Sunday, 20 November 2016

SCEL- enquire-connect-engage

Here are some reflections on the first SCEL enquire-connect-engage event which took place at Shawlands Academy. I was welcomed by a very bright, lovely and chatty S1 pupil who introduced herself and then escorted me to the area of the school where the event was taking place.

On entering the space, I met in very quick succession Lynne Jones (the organiser,@MissJOnes), Fearghal Kelly (of pedagoo fame and SCEL, @fearghal_SCEL), David Cameron (@realdavidcameron) and Dr Aileen Kennedy,(Edinburgh Univesity, @DrAileenK), with these people in the room you know there are going to be great conversations around professional learning and practitioner enquiry.

David Cameron was chairing the event and in his usual charismatic style welcomed us all. In setting the premise for the day, David stated that perhaps “we should stop talking about good or best practice but start talking about sustainable practice”. Fenwick (2016:81) states “quality improvement has now become an expectation of professional responsibility” and I think that David is calling for a change in emphasis in Scottish Education to a more ‘meaningful and manageable’ model of practice that can be maintained, sustained and enhanced day in and day out.

Dr Aileen Kennedy gave the keynote which, as usual when I hear Aileen speak, both resonates and challenges my thinking in equal measures. Aileen discussed the following four key questions:

·         What is/might be transformed in ‘transformative professional learning?

·         How can we better understand the potential impact of different forms of professional learning?

·         What about issues of motivation and accountability in relation to practitioner enquiry?

·         Practitioner enquiry – individual or collaborative?

For some teachers, enquiry may promote levels of critical reflection that are ‘transformative’. Transformative learning occurs when individuals have the opportunity and skills to really question and consider their underpinning beliefs, assumptions, values and practices. This goes beyond developing content knowledge and requires a criticality and questioning approach, and as such the process of transformative learning can be challenging and 'uncomfortable'. The gains from transformative learning however are worth the effort as it can lead to meaningful changes in practice which impact positively on pupil learning. Kennedy (2011) talks about professional learning as needing to be “both personally and contextually relevant” so situated in the teachers practice and something that is relevant to them and their learners. This professional learning may be formal, as in part of an agreed action of learning through the PRD process or informal as it occurs through the year. Thus, the PRD action plan can be considered a live document that can be added to and altered in line with the needs of the teacher and their learners. In fact, Kennedy (2011) cites Rhodes, Nevill & Allan (2005) who suggest that informal and unplanned collaborative CPD [professional learning] is a key part of the development of professional identity.

Through Aileen’s research, she produced a 3 stage continuum of professional learning moved from transmissive to transformative. Within the tranmissive mode Aileen suggests that the models of learning include training models, deficit models and cascade models. At the other end of the continuum is the transmissive mode which has only one model of learning in Aileen's model, which is collaborative professional inquiry models. The middle section of the continuum is entitled  ‘malleable’. This malleable section contains professional learning activities that have the capacity to be either transmissive or transformative depending on why, how and what of the activity. This stage contains activities such as award bearing models, standards based models, coaching/mentoring models, community of practice models. The malleability within these professional learning activities is desired outcome. Is it about “negotiating identity, managing transitions effectively, producing innovations or even critically questioning norms of practice” Fenwick (2106), so about my autonomy as a professional or is it about institutionalised discipline? For example, is coaching and mentoring for my own personal growth or is it aligned to produce externally derived desired behaviours?

I was pleased to hear Aileen say that “practice is shaped by values and beliefs” as I am a strong advocate for the premise that professional values underpin teacher professionalism and teacher identity. At the moment, I am working with partner organisations to produce a learning resource which support teachers to explore professional values in their local context and how this informs their practice and professional actions.

The final question discussed by Aileen was about practitioner enquiry and an individual pursuit or a collaborative endeavour. Practitioner enquiry is usually undertaken within the practitioners own practice or in collaboration with others. Evaluation and reflective teaching are fundamental to practitioner enquiry and within collaborative enquiry the group shares a common research question which can then be ‘investigated’ through different lenses to enhance knowledge creation and dissemination within the group and beyond.  When a community becomes an enquiring community it opens up the possibility to challenge assumptions, to articulate values, to make their practice problematic and to form partnerships with academics to engage in theory and research to further enhance the life chances of their students. However, collaboration is almost seen as a power of good without any critical examination of whether it does lead to enhanced practice and shared learning. Fenwick (2016) states that “‘collaboration’ tends to be over-simplified in practice as a romanticised ideal of communication, and in policy as a universal governing imperative for professional work in public service”, this is augmented by Kennedy (2011) who states that “‘co-operation is not necessarily collaboration”.

In concluding, Aileen asked in undertaking practitioner enquiry, what would be your motivation? who do you share with? and who benefits? I think for teachers, regular engagement in practitioner enquiry supports professional growth by challenging or disrupting thinking. It helps to create a space to stop and look again at existing ways of working.

Having an enquiry as stance disposition is a powerful force in developing teachers’ agency and the enquiring professional demonstrates their commitment to engaging young people, their parents and the community in the education process. Through this, teachers recognize their accountability to learners and the collective responsibility of the profession, working together for the common purpose of improving outcomes for all and contributing in informed ways to “closing the attainment gap”. 

Fenwick, T. (2106) Professional Responsibility and Professionalism: A sociomaterial examination; Routledge

Kennedy, A. (2011) 'Collaborative continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers in Scotland: aspirations, opportunities and barriers' European Journal of Teacher Education, vol 34, no. 1, pp. 25-41.

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