Anticipating the future, participating in change: A paradigm shift for professional development

Hazel Owen Ethos Consultancy NZ New Zealand

Abstract We are facing a wide range of social, environmental, political, and economic issues, which can only be addressed through concerted participation in anticipative global thinking. Education practitioners already play a central role in fostering global thinking, but it can be argued that the time is ripe for a paradigm shift away from content to a greater focus on synergistic thinking and lifelong learning skills. To achieve this shift, however, it is necessary to also re-invent Professional Learning and Development (PLD) for education practitioners.

The paper illustrates some of the dynamics and results of the Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) programme by presenting the findings from the research conducted during 2010 and 2011. The findings and discussion clearly identify the value of the VPLD model by demonstrating changes in the practitioners' roles, which have resulted in, for example, shifts in beliefs about learning and teaching, corresponding changes in professional practice, and an increase in the development of students' metacognitive skills. As such, the VPLD programme fosters the enhanced potential of participating educators and leaders to contribute to future reforms that will, in turn, ensure that education is designed to promote participation, anticipation, and global thinking.


In 2002 a document referring to the United Nations‟ Education for All initiative indicated: [G]lobal research . . . has established unequivocally that….education is one of the most powerful instruments known for reducing poverty and inequality and for laying the basis for sustained economic growth, sound governance, and effective institutions (p. v).

It is, however, problematic to draw a direct causal link between access to education and the expansion of global thinking (Hannum, & Buchmann, 2003). Much is reliant on the context in which the education is offered couched as it is “within the global economy, within nations, within local communities, and within school systems, [and] social structures” (Hannum, & Buchmann, 2003, p. 22), all of which shape and constrain the impact of education. While acknowledging these considerations, within the New Zealand education context, there are strategies being applied to re-shape opportunities for learning, while extending the capacity to think, such that anticipative global thinking really informs education reform.

Skills required for global thinking include creative problem solving, cultural responsiveness, and well-honed communication skills. Education practitioners already play a central role in fostering global thinking, but it can be argued that the time is ripe for a paradigm shift away from content to a greater focus on synergistic thinking and lifelong learning skills. However, many education systems tend to encourage passive learners who do not question, and for whom the ultimate goal is finding (and remembering) the „right‟ answer. The approaches within these education systems have a tendency to be reinforced by practitioner professional development, and as a result are reiterated by teachers. Most readers, for example, are likely to have sat in a room (physical or virtual) during a PLD session where a facilitator delivers a presentation about innovative practice...while the audience passively listens and is not encouraged to participate!

There are some initiatives underway, however, where education practitioner professional development is being re-designed (Ham & Davey, 2008). Shifts toward contextualised, personalised, self-paced learning, underpinned by the development of an

online professional social identity, are challenging notions of what Professional Learning and Development (PLD) actually comprises. This challenge means that change is not a simple process because it requires wider understandings around expectations of what PLD should be and what it should provide (Stoll, 2004).

The Virtual PLD (VPLD) initiative was instigated in October 2009 by the New Zealand Ministry of Education, who also funded the project. The VPLD model and approach was piloted and evaluated in 2010 with ten teachers from the tertiary, secondary and primary sectors. The findings from the pilot indicated that when professional learning was situated within the practitioner's context, with complementary, easily-accessible opportunities for sharing of practice within an online Community of Practice (CoP), participants demonstrated high levels of engagement as well as changes in their own teaching practice.

The VPLD programme was subsequently rolled out in 2011 with a total of twenty teachers and school leaders (including eight participants who continued from 2010). Participants for both 2010 and 2011 were from a variety of locations in New Zealand, as well as a range of disciplines, and diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. This paper presents some of the findings from the research conducted alongside the pilot and the roll out.

Literature Review / Theoretical Framework

Educators such as Springer (1993) have studied global thinking in the context of education institutions, and one way of considering the concept is as a system of interrelated modes of thinking, such as creative, lateral, critical and logical (Bonser, 2004). These enable the perception of the world as a whole system, along with an insight into the impact of human activities (Martin, 2010). In turn, these insights can assist adaptation to new environments by developing more complex conceptual models of the world (Beck, & Cowan , 1996). However, while there has been great progress in the fields of neuroscience and educational psychology, it is still not known how humans actually think.

