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Leading a Learning Community

-by Garry McKinnon, Superintendent 

The Minister of Learning the Hon. Lyle Oberg, in 2003 following an in-depth process of public consultation accepted a report from the members of Alberta's Commission on Learning entitled, Every Child Learns- Every Child Succeeds which set a new direction for education in Alberta. Most of the 95 recommendations in the report were implemented. Recommendation 13 made reference to requiring every school to operate as a professional learning community dedicated to continued improvement in students' achievement. A Professional Learning Community was described as one in which teachers and school administrators continuously seek and share learning and then act on what they learn.
Almost ten years later, there continues to be a recognition of the efficacy of the learning community ideal. In the Alberta School Leadership Framework school leaders are urged to nurture and sustain a culture that values and supports learning and to: promote the success and development of all students as a shared responsibility; promote and model lifelong learning; foster a culture of high expectations for students, teachers and other staff; foster and sustain an inclusive school environment; promote and facilitate meaningful collaborative professional learning; ensure that parents are informed and have opportunities for meaningful input and foster the use of local community resources and agencies to enhance learning and development.

Certainly there has been significant progress made in addressing the ideal of every school as a professional learning community (PLC). We have moved beyond the practice of slotting in certain times during the school week for professional learning community activities and have recognized that PLC is not a program to be implemented; it is a disposition and way of doing and thinking. We have also moved to a more inclusive description of learning community which includes students, parents and other community members as well as the members of the professional teaching staff. There is a recognition of the merits of facilitating collaboration through timetabling common planning time for teachers and modifying the school year to provide for a significant amount of time for job-embedded authentic professional development as is the case in the Calgary Science School.

Through the years, school leaders have encountered challenges in translating this vision for a learning community into reality. I offer the following scenarios which reflect some of those challenges:

Scenario One - At the first staff meeting of a new school year, the principal describes the mandate for schools to become Professional Learning Communities. She comments, "besides it is not a bad idea; we should all have a learning focus in our school and we should all be lifelong learners". A staff member responds," it is a good idea, but it is just another thing that we have to do along with everything else. I am feeling overwhelmed! You suggest that we should be collaborating and working together but I'm so busy I don't even have time to get the work done myself let alone taking time to meet with a partner teacher. If I had my way we would take away all of the time that is allocated for staff professional development and collaboration and allow us to spend time in our classrooms planning and getting organized". 

In education we have seen many bandwagons and teachers have learned to become skeptical and to resist change for the sake of change. I don't believe that promoting classrooms and schools as learning communities is a bandwagon; it represents all of the elements of exemplary learning and teaching which I have shared in an earlier blog. When I reflect on my early years as a teacher, I would say that teacher isolation was the norm. I recall examples of teachers hoarding resources and not sharing ideas. There was a sense of being on your own and there were not many incentives in place to promote and facilitate collaboration. On the other hand, rather than painting this bleak picture of isolation, there were many examples of colleagues reaching out, providing support and assistance and sharing ideas. I benefited so much from those opportunities and I have always found that I learn and accomplish so much more through interactions with others.

I found through my work with student teachers that frequently there is an assumption that students know how to work in groups and how to learn with and from each other. It doesn't necessarily happen naturally. Teachers need to work with students and to help them develop collaboration skills and skills for becoming an active, contributing member of a team. Similarly, it is the school leader's role to develop among staff members teambuilding skills and an appreciation for the great opportunities which are available through collaboration and participating as contributing members of a learning community. Teachers need to see that there is a huge benefit to collaboration and it is the role of the school leader to provide the setting and the incentives for collaboration and learning and teaching together as members of a learning community.

There is another old paradigm centered on the belief that teachers teach and students learn. We now recognize that if teachers are not learning students are not learning. Teachers are models and mentors of learning. This highlights the importance of providing opportunities for teachers to be lifelong learners through incentives such as the Calgary Science School Research and Innovation project fund which provides financial support for teachers to explore areas of interest relating to learning and teaching. I highlighted in an earlier blog, the exciting work of teachers who are involved in a rich learning experience through thirteen action research projects. As well, the allocation of 16 days in the modified school year for professional development is another indicator of the emphasis on learning and professional growth in the school. It goes beyond allocating the time for professional development. A great deal of thought is given to organizing relevant, engaging, job-embedded professional development experiences which are integrated and interconnected learning opportunities rather than isolated events. There is a recognition that professional development should involve production rather than consumption.

