Intercultural or international / / reaching out and reflecting in

International mindedness or intercultural mindedness?

Is it easier to practice or “do” one than the other?

Can one assess international mindedness more easily than intercultural mindedness, or indeed at all?

International or intercultural: both terms sit at the centre of international schooling. They are used synonymously but is there one that is more appropriate? In a recent research report conducted by the University of Bath, commissioned by the International Baccalaureate Organisation, on international mindedness, it became very clear that the term “international mindedness” was contested. Over the sample group of schools that were examined by the University of Bath research team, the term “international mindedness” was defined in a broad set of ways. It was framed as a way of acting, a way of thinking, a mind-set and a way of living, to name a few examples. A common thread that emerged in what the sample schools revealed was that the conceptualisation of “international mindedness” was intensely relational; a concept forged in relationships.

I do think that the interconnectedness, interdependencies, and leading people to think less in terms of international mindedness, and global mind-set, and more in terms of being able to relate to and understand other human beings, and their perspectives, and their point of views. [Principal, Colarado (DP)]‘So, for two people to be internationally minded, they both kind of need to interact.’ [MYP Y9 final years student focus group, Danube (MYP)]

(Hacking, Blackmore, Bullock, Bunnell, Donnelly, Martin 2016: 40)

Parents also centred their definitions on the notion of international mindedness as an ultimately relational concept.

Being aware that one’s own culture provides just one perspective on the world and that other people think differently. No one world view is the correct one… being excited by the differences. [Parent, Mekong (DP)]

(Hacking, Blackmore, Bullock, Bunnell, Donnelly, Martin 2016:40)

“International mindedness” was determined to be something ultimately based on “reaching out” and “reflecting in”. In the report, “reaching out” was often described in terms of listening to others, understanding others, valuing other perspectives, respecting others, not judging others, accepting others and being open-minded and open to other perspectives. “Reflecting in” referred to both staff and students knowing themselves and their cultures. This meant knowing one’s own culture and mother-tongue, having a sense of one’s own values, interests and opinions, as well as an awareness of one’s own abilities and weaknesses, and an acceptance of one’s past and background.

I suspect this is where the idea that “international mindedness” might be replaced by “intercultural mindedness” (or words to that effect) comes from. The term “international” has connotations of the “nation-state”, of being related to the idea of polities engaging with one another. Extending this to the notion of “mindedness”, which could be also understood to mean “disposition” or “inclination”, and then positioning it as a significant anchor point for international schooling makes for too narrower a claim for the purpose of education in this day and age. Is it redundant to perceive (one of) the purpose(s) of international education as the promotion of international mindedness, which ultimately is referring to the interaction of nations (as opposed to the people of those nations), at a point in world history that might be identified as transnational?

The view being put forward here is that perhaps international education is now intercultural learning by another name. In a world that might be currently characterised as transnational, when one calls for greater international mindedness perhaps what is being referenced is the interaction of people. In other words, international education is about understanding how the world interacts with itself not just on the level of the nation-state but, more critically, on the level of the people who make up the different constituent cultures of that nation-state, and potentially others at the same time.


Elisabeth Barratt Hacking, Chloe Blackmore, Kate Bullock, Tristan Bunnell, Michael Donnelly, Sue Martin (2016) The International Mindedness Journey: School Practices for Developing and Assessing International Mindedness Across the IB Continuum Department of Education, University of Bath.

When emotions run high

Teaching is an emotional profession. Whether one is in the classroom teaching history or leading the school through a busy week, teaching is emotional. There is plenty of research that indicates the need for a decent level of emotional intelligence when it comes to working in schools and this is certainly the case when one is the school’s lead learner. School leadership and emotional intelligence go hand in hand.

This is particularly the case when one is talking about change in schools and how a leader manages the process. If one can be tuned in to the emotional wavelength of those that they lead, especially through any degree of change, a school’s leader can gather information that will be helpful in walking through any transformative journey. Palmer (2003) suggests that an emotion is not just something that is felt but it is, in fact, a source of information.