It is hypothesised that the context in which knowledge and skill development occurs affects how, or if, it is applied in other situations and settings (e.g. Lave, 1997). For example, Carraher, Carraher, and Schliemann (1985) found that a trader could perform complex calculations while trading on the street, but was not able to perform the same calculations within a formal education setting. As such, it can be postulated that an education practitioners‟ professional knowledge is inextricable from their domains and contexts (Cranefield, Yoong, & Huff, 2011), beliefs about learning and teaching (Cranefield, Yoong, & Huff, 2011), interpretive frameworks (Richardson, & Placier, 2001), and routines and practices (Handal, 2004).

Contextualised PLD that recognises the sociocultural considerations of learning has been reported to also have a positive impact on student learning, partly because there is a direct connection between principles of effective teaching practices, recognition of relevance and consequent adaptation of those practices to local circumstances (Timperley, 2008). When PLD is situated educators are more likely to apply strategies to address known issues around student learning in their specific learning community (Timperley et al, 2007), while also actively engaging in the exploration, development and application of conceptual frameworks that encourage consideration of their students in a new light (Timperley et al, 2007).

Stoll (2004) suggests that PLD might take the form of participation in professional learning communities and networks. Frequently referred to in formal education contexts, CoPs - a theory developed in the latter half of the 1980s and in the 1990s by Lave and Wenger, and since extended ( by e.g. Hildreth, Kimble, & Wright, 2000) encompass the notion of 'situated learning' whereby practitioners construct meanings collectively in a community (Wenger, 1998). When CoPs are an integral part of PLD they can provide formal and informal learning opportunities, as well as spaces for practitioners to participate in conversations around learning and teaching and share practices (Brown & Duguid, 2000).

Online CoPs build on the definition and practices of those developed face-to-face, although they are necessarily distinguished by the fact that communication and collaboration is via computer mediated communication (CMC). There is a wide range of definitions for online CoPs, but most include notions of a group of people who, via a

common space on the Internet, engage in public discussions, interactions, and information exchanges (Tilley, Hills, Bruce, & Meyers, 2006). Ashe and Bibi (2011) suggest that these online spaces may provide the potential to create complementary contexts for learning, whereby a member of an online CoP can build capability through “focused, purposeful, and immediately useful conversations, resources and support” (Flagg & Ayling, 2011, p. 387) – all factors which can build toward reform.

Description of the VPLD programme

The VPLD programme has no formal 'content', accredited institution, or formal assessment; rather the programme offers a customisable PLD experience (see diagram) in which there are multiple ways to participate. The programme is of three years duration; in the first two years education practitioners and leaders work on projects that interest them, driven by their own investigation and based on the needs of their students and school community. In the third year, participants focus on transitioning into a mentor role, but can also choose to continue work on their original project. The PLD itself is subsumed within the participant's function of being part of their own school's/institution's community, rather than being the central focus as can happen with more traditional approaches to PLD.

The VPLD programme has three main online spaces 1) the online CoP (Ning), 2) a 'sandpit' area and access to self-paced resources (Moodle), and 3) Adobe Connect (a webconferencing tool that enables interactive synchronous communication). The VPLD online CoP is an active space, with 120 members, which offers a safe environment to discuss and challenge theories and views about pedagogy and practice - an aspect that appears to be enhanced by the participants' eclectic combination of disciplines and sectors. Social structures (including agreements about interactions, processes, norms, and rules) are negotiated on an ongoing basis.

A variety of community building strategies are employed such as sending out a monthly e-newsletter that highlights conversations and contributions in the online CoP, as well as showcasing the work of community members and celebrating successes. There are also all-community webconferencing sessions, either to mark, for example, the end of the year, or with a specific pedagogical and/or skills focus.

Each participant is partnered with a mentor with whom they meet online, using Adobe Connect or Skype, once a month for between forty-five to ninety minutes. Mentoring strategies are customised to suit the needs of both the mentee and the mentor, and during monthly meetings a variety of subjects are discussed including pedagogy, what the participant has been working on with their students, and how their students have reacted. The participant also identifies areas of support they need, and plans 'next steps' and interim goals. Currently there are three mentors employed within the VPLD team.

An integrated model of virtual professional development that relies on learning and working collaboratively is likely to be enhanced by a face-to-face meeting where possible. In part this provides an opportunity to establish working relationships (Milligan, 1999), and is especially useful as an aid to social cohesion, especially if educators are unfamiliar with participating in an online community and/or via CMC. As part of the VPLD 2010 trial there were two face-to-face meetings, whereas in 2011, due to growing numbers and a reduced budget, there was only one.


