What is Powerful Professional Development?

I have a passion for learning.  I was a curious kid.  A risk taker. A reader.  As a beginning teacher, my learning was fueled by the plethora of professional development opportunities to learn that were available in the system, including district and school based professional development.  The British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) provides a structure and funding for vibrant, Professional Specialist Associations to organize groups of like-minded teachers into Local Specialist Associations.  I jumped in feet first and became actively involved as participant and executive member of The Primary Teachers’ Association.  My first principal invited me to attend my first meeting of The International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association).  I would go on to become the president of the local chapter, The B.C.Literacy Council, and then provincial coordinator.  Human Rights Education.  Special Education.  English Language Learning.  Outdoor Learning.  I had a wide range of interests and the encouragement from colleagues and administration.

There is no shortage of professional development opportunities for curious educators.  In fact, the big question, is how do we take the front-end loading and personal passions and incorporate the ideas into educational practices that support our students in their learning?  The focus on “Make and Take” or “ideas to try tomorrow”, were often novel but not necessarily transformative in my practice.

I was fortunate to cross paths with Maureen Dockendorf.   After 5 years of teaching in Abbotsford,  I began teaching in Coquitlam.  I promptly signed up to participate in a Teacher Inquiry group led by Maureen Dockendorf.  We defined areas of interest.  Clarified our question.  Came up with a plan to work with our students and colleagues to find possibilities and sometimes, answers.   Reported out on the learning to keep us accountable for doing the work and integrating other sources or learning.  The added bonus was it was fun.  It involved collaborating with colleagues.  It caused us to carefully considering the questions and responses of our students.  It led to reflection of who we were as educators in the class and how we were meeting the needs of our students.  It allowed us to go deeper in our learning.

The work of Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert has been instrumental in the inquiry process becoming an influential force in the learning of educators and students in British Columbia.  The Spiral of Inquiry they developed has been instrumental in shifting the way we think about learning.

  • What am I learning and why is it important?
  • How is my learning going?
  • What am I going to do next?

Professional development expectations have shifted.  The merits of a powerful speaker conveying ideas based on solid research and practices continues to be inspirational.  The New and Aspiring Leaders Program designed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is masterful at bringing together inspirational speakers and facilitating with educators from all over the world.  Collaborative structures were built into the program to facilitate the sharing of ideas with educational leaders from all over the world.  Educators were astounded by the implementation of Universal Design in education for all students in Canada.

A number of strategies have become common place to facilitate conversation about the ideas.  Think Pair Share, sitting in table groups, focus questions, and mixer activities have become common strategies to encourage even diverse audiences to talk about the ideas being presented by the speaker.

Social media has become a tool to present, learn and engage with colleagues about ideas online.  I have seen this as a way to get people in the same room to engage with each other and the speaker.  Twitter has become my newspaper and educational magazine.  On a daily basis I will read articles, blogs and magazine stories that are recommended by the people I follow.

I also participate in twitter chats, some regularly scheduled like @BCedchat on Sunday nights at 7 pm PST, other slow chats over the course of a month, like @perfinker.  I share out things I’m excited about and sometimes plan to meet face to face with online , like annual Edvents facilitated by @Edvent247

I have been asked how I have the “extra” time to blog.  For me, writing is my effort to make sense of the ideas percolating in my mind.  Having worked as a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University, I developed a strong appreciation of sitting with ideas over a period of time before making a judgement.  It was not learning that came easily to me.  One of my colleagues in Coquitlam nicknamed me the Tasmanian Devil back in my SD#43 days.  Reflection takes time.  If I can reflect before formulating and articulating an idea in writing, then I am in a much better place to engage in a discussion.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural year of Short Course II offered by the British Columbia Principal Vice Principal Association.  The design of Short Course II  for experienced principals and vice principals incorporated the three elements I believe are required to exist in an infinite loop for professional development to be powerful enough to implement personal and systemic change.  The elements continue on throughout a lifetime, although not necessarily in the same order.

  1. Inspiring big ideas to consider
  2. Opportunities for meaningful collaboration with peers to occur
  3. Time to reflect on the ideas

Leading, learning and innovation was the focus of the four day summit offered by BCPVPA at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan campus in Kelowna, B.C.  The input was inspirational on so many levels.

  1. The Indigenous people in the area, welcomed us to the land and shared their teachings.
  2. David Istance not only presented but engaged with each of the groups. As many of you will already know, he was one of the authors of the OECD 7 Principles of Education that have been the catalyst of educational change around the globe.
  3. British born, Amelia Pederson, presented the doctoral work she is doing at Harvard and actively engaged with the group, table groups and individuals throughout the week.
  4. David Weiss, President and CEO of Weiss International, gave us his perspective from working with organizational consultants who lead innovative consulting and training projects.
  5. Innovative business owners in Kelowna welcomed our BCPVPA groups into their companies and engaged in conversations about their inspiration, their process of developing their innovative idea, the skill set required of their employees and their goals moving forward.

