During the 2018-19 academic year at Riffa Views International School, we went through a big transition, overhauling our teacher professional learning (PL). Following our new mission statement - Ignite passions. Personalize the journey. Impact through action. - we developed deep dives into learning related to a range of topics called Learning Pathways. The aim was to align our PL with our new ideals and mission by providing personalized learning for teachers.
Karla Gutierrez from Shift Learning says, “We can think of Learning Paths much like a road trip. The best road trips typically start with directions, but the driver must be able to adapt to changes in road conditions relative to the map.” As facilitators of these pathways, we wanted to choose a topic, but allow teachers to grab the reins.
Teachers were able to choose amongst six pathways facilitated by the leadership team that all aimed to help shift our school towards this new mission.
- Reimagining Math Learning
Personalized Learning for Boys and Girls
Wellness for all Stakeholders
Fostering Learner Agency
Reimagining Learning Spaces
We set aside ample time for these learning experiences - four afternoons of 3½ hours each, plus a fifth session for celebrations all happening on dedicated PL half days. The impact can now be seen across the school in a myriad of contexts, including the physical space, new assessment protocols, heightened awareness towards the wellbeing of all stakeholders, new blended math curriculum, learning walk protocols and much more. Feedback from teachers was positive about these days as they walked away feeling they had the opportunity to truly build understanding of these topics and have a direct impact on the direction of their learning.
Establish a Need for Change
As in a change initiative, starting with “why” is imperative. Establishing a shared understanding as a school of why change is needed can help galvanize those ready to move and act. At RVIS, we have a small community and pride ourselves on relationships between students, educators and parents. This community was a great start, but we knew if we wanted to lead the future of learning, we had to take a look at our existing practices to begin to break with some of the most stalwart traditions school has to offer.
As a school, our newly formed mission provided us with our track towards inspiring passions and personalization of learning. This helped us define the six different pathways and ultimately this model of teacher centered PL. The ultimate goal was to give opportunities for teachers to take learning into their own hands in order to inspire them to apply the ideals into their classroom. This is only possible if they are on board that change is needed.
"Get excited and enthusiastic about your own dream. This excitement is like a forest fire - you can smell it, taste it, and see it from a mile away.” - Denis Watley
The positive impact it has had on learning at the school has encouraged me to share five aspects I found invaluable to the success of these learning pathways.
When considering what your PL needs are as a school and your plans to tackle these areas, don’t forget to look at your own team first. All too often, we look for PL experts from outside our schools or travel to conferences when we haven’t tapped into the potential gold mine we have within our own staff.
For our pathways, we asked the leadership team to design these Learning Pathways based on both the vision for PL and their passions with the hope that this will help spread their fire amongst the participants in the sessions. Utilize the expertise and passion you have in your school. It is everywhere and when recognized, people will be excited to share.
Develop a Shared Vision
Once everyone has chosen their pathways and sessions begin, it is important to establish the scope and possibilities for your group. As the facilitator of these, it can be tempting to layout a path from beginning to end. However, the power of these deep dives comes from the group’s ability to directly impact where the learning goes.
Along with the traditional protocols of setting up group norms, expectations, and goals/outcomes also establish what the participants want to focus on. This can be started by identifying why they chose their particular pathway, what they hope to learn about, and their aspirations for after the pathway is completed. Piecing these wants, needs, and wonderings together can help your group define the trail you will travel during your time together.
Depending on the educators in the pathway, true control over their learning might prove to be difficult to begin with. Most teachers have experienced a compliance model of PL much like most students experience in school. Following steps the leader of the sessions shares without a say in where learning goes tends to be the norm. There may be some awkward moments when deciding what the group’s ultimate goals are. Push on through the awkwardness as it is worth the collaborative nature that can be built from the beginning when the participants see that this is their learning pathway that they chose.
"A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life. A word of encouragement from a spouse can save a marriage. A word of encouragement from a leader can inspire a person to reach her potential.” -John C. Maxwell
Empowerment comes through identifying your early adopters and highlighting all that they do. Encouraging those who do great work can be a simple but powerful gesture through the process.
Between the sessions, check in with your team about progress they are making. Share out their victories, no matter how small, through social media, blog posts, call-outs in a staff meeting, or simply by stopping by their classroom to acknowledge their great work. These simple gestures can breathe life into their spark.
Even more powerful than sharing their accomplishments is encouraging them to share their learning with others through mini learning sessions or other ways they feel comfortable with. Whatever you do, don’t let the work stay stagnant between learning pathway sessions.
To finalize the work that was done by each group, we held a showcase celebration of highlights from the sessions. It was a great opportunity to see all that had been done by each group. Ending with this helped consolidate all that we had accomplished as a school and helped end our in-house professional learning on a high note.
Build a Bedrock of Action
With these deep dives into learning, it is essential to ensure that the work is meaningful. Discussion and disagreement are part of this process, but actionable outcomes should be the focus of the group’s work and time. Setting the goals of what will be accomplished by your pathway should be established early. Utilize the design thinking process when applicable to focus on creating solutions to the challenges your school is facing. This process is human centered (often student centered) and builds in a bias for action as you walk away with testable prototypes and ideas. The worst case scenario is if no action is taken after committing ample time to the work you do.
These deep dives into learning are one way for schools to look differently at how they can differentiate PL for their teachers. Not all teachers need to be experts in every area. If we build communities of educators who can share knowledge and feel empowered as “experts” we can build true cultures of sharing within our schools. These deep dives can also spark passions in teachers to extend their learning and can make deep impacts on their classrooms. Ultimately, it also models the ideals of choice, voice, and differentiation in learning that we have come to expect that our teachers provide students with. We as leaders have the obligation to shift how we teach as well.
If you take on this model or adopt it to your school, I would love to hear your successes and failures so we can improve upon this model for the future. For further questions on logistics of the learning pathways, feel free to reach out. I would be happy to share details about the process in more depth.