Monday, 25 Nov 2019
The Complexity of Professional Learning
Leading a school is a complex business—not just complicated, complex. ‘Complex’ is a word often used when it is difficult to keep track of all the factors that are impacting on a situation and it is hard to make sense of what is happening. Complicated situations or things are ones where there are lots of things happening but, given enough time or skill, the pieces can be separated out and put back together and they will work in the same way. An example is the motherboard of a computer—it looks like a jumble to a layperson, but it can be dismantled and reassembled by a skilled person. Taken apart, each part and what it does can be understood; it can be fixed, or the part replaced to improve the computer’s functioning. It is complicated, rather than complex. Complex phenomena are different. They are characterised by interactions and interdependencies. They cannot be meaningfully dismantled in order to be understood. If they are taken apart, the pieces will not be enough to understand how the whole thing works. One thing does not necessarily lead to another in a complex system, so ‘fixing’ a part of the system can lead to unexpected consequences, or to no change at all. Cause and effect are not closely linked — things spiral in a complex system, rather than proceed in straight lines as they do in complicated systems (Cochran-Smith, Ell, Ludlow, Grudnoff, & Aitken, 2014; Opfer & Pedder, 2011).
Leaders of professional learning often apply thinking that would work for a complicated situation to what is actually a complex situation. They might bring a professional learning program into the school thinking that it will target the ‘bit’ of practice that ‘needs fixing’, and once done, student outcomes in that area will improve. It is assumed that making changes can be enacted in the same learning environments in which this practice was previously absent. This linear thinking (problem with maths — maths professional learning package — better maths) is very tempting, and prevalent in education, especially in policy circles. It denies the reality of experience, though; when staff engage with a professional learning program there will be a range of responses — some practices might change, some people might change a lot while others seem impervious and the changes may last in some learning environments or be short-lived in others. ‘Interventions’, such as workshops, courses and programs, are predicated on teacher learning being complicated, but teacher learning is complex. It is not surprising that most have little sustainable impact.
If we accept that schools and teacher learning are complex phenomena, rather than complicated phenomena, what does that mean for leading professional learning? First, practice, and change in practice, need to be considered holistically, as products of teachers’ or leaders’ beliefs, values, experiences and knowledge. Each aspect of practice is linked to all others, and to the practitioner’s identity and values. Trying to change just one aspect of practice is difficult in these circumstances.
Second, context is significant in shaping practice. Context includes obvious factors, such as the students, school community and staff profile, as well as the impacts of broader policy frameworks, resourcing decisions and professional body regulations. Schools do not exist in isolation; they are part of a web of fundamentally interconnected parts that comprise the broader education and social systems, which impact what they can do and how they can do it. Importantly, context also includes the history of the complex system — past attempts at change, the school culture and the way things have been done before. All of these things are not just background to any professional learning initiative, they are integral to it.
Third, complex systems are dynamic, constantly changing entities and they change and evolve through interactions. The flow of information and communication in a system are its life blood, and frequent, recurring interactions are the means by which new understandings and practices develop. This means that a complexity-informed approach to professional learning within schooling improvement needs to pay attention to interactions and the ways in which talking and sharing between leaders and colleagues occur.
Trying to lead professional learning in ways that have an implicit view of teacher learning as complicated will not lead to transformative and lasting change because schools, professional learning and school improvement are inherently complex phenomena and need to be treated as such.
Principles for professional learning that respects complexity
When addressing the challenges of change and improvement through professional learning using a complexity lens, the interplay of students, teachers, leaders, parents and the wider education system needs to be considered. These players and their intersections form the context and are integral to improvement efforts. Does the school have a strong professional learning orientation where the expectations of leaders, teachers, students and community are high? Or, as a leader, is this the learning culture you are trying to develop through the professional learning process? How do teachers interact with one another and with you as leaders? Is there an openness to take risks or does everyone play it safe?
Then there is the complexity of each participating educator. What are the previous experiences of individual leaders and teachers in this learning-and-change space? How are the beliefs, knowledge, biases and motivations likely to interact with the changes proposed?
This complexity can feel overwhelming and it is impossible to attend to each part because they are all interwoven. Change in any one area will have a ripple effect through others. What we suggest as a way forward is that leaders design professional learning experiences according to a set of principles that address complexity and are consistent with the research that underpins high-quality professional learning with impact. We then go on to describe an inquiry process that fits with these design principles.
