Professor Louise Stoll from the UK believes that creative teacher collaboration in professional learning communities is essential for educators to be better practitioners and provide the best for young learners. In her keynote address at the Teachers’ Conference 2016, she shares with participants the importance of creativity and risk taking in today’s changing educational landscape.
I would like to share with you what people are saying about the changes in teacher professionalism and why these changes are essential. While we all have great challenges, we also know that we want to provide the very best for our children and young learners. It is absolutely critical that we want the highest quality in whatever we do because they deserve nothing but the best.
If we want our children to excel, teachers have to be adaptable and flexible, and able to change with the times. They need to be able to think on their feet and be creative. That is why we need creative professional learning communities.
Creative Professional Learning Communities
A professional learning community (PLC) can sometimes be seen as a small group of teachers who is given some time to get together, have conversations and investigate their practices and work together. But when I think of a creative PLC, I also think about a school-wide culture where everybody is collaborating – not every minute of the day, but working together, feeling a professional sense of responsibility not only for the child’s learning but for each other’s learning too.
It is where teachers de-privatize their teaching practices. It is about: “Please come and disturb me because there is something I can learn from you and you can learn from me, and we can work together to develop further.”
So teachers can’t do it alone. That means they also need school leaders and leaders at the system level who are able to create those conditions that will help the teaching profession to flourish.
A creative PLC is also about investigating your practices, testing out new ones, learning with each other, learning from each other, and sharing your learning with others. And of course, you need to be creative – to be open, to take risks and to get out of your comfort zones.
Bidding Comfort Zones Goodbye
When did you last try something new that took you out from your comfort zone?
Guess what I learned 3 years ago that made me ask you this question? I did a 7-week stand-up comedy course!
I don’t consider myself a stand-up comedian but I wanted to do something that would push and challenge me, particularly since I have come out here to tell everyone you need to challenge yourself. And I thought, if I can’t walk the talk, then I am really not fit to be here. So I am suggesting to the MOE that they have compulsory comedy school for every single teacher in Singapore!
But seriously, what is it that you can do to extend and challenge yourselves and your thinking?
What we are talking about here is trying to get people to move out of their comfort zone. But we know that we all find it much easier to stay in our comfort zone. Still, we need to encourage people to venture into the learning zone while not pushing them too much into what Tom Senninger (a German adventurer and pedagogue) calls the panic zone.
If we want our children to excel, teachers have to be adaptable and flexible, and able to change with the times. They need to be able to think on their feet and be creative.
– Prof Louise Stoll, University College London, UK
But to be creative, we also want you to take a risk, and also challenge and deepen your thinking. One thing that we know about powerful professional learning is that challenging your thinking is a fundamental part of changing your practice. It causes dissonance, which means that you don’t easily assimilate the learning. Instead, you start to question the way you have been doing things.
But to take risks, you also have to feel safe. As part of my research, we interviewed over 300 people who told us that it was really important for teachers, staff members and leaders to feel safe in order to feel comfortable enough to make mistakes and learn from them.
But leaders sometimes have difficulty in letting go, which is what they need to do if their teachers are to be creative and take safe risks. When we are faced with someone who seems afraid to try something new, we ask them: Is it a real risk if you experiment with your practice, and try and do something different? Isn’t it riskier never to try anything new?
One thing that we know about powerful professional learning is that challenging your thinking is a fundamental part of changing your practice.
– Prof Stoll on the importance of challenging one’s thinking
What helps one person to be creative can be very different for another person. I found that some people become creative when they have the time, whereas others like to have a problem to solve; some prefer to be on their own, while others feel more creative when they have the opportunity to collaborate. So, you need to find situations that will help you feel creative.
If you have powerful teacher collaborations, you will not only do things differently, but will also be thinking differently. You will be able to articulate what you are doing differently, how and why.
When you learn together in powerful ways, it makes a difference for children and young learners. It makes a difference in terms of how they perform and also how they feel about their learning. While there are many different ways to look at children and know if they are ready for their lives ahead, you also need to be able to know their starting points so you can determine later the difference you have made.
It is absolutely critical that you take charge of change to support your students’ learning. Now is the time to make changes, to take action and then to check if you have made enough of a difference to your young learners.