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The Shifting Landscape of Professional Learning

By Dr. Kristen MacConnell
The Shifting Landscape of Professional Learning

Photo Source: RODNAE Productions, Pexels 

The pandemic has challenged us to think more deeply about our teaching practice and how to best support student learning. While many of the conversations in schools have focused on designing and implementing rapidly changing instructional delivery models (in person, hybrid, and online), another important, parallel conversation has been happening: the shifting landscape of professional learning.

Over the last year, some school leadership teams successfully adapted their approach to professional learning. As teachers learned what did and did not work through iterative cycles of learning with students across different instructional delivery models, school leadership teams began asking questions: What are teachers doing that work? How can we leverage successful teacher practice to support all teachers while positively impacting student learning? How can these effective practices be amplified across grade levels? Exploring answers to these questions helped teams design new possibilities for professional learning.

I had the opportunity to talk with five Directors of Teaching and Learning from International Schools in Brazil, Spain, China, Kenya, and Switzerland. We discussed topics including the shifting landscape of professional learning during the pandemic, ideas around maximizing in-house expertise while working alongside experts, and how schools are planning for the beginning of a new school year. Here are a few of the big takeaways from our conversation:

We are all learners

The pandemic has reminded us that we are all learners. While we come together in schools around student learning, teachers, school leaders, support staff, parents, and school board members are key players in our learning community. Over the past year and a half, we have ALL had to learn new skills (new technology platforms, better technology integration, etc.) and build more collaborative partnerships within our school communities.

Focus on what matters most for learning

Oftentimes in schools, it feels like you are going from 0-100. There is never enough time to “do it all.” While the pandemic didn’t force schools to slow down, it did force some schools to focus on what matters most in each school community. With the constant programmatic shifts to keep learning going, schools had to let some things go, take a hard look at what was most important, and then figure out the best course of action for student learning. Schools had to hone in on two questions: How do we keep our community safe and how do we best support our learners?

Wellbeing is at the heart of learning

Wellbeing and learning go hand in hand. The pandemic showed us just how strong of an indicator wellbeing can be for productive, joyful learning and for fostering engaging, collaborative environments. Just as student wellbeing is not only a lesson taught by the counselor or “taken care of” through advisory, faculty wellbeing is also definitely more than a “Wellness Wednesday.” As the new school year begins, some schools are rethinking their in-service days with a focus on adult wellbeing, building relationships, and creating a sense of joy and playfulness. They are using their in-service as a time to celebrate each other and the successes of the past year, to build off of those successes, and to re-energize each other for the year to come.

Powerful Learning Happens through Iterative Learning Cycles, Alongside Experts

The idea of the “calendar of experts” was thrown out the window with the pandemic. The pandemic allowed schools to rethink how to best leverage in-house and external expertise moving away from the “one and done” approach to professional learning. Over the past school year, some schools engaged experts for multiple sessions over a longer period of time. As a result, the external expert worked with faculty for a session, then faculty put their new learning to practice in the classroom. In house experts (teacher leaders, instructional coaches, school leaders) supported that new learning through structures such as PLCs, learning walks, and instructional rounds. Several weeks later, the external expert followed up with another session to discuss how the new learning was applied in the classroom and suggested changes or adaptations needed to improve the application of the new learned skills. Then, a new cycle of learning began. This iterative process of learning mirrors how we teach students. Cycles of inquiry with actionable feedback lead to impactful learning practices for both students and adult learners.

Collaborative networks are all around us

While technology advances over the past five years have made virtual collaboration much easier, some schools had not utilized those tools for collaborative professional learning. Instead, technology was primarily used for the hiring process and classroom learning experiences. However, the pandemic launched us into virtual collaboration that quickly extended beyond a single school community. Organizations such as AMISA, ECIS, and AAIE transitioned into networked learning communities. For example, AAIE connected school leaders on a weekly basis to provide support to each other, to share new policy, and to create new practices to help move school communities forward. Additionally, in some countries, international schools came together independently to support each other and learn together.

As educators look forward to a new school year filled with many unknowns, learning continues to be at the heart of all conversations. The definition of learning has expanded, with an emphasis on wellbeing, and the definition of a learning community has become more inclusive to include all stakeholders in the community. While the events that forced us to uncover these new learnings came with mixed emotions, the practices schools will carry forward and the new ways schools are engaging in collaboration and learning will continue to make us all better.

Dr. Kristen MacConnell is the Director of the Teacher Training Center Programs. 

Twitter: @kristenmacc

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09/19/2021 - Vickie
This is a great overview of our new norm. I appreciate it being shared through the lens of opportunity for growth and development from an expanded community. So many positive possibilities lie ahead.
09/18/2021 - LesleyT
Well done Kristen on an insightful article. This is exactly what we are also perceiving here in Ghana as well. Learning is the thing!