One important principle concerns developing teacher agency to make a difference to their student learners (Hattie, 2015). Learning to do something differently and to value something different demands letting go of past habits and beliefs. Those offering professional learning programs and those promoting them, such as policymakers or school leaders, are often more convinced that such changes to teachers' practice will be of sufficient benefit to themselves or their students to make the effort worthwhile than the participating teachers are (Twyford et al., 2017). The kind of passivity and compliance generated when others make decisions for teachers about what will best help their learners is the antithesis of developing teacher agency. Such agency is about teachers and leaders 'being able to express their professional commitment and responsibility to bringing about change in … educational achievement and accept professional responsibility for the learning of their students' (Bishop, 2010, p. 1). They believe they can make a difference and take the actions to do so, rather than being reactive to, or passive within, a given situation.
Developing teacher agency to make a difference means focusing on students. The research is definitive on this issue. Little is likely to change for students unless addressing particular issues with student learning is the reason to engage in professional learning and addressing these issues forms the basis for assessing the impact of any change to practice (Hattie, 2015; Timperley, 2011). A superficially defined issue in relation to student learning, such as low achievement in literacy skills, is insufficient. The problem must be diagnosed in depth (for example,: Is it a problem with vocabulary or limited understanding of communicative purposes?) and the contributing issues unpacked (for example: Is it primarily a problem of motivation or a combination of motivation and skills?). New practices are then designed to address the diagnosis and contributing issues. Professional learning programs or courses that carry teaching practice titles such as ‘Feedback’ or ‘Formative assessment’ typically focus on the teaching practice, rather than the student learning issue the practice is intended to address. While these practices can have high effect sizes when implemented well in research settings, there is no guarantee they will address the needs of any given teacher’s diverse learners — not only because they are constantly interacting in unpredictable ways with an uncertain curriculum but also that the teachers themselves fit this description. A more holistic approach is more effective.
Professional learning must be supported by, and embedded in, a coherent learning culture focused on a few priority, student-focused goals if it is to make a difference (Jensen et al., 2016; Timperley et al., 2014). Complexity theory highlights the influence of the context on how a teacher teaches, their motivation to engage in new learning and their ability to change practice. This issue is central to the idea of embedding teacher professional learning within a schooling improvement context with a few priority goals on which everyone is focused. Many approaches to professional learning act as if the school is a collection of individual teachers each doing their own thing rather than an organisation with coherence where the context influences the thinking and actions of individuals who, in turn, influence the context.
Professional learning implies the development of new knowledge and skills. This principle means engaging deeply in new learning through multiple opportunities to learn and practise over time (Timperley, 2011). Because teaching is a practice, new learning about teaching can best be understood through practice. There will be times when the underpinning ideas are presented and discussed but, ultimately, the new learning needs to be supported in situ if it is to be enacted in the complexity of the practice context. The acquisition of new skills or knowledge cannot be considered additive, that is, simply building on what is already known. New ideas are likely to challenge existing beliefs, assumptions and biases because individuals bring a history of both learning and practice to a particular situation.
The final principle concerns the use of evidence. While many teachers believe they know what is going on for their learners, they rarely gather evidence systematically from the learners’ perspectives and involve them in its interpretation. Nor do teachers use a range of evidence to assess the impact of any changes they make to their practice or use it to decide what to retain because it is working and what to change because it is not. Evidence is sometimes thought of in terms of the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) or final year examinations. This kind of evidence can provide an overall picture of a cohort but fails to give a detailed, just-in-time picture of student progress in the improvement process. The development of more detailed measures is essential to making good instructional decisions.
All these principles are dependent on working with others to discuss, dissect and reintegrate ideas and evidence, and figure out how they impact on practice. Learning is essentially relational and social (Dumont, Istance & Benavides, 2010). Our brains are primed for social interaction and the construction of individual knowledge occurs through negotiation and cooperation with others. These ‘others’ may include those with specialist expertise together with colleagues who are experiencing similar challenges. Leaders must also be among the ‘others’ to support the learning and change process in situ and to challenge when learning is limited or problematic assumptions are getting in the way. Leaders are essential to help situate the new learning in the school improvement process and ensure it is focused on students.
The principles together address the complexity of change. In the next section we describe how inquiry approaches to professional learning can weave the principles together in ways that have an impact and are supported by research evidence (Jensen et al., 2016; Timperley & Parr, 2009). ■
This is an extract from Leading Professional Learning: Practical Strategies for Impact by Helen Timperley, Fiona Ell, Deirdre Le Fevre and Kaye Twyford (ACER Press, 2 December 2019, $59.95).
Read more about the spiral of inquiry in Teacher.