It is not just on account of useful information that can be gleaned for the benefit of a change management process that we find emotional intelligence critical to the work of school leaders. Literature points to emotional intelligence being useful in transforming schools from good to great, effecting positive changes in schools that stick (Beavers 2005; Buntrock 2008; Fullan 2001; Moss 2008; Moore 2009; Patti, 2007). There is a focus on the constituents within the school, the faculty and staff. This post is briefly about the importance of emotional intelligence for school leaders when interacting with another key constituent group: the parents.

Emotional intelligence is a very important part of the school leader interacting with the broader school community. Being able to quickly deduce from the behaviour of a parent their state of mind so one knows what course of action one might suggest, what phrases or key terms to use, or, even, the type of tone in one’s voice can be the difference between a successful meeting or a complete disaster. Crucially, strong emotional intelligence will help to cut through the emotions that parents can bring to a meeting so that the real issue is laid plain for all to see.

Let us take the following as an example. A mother speaks to a principal about how her son is going at school. Emotions are running high because of the concern that the mother has and the fact that she strongly believes that the school is prejudiced against her son. She has itemised a number of instances that, to her, appear to support her claims. This has led her to make “requests” of the school that they communicate with her whenever there is an issue with the son. The mother has also implied that the faculty at the school are not professional in carrying out their duties in the classroom.

For me, the last issue would really rile me. To accuse members of faculty of a lack of professionalism, particularly without the opportunity to look into the matter more carefully, is not something I am keen on. Nevertheless, a leader with a higher degree of emotional intelligence would be able to read the situation for what it is: a need for reassurance that the school will partner with the mother in working alongside her son to improve his progress and general experience at school. All done without assigning blame or assuming that there is someone to blame.

Being sensitive to the emotional well-being of the parent is something that clearly helps in this small example. It is not the only thing that a school leader would have to do, however, for a successful resolution to this parental visit. I would think that speaking to the teacher concerned to find out more would be expected. Nevertheless, emotional intelligence, as a concept, implies that one processes a particular type of information into something that is actionable and useful, something that is objective and fair-minded: practical empathy.


Beavers, M. (2005). Emotional intelligence, school leaders and high performing high poverty middle schools in the state of Virginia. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.

Buntrock, L. (2008). Differences in emotional intelligence abilities between principals in high poverty AYP schools and principals in high poverty non-AYP schools in an urban school district. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moore, B. (2009). Inspire, motivate, collaborate: Leading with emotional intelligence. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Moss, M. (2008). Implementing the middle school concept in the age of accountability: A field study of leadership decisions and practices in successful NYC public middle schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Teachers College Columbia University, New York.

Palmer, B. (2003). An analysis of the relationships between various models and measures of emotional intelligence. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Swinburne University, Victoria, Australia.

Patti, J. (2007). Smart school leaders: Leading with emotional intelligence. Presentation at the First International Congress on Emotional Intelligence, Malaga, Spain: September 21, 2007.

Overthrowing the stress of the tyranny of the urgent

Whether one works in a national school or an international school, it is very easy to find oneself in a vortex of being busy all the time. Meetings after meetings, issues after issues, crisis after crisis – all demanding one’s attention and all demanding that they be treated as “Priority 1”. One of my colleagues refers to this as “the tyranny of the urgent”. In leadership, it is even more likely to succumb to the tyranny of the urgent but it is very important (a) not to and (b) be aware when it is emerging in one’s work environment because this sort of tyranny is one whose arrival can be insidious.

So, how does one counter the emergence of the tyranny of the urgent? This might well appear to be an impossible act, particularly where schools are involved. The expectations placed on school leaders by staff, students and parents makes for fertile ground for such tyrannies. The rise of information communication technologies has also added a super-fertilizer to the soil. I would hazard that one of the chief culprits of upping stress levels in a school leader’s life is the increased level of accessibility that schooling today now demands.

Increased levels of expectation framed by an increase in accessibility (or perhaps expected accessibility) make for an interesting work environment but one where it is unrealistic to go “cold turkey” and completely disconnect from the world. That leaves school leaders in, potentially, a less-than-satisfactory situation as far as their work-life balance is concerned. If a school leader’s health and well-being is suffering, what might the impact on the school as a whole be? How can balance be addressed?

