Develop Learning Capacity

Here’s the last section of my KAM focused on overcoming organizational resistance. Here I focus on building the learning capacity of the organization as a strategy for sustained change. Of course this DRAFT is only a surface treatment of the subject, but I suppose this will all add up…

8. Develop Learning Capacity

Hord (2004) wrote that “substantive change is never simple, and any change requires learning” (p. 57). Ultimately, the sustained success of a professional learning community, or any individual change initiative, is dependent on the ability of the organization (or school) to learn. Change agents should focus first and foremost on developing the learning capacity of their organizations, and the individuals in those organizations.

The DuFours focused on schools as learning organizations (DuFour & Eaker, 1998, p. 15). Even though developing teaching skills is important, these authors describe a cultural shift from a school that is primarily focused on teaching to one that is primarily focused on learning (Eaker, DuFour, & DuFour, 2002, p. 18; DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Karhanek, 2004, p. 173; DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2006, p. 83), and from a culture of average learning to a culture of individual learning (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Karhanek, 2004, p. 177). They advocate “learning for all versus teaching for all” (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005, p. 12). They call for the principal to model lifelong learning (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005, p. 120) and to focus on developing a staff of lifelong learners (p. 121). Among their tips for celebrations, a key to sustaining professional learning communities, the DuFours even recommend sharing professional learning at weekly team meetings and monthly staff meetings (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2006, p. 91).

Other professional learning community theorists also emphasized the importance of learning for sustained change in schools. Wald and Castleberry (2000) focused on certain assumptions about adult learning; according to their model adult learning is an active process that occurs over time (p. 10), is driven by the learner around meaningful issues (p. 11), is experimental by nature (p. 11), and is fueled by rich, diverse, accessible sources of information (p. 12). They also felt that “inquiry into underlying assumptions deepens the learning process” (p. 9). For Wald and Castleberry a professional learning community would be one in which the learner “the learner not only hears and processes the information but also experiments with it and then documents and reflects on the results” (p. 10). It is also important that “opportunities exist for the expert to learn from the learner and for the learners to learn from each other and from their own fund of knowledge and experience” (p. 12). In addition, Wald and Castleberry write that:

“yet other rich and diverse sources of information can be found inside and outside the school walls… sharing know-how and ideas among staff… discussing success and failures, and… supporting each other in experimenting and reflecting… network with other teachers; access consultants and university faculty; and tap into multiple forms of technology, such as video, computer, and telecommunications.” (Wald & Castleberry, 2000, p. 12)

Roberts and Pruitt (2003) advocate a variety of means for members of a professional learning community to learn. One is to learn through a study group, or “a gathering of people who meet on a regularly scheduled basis to address issues that the group members have agreed to study” (p. 92). After all, “conversations among administrators, supervisors, and teachers are a critical aspect of building the professional learning community needed for successful school reculturing” (p. 91). They also suggest learning through a professional portfolio, or “a thoughtful document demonstrating a teacher’s approach to teaching or an administrator’s approach to leadership… and reflection about it” (p. 159).

Huffman and Hipp (2003) point out that a professional learning community is “focuses, first and foremost, upon learning on the part of professionals in the school as the way to increase learning on the part of students” (p. 76). This process of learning and application includes an early phase of “establishing a school culture that values sharing information” (p. 45). Meanwhile, “gaining knowledge, skills, and strategies often is accomplished by traditional staff development, including workshops, mini-workshops, conferences, district inservices, and university courses” (p. 47). It is critically important to throughout this process that the principal, as a co-learner, “models the level of learning expected from the professional staff” (p. 14).

Kagaan, too, wrote for:

“professionals who believe that the ‘whole’ of collective efforts is infinitely greater than the ‘sum’ of individual efforts. Professionals who are convinced that their own learning is prerequisite to the learning of students – and that the learning of students is enhanced by their own learning” (Kagaan, 2004, p. 1)

Kagaan (2004) also recommended several principals of staff development, including the expectations that “participants take responsibility for their own learning”, “exercises reflect higher-order thinking”, and “exercises engender collective energy” (p. 5).

Like Huffman and Hipp, Hord (2004), focused on “collective learning and application of that learning” (p. 1) and like Wald and Castleberry, she also focused on “making opportunity for teachers to learn” (p. 25). In addition to the sorts of experiences advocated by Huffman and Hipp, Hord emphasized the importance of teachers “learn[ing] from and teach[ing] each other by focusing their attention collectively on issues that they identified themselves” (p. 37).

Being primarily constructivist in their pedagogy, many of these theorists focused on the context of professional learning. Huffman and Hipp (2003) for instance believed that professional development should be “an activity that is embedded in the various educational processes of operating schools – curriculum development, student assessment, and the development and evaluation of instructional strategies” (p. 10). Roberts and Pruitt (2003) also advocated “job-embedded professional development strategies… [because] they are collaborative and offer opportunity for conversation, reflection, and inquiry” (p. 55). They also recommend that adult learners need to have “a practical use for the knowledge and think it will benefit them in real life” (p. 60), and they recommend that learning be an active and interactive process (p. 61). Similarly, DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker (2006) warn that “to transform data into information requires putting data in context” (p. 61) and recommend this as part of professional development efforts.

A great deal of adult learning is involved when new educational technologies are integrated into a school’s teachng and learning routines. For this reason, change agents responsible for the integration of new educational technologies, such as video games and simulations, must address the needs of the adult learners who will be implementing the new technologies. Professional development should be collaborative, context-embedded, and congruent with the principals of a professional learning community.