The VPLD programme has been underpinned by a research focus since its inception, which performs an iterative feed-forward function as well as providing outcomes and comparative longitudinal evaluation data. The main questions underpinning this study included: ● How does working with a mentor affect participants' opinions about their own efficacy and teaching practice? ● What are the observed effects on participants over the course of the VPLD programme? ● What are participants' opinions about the effects of shifts in their teaching practice on their students' achievement and engagement?

To explore the questions above, it was necessary to generate a rich, examinable body of data that would permit an in-depth investigation into the design and facilitation of the VPLD pilot initiative, including influential external factors. Data has been collected from all areas of the VPLD online CoP, from project documents, recorded discussions

and notes from mentor meetings, and from Webinar sessions, as well as via three online surveys per year in 2010 and 2011 (conducted in January, June, and November/December). ● The quantitative data collected from the surveys were exported into Excel, analysed and interpreted. ● A qualitative approach was used to interpret the 1) open-ended survey responses, 2) activity in the VPLD online community spaces, and 3) the Webinar recordings. Recurring words were noted as possible emergent themes and used as codes. Comparative methods of analysis were used during coding (Charmaz, 2008).

Surveys An initial nine-item survey was administered in the January of 2010 and 2011 to collect information around 1) where participants were positioned in the VPLD initiative with regard to teaching / learning situation, philosophy and technical expertise; 2) to collect feedback that would be used to inform similar initiatives; 3) to clarify how participants planned to engage in the initiative; and 4) to gauge participants' commitment to contributing collaboratively in the online community. A survey was also administered in June 2010 and 2011. Designed with mainly open-ended questions, the survey was aimed at gaining a fuller understanding of the experiences of the VPLD teachers during the first six months of the implementation of the VPLD initiative, as well as gathering feedback about the VPLD approach in general. A final survey was administered in early December 2010 and 2011. The fifteen item survey was designed with mainly openended questions, which aimed to record the opinions and experiences of the VPLD teachers and school leaders, as well as encourage reflection around student engagement and achievement of learning outcomes. Comments and suggestions for improvements were invited in connection with the VPLD model design and implementation.

Results and discussion

Results suggest that participation in the VPLD programme supported educators in their capacity to anticipate and enthusiastically participate in change. The educators developed a sense of self-efficacy that motivated them to trial alternative approaches,

and to initiate iterative cycles of trial, error, and improvement. (“We have had time to try our ideas, to make our mistakes and to reflect upon our success”, survey response, 2010). When things are not as successful as might have been hoped, a shared online reflective blog post often elicited responses of empathy, suggestions of how frustrating problems might be handled, and offers of help. One respondent also commented that:

Membership of the VPD community offers support and development opportunities beyond the confines of each teacher's base school environment and culture. For a teacher with ideas beyond the scope of his/her staff experience, abilities or motivation, the support of peers nationwide can provide the motivation and impetus necessary to effect progress and positive development (survey response, 2010)

Participants also identified working with a mentor as a key aspect of developing new concepts:

Having a mentor to share ideas with, use as a sounding board ... and even from time to time vent a key element of the VPLD. It gives you an independent, completely understanding and knowledgeable critical friend.... (survey response, 2011).

Sharing experiences within the intellectual construct of the VPLD community resulted in gains in knowledge and skills (initially an integrative process where different types of knowledge intersected). However, with further trialling, and development of their identity as practitioners and contributing members of the VPLD community (Mayo, & Macalister, 2004), the process proved transformative resulting in new synthesised forms of knowledge (Graham, 2011).

The strengthening of identity and feeling of socially-mediated shared understandings and experiences also helped lessen the sense of isolation, and strengthened resilience in the face of change. As one participant wrote:

Sometimes you feel very isolated (e.g. I am the only French teacher in my school) and you feel you are the only one doing what you do. Being part

of the VPLD made me realise that I am not alone and gave me the opportunity to I could read what others were doing. This gave me great ideas to try in my own class (end of year reflection, 2011).

A sense of re-invention and renewal was also expressed by participants:

What a difference a year makes. Prior to becoming a participant in the VPLD I had been reflecting for a few years as to whether I even wanted to continue in the teaching profession. I was tired of asking students to „copy this down‟ and I was sometimes struggling to engage students as participants in their learning instead of just passive recipients. My reflections and my timely introduction to the VPLD started me down the path of „what if‟ (end of year reflection, 2011). There have been corresponding positive behaviours from students such as “I see my students bouncing into the classroom, and where before they might be packed up and ready to go 10 minutes before the end of a lesson, now it's often tricky to get them to stop working!!” (end of year reflection, 2011). Students became co-constructors of outcomes and facilitators of sessions, as well as more confident, engaged learners who were “empowered learn on their own terms” (Survey response, 2011).