To combat the stress that the tyranny of the urgent can create, in this day and age, a frontal assault is probably not the best strategy. One might have to adopt more of a “fifth column” approach and attack the situation from within. In other words, rather than doing what is neither feasible or realistic in today’s world, being situational in dealing with the stresses and strains that ‘regular urgencies’ might be a better solution.

In reading around this subject, I came across the following list of suggested, yet practical, stress management strategies:

  1. Vary your route to and from work. It can help control anxiety and reduce the sense of getting back on the same rollercoaster. Small changes in routine can be enough to break the negative patterns of thinking that we can get ourselves into.

  2. To-do lists: Try dividing the page each day into “must”, “should” and “could”. You will never get it all done but you usually leave work with the satisfaction of knowing that everything in the “must” list has been completed.

  3. Keep a list of all the unplanned things that take up working time each day, e.g. meeting with parents, phone calls and answering emails. It is re-assuring to see at the end of the day what you have achieved, even if some of it was unscheduled.

  4. Be realistic about what you expect to achieve each day. There will always be unplanned interruptions. Try to factor this in.

  5. To help with focusing on the positive, keep a diary and write down three positive things, however small, that have happened each day. You go home thinking about the positives.

  6. In those difficult meetings with complaints from parents, try to de-personalise the issue. It is very rarely about you personally. Try to unpick what feelings and emotions might be underpinning a complaint before the meeting starts.

  7. Try to find a professional outlet for your expertise outside of your own school, e.g. volunteer to co-ordinate your cluster heads meetings. You see the wider educational landscape which helps to keep things in perspective.

  8. Find a trusted friend outside of your immediate professional circle and talk to them, honestly. We all need someone outside of a situation to challenge our perceptions.

  9. Try to maintain an outside interest or hobby. We need mental distraction from thinking about work in order to relax.

  10. Sleep is key. There are many free apps for phones and tablets with ocean wave sounds. They trick your breathing pattern into a relaxed rhythm allowing you to sleep.

From my own context, working in a cross-cultural context, in an international school adds a little twist to the nature of stress as a school leader and the need to take care of oneself. There are always multiple cultural layers to what one observes, which in turn complicates both interpretation and subsequent action. Each of these strategies is just as important and applicable.

This post has been about the need to be aware of how stress can creep up on school leaders and what might be an approach to deal with that problem. By way of a coda to this post, it is important to address the impact that the tyranny of the urgent can have on a school’s staff and students. This could be the subject of a post all its own but as this is a coda on the topic, let us accept the main point here to be this: school leaders are role-models.

As role-models, a school leader’s and experience with the tyranny of the urgent is something that is a shared experience with other members of the school community (whether the school leader wants it to be or not). To that end, it is even more important that an awareness of the stress and strains that come with being in education, and that they must be kept under control, is not just held by a school leader but demonstrated at all times. After all, what sort of message is sent to the broader school community if the school’s leader does not exhibit wisdom in this matter?

On International Mother Language Day

Today is International Mother Language Day. Established by UNESCO in 1999, and formally recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2008, International Mother Tongue Language Day functions to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. For UNESCO, such awareness positively contributes to global citizenship, enabling our learners to play an active role in both local and global arenas to address global challenges and, ultimately, contribute proactively in creating a more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable world.

If nothing less, today should be a reminder about the importance of mother tongue or mother languages. It might be a trite thing to say but for our learners, regardless as to whether they are in an international school or a national school, language is important. It is the means by which our learners express themselves. A learner in Grade 1 has the same experience with language as a learner in Grade 10; language structures their thoughts and identities.