Opportunities were structured for collaboration with colleagues throughout the province over the course of the four day program and throughout the year.

  1. A facilitator was assigned to each group and welcomed us into our table group and posed discussion questions and processes to keep us on track.
  2. We sat in the same daily table group and had the opportunity to get to know each other and engage with the ideas and questions together.
  3. We also had the opportunity to meet with other people with similar interests to develop our own inquiries to focus our work throughout the year. I was able to connect both professionally and personally with colleagues from Delta and Richmond to tease out my ideas.
  4. Informal opportunities to collaborate were part of the program, such as the wine and cheese at a local winery and the Open Deck time on the roof of FreshGrade.
  5. Online opportunities were provided to meet with our table groups over the course of the year.

By the time I had finished Short Course II, I had defined the first of my professional growth goals.  This is a management requirement for principals and vice principals in the Vancouver School Board in in British Columbia.  However for me defining an inquiry goal has always been part of grounding me in my practice.  Doing it prior to the start of the next school year allowed me to reflect on the previous year, consider new learning and thoughtfully plan my year so I could act deliberately rather than reactively.  During Short Course II, we agreed to meet with other SCII participants and participate online with our table groups.  It being the inaugural year, the anticipated challenges with technology presented themselves.  However it provides a pathway forward to continue to engage with colleagues over time.  The more we got to know each other, the better the conversation.  The inspiration, the collaboration and grappling with the ideas over time, provided an amazing model for powerful professional development.

Fascination with the Brain

Walking along Jericho Beach as a little girl, this piece of wood screamed “brain” to me.  This was long before the fascination with the brain had extended beyond neuroscientists and doctors, to psychologists, to educators, to anyone aging and fearing cognitive decline.  The brain held secrets that were not readily apparent to the naked eye.  It was the also the basis of the best bonding with my neurosurgeon father.

Dr. Peter Dyck is not a man who relished talk of feelings, hopes, dreams, aspirations or divergent opinions.  However he has always been an example of the consummate learner.  He survived war times in Germany.  When he was 12 years old, he was sponsored to come to Canada with his mother and siblings by his uncle in Alberta.  He learned English and excelled in school.  He ended up working on his step-fathers farm in Abbotsford while attending school.  When a cow would die, he did not shed a tear.  He would dissect it behind the barn.   My aunt boiled many a chicken bones so he could reassemble them.  When I would go on rounds with him during summer visits to Los Angeles, the nurses would run when they heard his footsteps.  He was demanding of staff and took patient care very seriously.  Dad became fascinated with the possibility of destroying, rather than removing a brain tumour by using a local anaesthetic and a three dimensional C/T scanner to avoid the trauma of opening the skull.  Radioactive material in a small tube was targeted through a tiny hole in the skull into the centre of the brain tumour.  The concentration used would result in the radioactivity reaching only the tumour cells.  A team was formed including him as the neurosurgeon, Armand Bouzaglou, the radiation oncologist and Livia Bohman, the radiologist, to travel to Germany in 1981 to study the technique for stereotactic isotope implantation with Professor Fritz Mundinger at the University of Freiburg.   This technique was brought back to the USA and his first book about it’s success in avoiding the trauma of a full craniotomy was dedicated to the patients whose hope against overwhelming odds brought about this endeavour.

Not even neuroscientists agree on the inner workings of the brain.  However asking a question and our attitude seem to be the key components informing our brain and resulting in amazing accomplishments and sometimes survival.  Viktor Frankl’s answer to his question, “Why do I need to survive?” allowed him to walk out of Auschwitz and go on to develop his theory of logotherapy, write his influential book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and help many people find a way to cope with the challenges in their lives.   Norman Doidge details many examples of therapies that have allowed the brain to heal in ways that are still outside of mainstream medical practice in The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of  Neuroplasticity .  John J. Ratey, MD, in his book SPARK – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, provides a compelling argument as to why exercise is integral to our ability to cope with stress, learn, as well as maintain good mental and physical health.  The brain is central in all facets of our lives yet understanding how it works is still somewhat elusive.

Educators, such as Eric Jensen started to focus educators’s attention on Teaching with the Brain in Mind  in the 90’s.  Educators are now seriously considering the implications of what neuroplasticity means in the classroom.  Previously held conceptions about the limits of some learners no longer apply, and standardized testing has become one indicator of specific learning strengths and weaknesses, but not an accurate measure of future success.    Perhaps the greatest outcome has been talking to children about how their brain works and how they learn best.   This puts the responsibility and joy learning with the child and allows them to move beyond just looking for a good mark on an assignment.  Giving children the capacity to talk about the connections they are making in their learning and providing numerous opportunities to share their ideas and discoveries, opens up the possibilities to ask new questions and see their peers, teachers and parents as partners in a collaborative process.