I have been so impressed with the spirit of collaboration which prevails in the Calgary Science School and I would describe collaboration as a hallmark of the school. Three of the teacher initiated Research and Innovation projects which are highlighted in the Connect! Blog directly address the efficacy of collaboration. In fact, collaboration among teachers as colleagues, teachers and students and students with their peers with a focus on learning together, is a common ingredient in the Connect! Blogs. The strong commitment of the Board of Directors to promoting collaboration and learning within the school and beyond is reflected in the creation of the position of Professional Development and Collaboration Coordinator. The position is funded through the general revenue from the Alberta Education grants even though there is not a specific grant for this purpose. The mandate of the position is to promote professional learning and the development of exemplary teaching practices within the school as well as to extend collaboration and learning beyond the school through providing opportunities to share best practices with teachers from other schools. Calgary Science School teachers have embraced the opportunity to open their classrooms to visitors and through sharing their practices to learn and grow with and from colleagues within the school and beyond. Since the beginning of the school year there have been an average of twenty-four visiting colleagues in education on a monthly basis to the school. This average will be increased significantly when the Calgary Science School will be hosting 300 colleagues in education (including the Alberta Minister of Education) at the ConnectEd conference on May 25, 26 and 27. Teachers also participate in exchanges and lesson studies in which they plan and implement learning activities jointly with colleagues from other schools and make meaning of the experience through reflection and dialogue. The Connect! Blog has grown phenomenally through the school year with over 600 hits a day becoming the norm. Through the Connect! Blog the Calgary Science School teachers have taken a risk in making their teaching practices public and participating in a dialogue as active members of a learning community which has expanded far beyond the walls of the school. It has been especially exciting to see students blogging along with their teachers about their learning experiences together.

Scenario Two- At the first School Council meeting of the year, the principal makes reference to the focus in the school on coming together as a professional learning community. There is an unanticipated angry response from a parent who observes, "I am so upset with all this talk about the school as a professional learning community. As a parent it makes me feel like I am a second-class citizen. It seems that all you want from us is to raise money for the school and to do all the menial tasks like photocopying that teachers don't want to do. On top of that, I don't think students are included in your so-called PLC either. The school would be so much better if you took time to hear the student voice and to find ways to treat parents as true partners in the education of their children". 

This scenario was written several years ago and I am not sure how realistic it is today. There was a time when the principal took pride in having a small handful of parent show up at School Council meetings because this was an indication that parents did not have any major concerns with the school. Now principals want to see an active School Council because they have a great appreciation for the significant contribution parents and community members can make to the school. Rather than citing specific examples I will refer you to the Connect! Blogs written by CSS teacher Tanya Stogre as part of her action research project relating to parent and community involvement and engagement in student learning and the life and work of the school. I also refer you to the College of Alberta School Superintendents website and the module designed to help school leaders Building Effective Partnerships for School Improvement: A Principal’s Guide for Promoting Meaningful Parent and Community Involvement through the School Council and Beyond. 

Our Minister of Education the Hon. Thomas Lukaszuk has been a very strong advocate for focusing on student learning, hearing the student voice and finding ways to meaningfully involve and engage students in their education. He also makes the point that if individuals involved in education in Alberta and the work of our schools are not positively impacting the quality of learning for students they should rethink what they're doing and refocus on student learning. There are many action strategies for school leaders to engage students such as: establishing a student advisory committee; visiting classrooms and asking students- what should we start doing, quit doing and keep on doing?; student bear pit sessions to hear the student voice on specific issues; student surveys to provide feedback to teachers and focus groups (think tanks) for students to share their perceptions and participate in setting a direction for the school as a learning community.

I welcome your feedback and suggestions in regard to my thoughts on learning communities which I have presented this blog and I offer two questions to ponder.
  • Is it worth the effort to promote collaboration and to strive to become a learning community?
  • How can students and parents be meaningfully involved as members of the school learning community? 
In my next blog I will take on what many would describe as the most critical aspect of school leadership-providing instructional leadership.

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