Facilitating a learning environment that supports, or incorporates, a learner’s mother tongue is complicated. It can be ‘messy’ but there are benefits:

  • There is an emphasis on the quality of teaching and learning with a focus on understanding and creativity. The teacher has to ensure that what is going on in the classroom will promote understanding (of whatever content or concepts are being taught).
  • There is a reinforcement of the cognitive aspect of learning because facilitating a learning environment that supports a learner’s mother tongue ensures the direct application of learning outcomes to the learner’s life through the mother tongue. There is an authentic understanding that takes place about whatever it is that is being taught.
  • An enhanced dialogue and interaction between learner and teacher is allowed to take place. Promoting a “mother tongue friendly” environment from the very first day of classes allows genuine communication from the beginning. The learner sees the teacher as taking an interest in their cultural heritage and the teacher has a better capacity for reaching the student.
  • It facilitates participation and action in society and gives access to new knowledge and cultural expressions, thus ensuring a harmonious interaction between the global and the local.

Image result for mandela language quote

Mandela’s quote on language and the difference between understanding and meaning is an appropriate endpoint to this (very) brief exposition on mother tongue and International Mother Language Day. Celebrating the diversity in language heritages in one’s classroom or school may contribute to creating an environment whereby learning takes place, opportunities for communication and interaction exist, and global-mindedness is fostered. These are good things. I want to posit that ensuring that the diversity in languages in one’s classroom or school is meshed into pedagogical practice might well take things further. Rather than just going through the motions of learning and interacting in different contexts, hearing what one is to learn in one’s own language (even if it is just key concepts) could encourage a sense of ownership of the learning process. As we seek greater degrees of global citizenship and international-mindedness, having individual learners take on the ownership of the processes that seeks to promote these concepts cannot be a bad thing.


If you are interested, you can find out more about this year’s International Mother Tongue Language Day here.


Is your school perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

At a recent teachers’ conference, I attended a session on the future of teaching and learning. It was a roundtable discussion session and started with a number of different questions for people to consider. The summation of those questions, which focused on assessment, on teacher qualification, on the relevance of schooling in this day and age, is the question that leads off this particular post. Be it a national school or an international school, the question is pertinent: as a school, are we perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

While a roundtable discussion can be a useful exercise, I did walk out of that particular session thinking how one might actually start a process of investigating this core question of being prepared for a world that no longer exists. Certainly, coming up with an answer is  a self-reflective exercise. And starting the process is as daunting as it is uncertain. I would hazard to say that it is also exciting.

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel’s 2009 text 21st century skills: Learning for life in our times has been useful in my own thinking through issues associated with the question about the place of schooling in the world today. As I work on strategic planning papers and presentations, Trilling and Fadel feature in my thoughts and reflections. Indeed, Trilling and Fadel (2009: xxiii) start with a series of questions, describing the questions as ones that are often aired in conversations about the future of teaching and learning:

  • How has the world changed, and what does this mean for education
  • What does everyone need to learn now to be successful?
  • How should we learn all this?
  • How is 21st century learning different from learning in the 20th century and what does it really look like?
  • How will 21st century learning evolve through the century?
  • How will a 21st century learning approach help solve our global problems?

They then pose a four question exercise which I have replicated here:

Question #1: What will the world be like twenty or so years from now when your child has left school and is out in the world?

Question #2: What skills will your child need to be successful in this world you have imagined twenty years from now?

Question #3: Now think about your own life and the times when you were really learning, so much and so deeply, that you would call these the “peak learning experiences” of your life. What were the conditions that made your high-performance learning experiences so powerful?

Before going on to Question #4, look over your answers to the first three questions and think about how most students currently spend their time each day in school. Then consider the final question:

Question #4: What would learning be like if it were designed around your answers to the first three questions?

The four question exercise, as it is called, is a great way of facilitating a discussion on the state of things in one’s school. It doesn’t purport to provide a strategic plan or some form of roadmap that provides the user with continuous school improvement. It does help leadership teams or teaching teams or those in between to see differences. It walks people through a discussion that will have its end point in: how different a place is the school you work in compared to that which you have just imagined? In light of the answers to the above questions, to what degree is your school perfectly prepared for a world that no longer exists?

