putting all our efforts into one seed and hoping it is enough for everyone…or are we spreading a variety of seeds to raise a crop that will nourish and grow the whole of the organization for the long term.” (D. Culberhouse)
In revisioning the goals of this learning community, I invited the current AfL team members to reflect on three questions:
1. How has your participation in the group affected your professional learning?
2. What has changed in your school as a result of your involvement in AfL?
3. What will improve the effectiveness of the group moving forward?
I was impressed and inspired by the candor of the written anecdotal feedback provided by the fifteen teachers. While it may not be statistically sound, their responses spoke volumes about the efficacy of teacher professional development: what works, what doesn’t?
How has your participation in the group affected your professional learning?
- “They have opened my eyes to what this vocation is all about and have helped me transform into the teacher that I have become today”
- “Personally the group has ignited a spark within me. Essentially the group has set a passion for learning with me.”
- “It feels like a book club that challenges the status quo and challenges the system to look for change”
- “Coming together has been the best Pro-D in my 27 years of teaching”
- “This has been some of the best pro-D I’ve ever done”
- “It literally changed the way I deal with assessment”
In articulating their response, I was intrigued by the verbs and adverbs they chose to define their experience. For example, affirmed/affirming/affirmation; appreciated; benefited; challenge/challenged/challenging; changed; encouraging; ignited; improved; inspired; invigorating; opened; refreshed; shaped; strengthened; stretched. What if these words became the criteria by which Pro-D was evaluated?
And these were some of the powerful statements on how being part of a learning community is a moral imperative if not a professional obligation:
- “commitment to professional learning based on topics that originate from these meetings”
- “I am more critical of myself as an educational practitioner”
- “I think that most of our teachers see that their practice must change to reflect what we all are doing otherwise our students will being to call us out for not keeping current with what is happening”
- “It has forced me to be brave and set out of the box a bit”
- “It is easy to get trapped in my own ‘silo’”
- “It’s easy to stagnate without professional discussions”
- “This group has made me accountable for being up to date on best professional practices”
What has changed in your school as a result of your involvement in AfL?
“So we plan and plan in preparation to plant this one big, giant seed, in the hopes that it will grow big enough to support the whole of the organization.” (D. Culberhouse)
Over the years we welcomed into our assessment conversation the experience and expertise of Jan Unwin, Chris Kennedy, Pernille Ripp, Jonathan Vervaet, Aaron Akune, Tom Hierck, Brooke Moore, Jacob Martens, Tom Schimmer, Rod Allen, Sharon Jeroski, Jeff Hopkins, and Nancy Walt. As individuals, the teachers have benefited personally and professionally from being connected to a larger educational community.
To varying degrees based on their growing confidence and competence, the participating teachers functioned as liaisons between the Superintendent’s Office (represented by the Secondary Educational Consultant) and his/her School Administrator.
- “… make me an important resource to my colleagues”
- “It has given me a voice of leadership within the school.”
- “With the staff knowing that there are AfL team representatives gives them leader to approach about questions, research articles or recommended books.”
As the designated “heralds” of AfL, what effect have they had on their own school staff? Overwhelming the teachers noted how the relationships and conversations between teachers were positively influenced by his/her participation. For example, teachers reported on the healthy and focused dialogue about assessment within the staffroom and between classrooms:
- “Conversations! Even though not all staff are on the same page yet when it comes to AfL, regular, daily, critical, cross-curricular, and informal conversations are taking place between all staff.”
- “It has also helped me by giving me the language necessary to discuss with colleagues at work.”
- “Our ability to not only speak to change, but gradually commit to ensuring change happens”
- “Teachers are in constant conversation about assessment. It is no longer a report card period discussion. We have stopped giving zeroes. There are no mark deducted for lateness. Our gradebooks are open and evolving. Students have the opportunity to improve via tutorials and re-dos! And our re-dos are improving!!!!”
What conversations are happening in your school, staffroom, classroom?
“Not only do we invite guest speakers, but we research and read articles, blogs, and essays written by leading educators and researchers on current best practice. It is also valuable to note that we exchange and share our own successes and challenges and learn from one another. This could be an informal round table discussion or an organized, collaborative school in-service. Collaboration has been central to our learning. We are shattering silos!”
What will improve the effectiveness of the group moving forward? Team members made the case for 100% commitment from their administrators and each other. “The effectiveness of this group is founded on how each individual teacher is approaching change, learning and research” but “we should be wary of transforming into an island, yet rather strive to become more of an artery and capillary system”. Being accountable for their learning, team members acknowledged the need for scheduled and dedicated time to debrief with administrators and share with their staffs. Of the many benefits of being “in the know”, teachers identified that they “no longer feel isolated from (the) district office; it feels like we are in a partnership and always there to lead each other.” This cyclic form of professional development is rooted in and fosters relationships. But as in all relationships, it requires the investment of time and open, honest communication.
“All organizations have pockets of creative and innovative excellence…the heavy lifting of leadership is bringing that excellence to scale.” (D. Culberhouse)
Privileged to learn with and from them, I am eager to see how the Lead Learners’ professional learning community will evolve. From formation (i.e. working on individual teacher growth plans) to information (i.e. keeping up with the paradigm shifts of the new curriculum), I am excited to see how we will get to transformation.
I know what works for our PLC; for example, keeping and being in the current; collaborating with the larger educational community; and contributing to critical conversations. The challenge is in finding practical ways to enable if not amplify these critical connections within and between the school communities. For example, providing Lead Learners with the time to learn and share their learning?
As Fritjof Capra shares in the ‘Web of Life’…“In nature there is no “above” or “below, and there are no hierarchies. There are only networks nesting within other networks.” (quoted by D. Culberhouse)
Perhaps the “fractal” is an appropriate metaphor for the effect of Lead Learners on his/her school community? Like the creation of galaxies, hurricanes and seashells, perhaps repeating the Lead Learner design at the school level will lead to transformation?
Perhaps it is as simple as giving time for teachers to talk about what matters?
What if transformation comes from tuning in (to relevant research) and turning to (your colleagues as critical friends)?
What if educational change means looking through windows (i.e. what’s working out there?) and looking at mirrors (i.e. what works here?) simultaneously?