I think that I as a teacher [I] am now obsolete but my role as a facilitator is primordial and very active. Because the students are now in charge of their own learning, I am no longer at the front of the class. Instead I am sitting among them and I can go around and help them. I actually now have more time to spend with the kids to enhance their learning (reflective post, 2011).

Communities take time to form, and might only have a few active contributors. At the time of publication, 374 resources blog posts have been created (50% by CoP facilitators), 49 discussion forums (75% created by CoP facilitators), 187 videos have been shared (90% by CoP facilitators), and 190 comments have been posted (50% by CoP facilitators). The data for 2010, however, paints a different picture. In February 2010, for example, there were 5 blog posts, 4 of which were made by the community

facilitator, compared with 17 in February 2012, 6 of which were made by community facilitators. In 2010, the maximum number of posts were 20 (September), 7 of which were made by participants. It was indicated by 80% of the initial members that they had not been members of an active online community before.

The data maps the gradual growth and maturation of the community, and the confidence and skills of participants. Some participants immediately started to comment, post and share, and others required time to process internally and become a part of the CoP. Time and opportunities needed to be provided for participants to build an identity within a newly formed group - “as I have gotten to know people in the group I have become less inhibited in contributing ideas” (survey response, 2010).

Another tendency that has been designed into the VPLD model, and that builds on the underpinning notion of anticipation, is the fostering of mentoring roles. Participants have been encouraged to mentor colleagues where the inclination and requisite exists. This has resulted in what the VPLD team has termed „the ripple effect‟, with participants working with up to one and two hundred colleagues each, either in a formal or informal PLD capacity. Bandura (1963) asserted most learning is shaped by our experiences and we are likely to imitate, and in part, replicate what we have participated in; in the words of the oft used cliché is 'we teach as we have been taught'. The implications of this is that VPLD participants - given their immersion into a learning experience that recognises their individual, political, social, economic and personal drivers, while also embracing them in a community of practice - when working with colleagues are likely to replicate these experiences, at least in part. This tendency in turn may well have a significant impact on leadership and practice, as well as perhaps policy and the shape of education (including teacher education) in future years.


This paper has illustrated some of the dynamics and possible results of participating in the VPLD programme and presented findings from the associated research study. Findings suggest that the immersive design of the VPLD programme offers opportunities for meaningful participation in local, national and global education communities, while also developing their thinking, learning and emotional skills.

Educators, while working socially with other supportive education professionals (re)develop their practice (Lave, & Wenger, 1991), as well as build their capacity to cope with change, to consider and plan future scenarios, and to consider the consequences of action or inaction.

Community and practice were found to be of equal importance in the reshaping of professional identity and knowledge, but for different reasons. The community provided the forum to ask advice, as well as for robust, healthy conversations about theory, ethics, and practice (Hung, & Chen, 2001), alongside offers of resources and knowledge / practical assistance; the situated practice (which included reflection and personal inquiry) provided opportunities to talk with colleagues, seek feedback from students, and to tweak their approaches. There have also been opportunities for collaborative and creative problem solving, and to hone skills for communication and cultural responsiveness. The resulting reshaping of roles appears to have supported a paradigm shift away from content to a greater focus on synergistic thinking and to have had an impact on learner engagement as well as motivation, especially where artefacts produced were accessed and critiqued by their peers and community.

While the design of the VPLD programme might not change the world, it is already building the resilience, confidence, and professional identity of those who are participating, such that they are facilitating education experiences where learners of all ages are inspired to unpack ideas such as social justice, conflict resolution and sustainable development. As such, arguably, this enhances the potential of these educators and leaders to take action, and to contribute to future reforms that will, in turn, ensure that education is designed to promote participation, anticipation, and global thinking.

Acknowledgements The Virtual PLD (VPLD) initiative was instigated in October 2009 by the eLearning Division at the NZ Ministry of Education, who also funded the project. The initial concept was conceived and developed by Eddie Reisch (Senior Analyst MoE) in consultation with ePrincipals Carolyn Bennett (FarNet), Trevor Storr (AorakiNet), Ken Pullar (OtagoNet), as well as Robin Ohia (eLeader, Te Kahui Kura ki Aotea), Helen Cooper (Senior Analyst MoE), Merryn Dunmill (Arts Online/Itinerant Music).


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