Differentiating professional learning

Last week I attended a teaching conference. It was the first one I had attended for some time and it was outstanding. The reason for this is that the options available were not only plentiful and practical but they were also being run by teachers for teachers. It was also a conference that met three criteria for successful professional development, about which I have discussed on this blog in an earlier post. In a recent article on Edutopia, the question was raised: why don’t we differentiate professional development for teachers? After all, we emphasise the need to differentiate what goes on in the classroom. The article, which points out four different strategies to help professional learning be differentiated, caused me to reflect on what happens at my own school and the extent to which we differentiate what happens in our professional learning programs.

Firstly, investing in the professional capital of my teachers is a very important. Ensuring that teachers have opportunities for developing their craft contributes to staff longevity on account of staff feeling valued. It also means that teacher capacity is built up so that changes that one might wish to introduce or implement can take place more easily. That is not to say that change is something that will always be accepted or always be perceived as positive. However, if one has invested in the professional capital of teachers and sought to create an environment where teachers expect and are expected to develop their professional learning, change can be considered more amicably. Of course, investing in the professional capital of teachers is something that ultimately benefits student learning, and that is something on which, in all of the discourse about the development of teachers, one must remained focused.

So, how do we differentiate in the professional learning that takes place at my school? How might we do a better job of doing that, thereby giving ownership of learning to the teachers themselves? I came across a quote the other day about leadership not being about being in charge but looking after those in your charge.


Such a comment emphasises the role that leaders have in making sure that teachers learn and develop. It is, I would hazard, one of the central roles we fulfill. A third question we might therefore pose is: how might leaders facilitate meaningful professional learning?

At my own school, professional development is worked into the weekly schedule. Every Wednesday is a “late start” for students; an early start for academic faculty. We meet for 1 1/2 hours to engage in professional development sessions. Sometimes these sessions take the form of a formal lecture, other times they take the form of a workshop or an interactive presentation, and, more recently, they have taken on the form of departmental forums where a broad topic or theme related to the whole school is discussed in a departmental context. These particular discussions have been aimed at incorporating subject peculiarities associated with the topic or theme.

As one who is responsible for the professional development or learning of the academic faculty and staff, in addition to the strategic planning, thinking and development of the school’s academic programs, I regularly find myself in an interesting position. On the one hand, I want to grant professional development and learning time as much as I can to those under my wing. On the other hand, I need to incorporate the thoughts, reflections and discussions of academic faculty and staff regarding strategic planning and development. Professional learning often develops into a combination of the two. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. After all, I am keen to encourage a culture where there are ongoing conversations and discussions about teacher best-practice, and that such conversations are not going on in isolation but involve all of a school’s constituents.

That is where we are at, at the moment, as a school. Professional learning and development has become a forum where academic faculty and staff can discuss matters pertaining to the school as a whole. It is also a forum where, simultaneously, practical discussions take place about how those matters relate to their own department and subject areas. Recent curriculum work on establishing standards is a good illustration. Key learning areas of the school are examining different standards, determining which best-suit the vision and mission of the school, as well as what they seek to develop within the students that study their subjects.

How can this evolution be considered ‘differentiation’? In one sense, it can’t. The question, theme or problem (in our current situation: what standards are best?) has been mandated from the top down. It is the expectation of leadership that departments complete their investigations within the parameters laid down at the start of each session. However, in another sense, there is a great deal of differentiation taking place. The question acts as an anchor point, a central focus question if you like, which tethers conversations to a particular issue at the same time as allowing for the freedom to explore the set topic as freely and as deeply as individuals wish or feel.

The Edutopia article poses a very interesting question and one that, at the very least, should cause educational leaders who are responsible for teacher professional learning and development (and as leaders we all should be!) to pause and reflect on how their school professional learning and development takes place. The question about differentiation ensures that any professional learning and development that does take place is meaningful and challenging. It is relevant and applicable. Most of all, it means that it won’t be considered a waste of time, energy and money.

The three “C-s” of change

I have been silent in the blogosphere for the past month. This is not to say that I have decided to end writing on a regular basis. Rather, it is just symptomatic of the busy life one can lead when being in education. That having been said, there have been several things I have been pondering on recently which I thought I would share: coherence, capacity and confidence. These are what I have tagged as the three “C”-s of change.

