This year at our Choice Literacy Workshops the last gift we gave everyone was a backpack with the quote, “To Teach is to Learn Twice” printed on it. It was a terrific present for teachers who are constantly lugging half of the contents of their classrooms home and back each night. The quote has left us thinking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if schools had a professional culture to match that quote? Would we need to read so many books and attend so many conferences on professional learning communities if school cultures embraced the essence of this quote? What makes it so difficult to achieve a true professional learning culture in schools?
Linsky and Heifitz remind us why it is difficult to bring this quote to life in their book, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. They outline two types of challenges that face groups who are trying to make change: technical and adaptive challenges. Neither type of challenge is trivial, but an adaptive challenge is one that cannot be easily fixed or solved. An adaptive challenge requires the involvement of all members of an organization in order to be achieved, and requires these members to learn.
When we were district administrators we learned the differences between these types of challenges. We would attend administrative meetings that focused on the latest vision statement, assessment results, or district initiative. We would leave these meetings with a mission to devise an action plan to make change. At first, it seemed straightforward — the problem/challenge had been defined for us, and all we needed to do was choose a solution and set up a plan of action to implement it.
What we failed to understand initially was that in order to implement the solution we needed support from teachers. It was the teachers, or stakeholders in Linsky and Heifitz theory, who needed to learn and ultimately implement the changes being mandated by the central administration. The reason organizational change takes three to five years to happen is due to the adaptive challenges that are required. You cannot expect a group of teachers (or any group) to become a professional learning community by handing them a vision statement, or even writing it together. It may be the latest initiative, and you may send representatives from each school to a conference on professional learning communities, but it does not ensure the culture of the school will transform. This type of change is adaptive, and requires time for teachers to understand, learn, and become comfortable interacting professionally in a different manner.
Although schools create an environment for student learning, many facets of our profession do not encourage the adults in the environment to embrace the philosophy, “To Teach is to Learn Twice.” Our traditional evaluation system does not necessarily promote learning – it is based more on performance. Our traditional teaching structures do no necessarily promote collaboration – they tend to isolate teachers. Even our pre-service tradition of “take over week” sets up an expectation that teaching alone proves that a new teacher is ready; there is no expectation that a new teacher demonstrates effective skills collaborating with a mentor teacher as a condition of readiness.
Professional learning communities make so much sense and there is great research available on how to successfully implement the steps to organize these groups. Yet too often we are seeing districts not allow enough time for these professional learning communities to grow and develop. A culture shift often is often necessary. Only by examining your current culture can you determine how your school culture needs to shift.
Why Shared Leadership and Shared Inquiry is Crucial
Professional learning communities encourage teachers to examine assessment data together, collaborate around teaching practices, and identify areas to increase their expertise. While schools and districts can solve the many technical challenges that arise when first initiating this type of work (scheduling; providing assessment results in a timely manner; purchasing professional resources etc.) the adaptive challenges of this type of work will require deep learning on the part of the organization. When we worked as curriculum coordinators at the district level, we realized we needed to slow down, stop sending out so many memos, and think about how we were going to work with teachers to solve some of the adaptive challenges we were facing as we moved into developing professional learning communities in our district.
To help us figure out how we were going to move initiatives and mission statements into the realm of concrete actions in classrooms, we created a district leadership team. This leadership team included teachers, and was responsible for determining the learning goals for the faculty each year; the indicators of success for these goals; and for designing how staff development would be organized. This team worked each summer to plan the next year’s goals, indicators and staff development plans. They presented their work to the faculty during the first week back to school. The larger faculty membership then offered suggestions and revisions were made before school began. Not every member agreed with all aspects of the plan, but teachers felt represented in the decisions that were made.
As Richard Elmore states, “The most powerful professional development occurs in real time around real problems in real schools involving real people who actually have to make decisions about what to do on a day-to-day basis.” Achieving this goal of authentic work in a school or district teaching community is an adaptive challenge. Once you are in a place to do what Elmore suggests, you have achieved a true professional learning climate. How you get there is the more complicated issue.
We have found that the best way to achieve this type of climate is to develop authentic shared inquiry. Teachers need the opportunity to look at assessment data and think about what real questions come to mind when they analyze the data for their students. When real questions are posed, we find it is easier to begin exploring, revising, and ultimately learning together. When you begin with real questions, then the stakeholders can participate in finding answers to these questions. Often there is no right or wrong answer. Teachers collaborate to share what is and is not working in their classrooms, and together find instructional strategies to lift student understanding, motivation, and learning.
For example, in one district we looked at strategies for teaching character traits after we noticed students’ confusion around this skill. We researched best practices, watched professional videos, co-wrote lesson plans together, and co-taught lessons. Teachers tried different lessons and strategies in their classrooms, and then shared with each other what was working and what was not working. Together, we began to strengthen our understanding of this skill and brought clarity to our instruction.
“Professional development is not about workshops and courses; rather, it is at its heart the development of habits of learning that are far more likely to be powerful if they present themselves day after day.” Michael Fullan wrote these words in The New Meaning of Educational Change . These habits of learning shift the culture of a school to view teaching as learning twice. We hope Linsky and Heifitz’s work might help you identify the technical and adaptive challenges you need to solve in order to achieve these habits of learning.