Coherence refers to meaning, to making sense. If there is a change that one wants to bring about it is important that both those leading it and those impacted by it understand what is going on and why something is taking place. Coherence is something that relates to both individual and groups. It is something that entails a deep understanding of the purpose and the nature of the work being tasked.

Part of making a change coherent is ensuring that individuals, either by themselves or in a more collaborative context, have the capacity to contend with the developments being pursued. To build capacity, or to talk about capacity, is to make reference to the skills, competencies, and knowledge that individuals and groups need to be effective in navigating change, whatever that might be or look like. There are some interesting implications to this notion, particularly in relation to those individuals or groups who draw their identity from the status quo. Developing the capacity of such people so change can be understood, embraced and followed has the potential to be the most challenging of tasks a lead learner will have when bringing about change.

Despite the skills, competencies and knowledge that individuals might have, there has to be confidence in the people who will be responsible for the implementation of those changes. Not to have confidence in one’s key players will make change challenging to bring about and most likely impossible for one to sustain. Conversely, confidence in leadership also has to exist. Those that are impacted by the change must feel that the leader is acting in the best interests of student learning. There are many different ways, in the context of building confidence, that this can be demonstrated. Steven Covey’s The Speed of Trust details 13 different behaviours such as talking straight, demonstrating respect, creating transparency and clarifying expectations that can build the confidence or trust in leaders.

Without successfully netting these three “C”-s, any educational change is going to be difficult to implement, let alone sustain. Three questions emerge from each of these concepts:

  1. Do I use a framework through which my actions make sense to others?
  2. Do my actions build up the capacity of those I lead?
  3. Do I have the confidence of those, and in those, I lead?

A “yes” to each of these should contribute to a clear starting point for implementing change in an educational context and making it stick.

Hastening slowly. The key to being a good school leader.

I have had, over recent weeks, reason to think through what it means to be a good school leader. It does not matter whether one is in a national school or an international school, a Christian school or a secular one. It does not matter whether the school is co-educational or single-sex. It does not matter whether the school is selective or comprehensive. At the end of the day, reflecting on the question “what makes a good school leader?” has led me to a one word answer:


This should not be confused with inaction. I don’t mean that a good leader is someone who does nothing (although sometimes, it is just as important to be inactive as it is to be active). It does not take a great deal of effort to google and collect pithy sayings on leadership such as:

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been”

“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another”

“A leader leads by example not by force”


“First rule of leadership: everything is your fault”

Patience is the common denominator. If you are going to take people from where they are to where they have not been, you must exhibit patience in explaining to them what is going on, why a decision has been made in a particular manner and how that might impact them. If you are going to lead by influencing others, through natural charisma, that is going to take patience as people and situations respond. If you are going to lead by example and not by force, you are going to have allow for time for the example you provide be seen and internalised by those you lead. And if everything is your fault, patience will be more than a virtue as you seek to work alongside those around you in order to make better the situation in which you find yourself.

“Hastening slowly” is a phrase or saying that I often fall back on as I go through the working week. Patience is at its core and as phrases go, it is not a bad one to help temper one’s leadership, whatever the situation is, whenever the situation is.


What makes professional learning effective?

Our formal professional learning schedule kicks into effect this coming Wednesday. Putting it together was a challenge in part because of the structure I’ve put into place but mostly because I want it to be effective. Thus, the question “What makes professional learning effective?” has been front and centre, and made me consider precisely what it was that I valued in professional learning. I assess professional learning against three criteria:




These are the three things I look for in professional learning. Does it challenge me? Does it motivate me? Does it connect me? If the answer to each of these three questions is “yes”, then the professional learning context I find myself in is a winner. I find some professional learning situations can be little more than an explanation of a process or a procedure. Rather than something suited to a professional learning environment, they are better suited to the realm of the Monday recess staff meeting. If a professional learning session is challenging, I believe the individual participating in that session will be more likely to take something away, to benefit from the spending time in professional learning. “Challenging” does not mean that the professional learning has to be ridiculously difficult. On the contrary, what I mean by “challenging” is that it makes you reconsider what you already do or know. Professional learning should challenge your practice, the way you teach. It should cause you to question what you do and how you do it.

Professional learning should also be motivating. Before, during and after a professional learning session, I believe I should feel motivated as a teacher. I should be motivated to implement what I learn, or to change my approach to something, or to pursue further training and development. I should feel affirmed that what I am doing in the classroom is of value and that I have something to offer my colleagues. If professional learning is “motivating” then it will open up the practitioner to changing or enhancing what they do in the classroom. There is a certain “buy-in” that takes place. There could be any number of reasons for the professional learning to be motivating: relevance, resonance with teaching philosophy or subject interest, challenging, affirming to name a few.

Living in an interconnected world, professional learning for teachers needs to be something that encourages connections between teachers. It should connect people with one another – face-to-face or virtually. It is foolish to see professional learning as something that happens in isolation. This might have been the case ten or fifteen years ago but the rise of the iDevice (whatever that happens to be) allowing you to jack into the interweb at any time in any place has set a different set of expectations regarding the interactivity of the professional learning process. We expect that the connections we make face-to-face in the professional learning classroom will lead to, or be replicated in, connections in the online space. How many times have we quickly added people we have just met at a conference to our “following” list on Twitter? Plenty of times, I would hazard as an answer. Today, being connected with other teachers, usually via technology, is, in my opinion, one of the criteria that people use to evaluate whether or not a professional learning experience was worthwhile.

Building on the notion of connectivity is, perhaps, a fourth dimension to professional learning: ongoing. So, I have been at a conference, I have heard you speak and I think that what you have to say is worth following up. You offer your Twitter ID at the end of your presentation, which I dutifully add to my account. I also add a couple of names that you mentioned during the course of your presentation, educational leaders or thinkers that have much to say on where education is going at the moment. What I have just outlined is the enhancement of an ongoing, informal network of learning. I say ‘enhancement’ rather than ‘creation’ because the implication of this scenario is that I already have a Twitter followers/following list. It is described as ongoing because the information feed from Twitter operates 24×7. It is informal because there is no particular structure around it in the same was a university course or a specific conference or seminar.

The issue of professional learning being informal is a fifth consideration. Formal learning opportunities for teachers are important. This is not only because of the credibility formal qualifications bring to what we do but it is also important to pursue what might be labelled as “hard study”. This links into the notion of “challenging”, to a degree (no pun intended). By “hard study”, I refer to something that is academically rigorous, compels us to conform to particular conventions or expectations and to engage in academic discourse on the academy’s terms. Conversely, “soft study” is something that is far more informal, not as demanding on time or energy or brainspace and is not evidential in the same way as conventional, more formal, academic discourse expects. Both formality and informality have their place in professional learning and one is not better or more important that the other. If professional learning is informal, that is not a bad thing at all. It means that teachers are given the opportunity to learn on their own terms, in a manner and at a time of their choosing. The ownership is completely their own. It can be just as effective as formal learning: how many times have we spent time in a pub or a beer garden talking to colleagues over a beverage or two about what we do, the challenges we face and how we intend to fix the world? How many times have we experienced “great thinking” in a pub, after a few drinks with colleagues? Again, plenty of times, I would hazard as an answer! Professional learning cannot just be informal however. There is a time and place for formality and my fear with the free flow of information is that there is a tendency to believe there is little or no need for what a formal approach to professional learning can bring to one’s practice. I suspect, however, that particular argument will have to appear in a blog post in the future!

To wrap it up, then, initially I identified three key characteristics for professional learning. These were born out of my own personal reflections on what I valued in the professional learning experiences I have had. Challenging. Motivating. Connecting. There were several other traits that emerged – the notion of ongoing professional development and the question of informality over formality. In practical terms, then, five key questions come about:

  1. Is my professional learning challenging?
  2. Is my professional learning motivating?
  3. Is my professional learning connecting me with others?
  4. Is my professional learning ongoing?
  5. Is my professional learning something that happens both informally and formally?

While there could be other questions one might pose, as a starting point, a “yes” to all of these, I suspect, will mean the professional learning experience is effective.