Rethinking the Role of Specialist Councils in Professional Learning

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June has been an exciting month.  Immersed in the world of convening conversations around curriculum redesign in Alberta.  Asking big questions about what good learning looks like, what is worth knowing, and how the design of learning outcomes influence great learning experiences and student achievement.  In addition, my work has been blessed by the good fortune of recognizing teachers and schools for the good work they have been doing and thinking ahead to next year about how best to support environmental and outdoor learning in Calgary schools.


I had a great conversation this morning with a colleague about the role of specialist councils in professional development in a world where professional learning communities have become our primary vehicle for teacher reflection, sharing, and learning.  Is there a role for specialist councils like the global, environmental, and outdoor education councils of the Alberta Teachers Association?  if so, what is it?


Research would tell us that professional learning is most beneficial and relevant when it is conducted by groups of teachers where artifacts of learning can be examined to have rigourous and meaningful discussion about how best to advance student achievement.  This work happens in schools under the supervision and guidance of the Principal.  Hattie, Robinson, and Friesen’s work all support the notion that professional learning is most effective when centered on teachers having conversations about how to improve achievement.  if research is telling us PLCs are the most effective form of PD, then what is the role of a specialist council in supporting teacher capacity building?


There are many great exemplars of specialist council work in Alberta. The Health and Physical Eduction council hosts a series of drive in workshops each year in Calgary and elsewhere.  Drive in workshops are a fantastic format.  Lots of choice, minimal cost, minimal time commitment, a place where teachers share out their best work with other teachers.  A place where ideas are shared, skill development occurs, and just some plain old fun makes Drive in Workshops a huge success in the Calgary area.  I think its why so many phys ed teachers subscribe to HPEC and make the trek to their yearly specialist council conference.  HPEC almost better than any teacher organization I know does a fantastic job of creating a space where teachers share with other teachers their best practice.  I have walked away many times from these events feeling like a got a great deal out of my time commitment to an HPEC event. Its why I have been a member of HPEC over a number of years.  Other specialist councils can learn some great lessons from the HPEC model. 


Its exciting to see that the global, environmental and outdoor education council(GEOEC) of the ATA is looking at other models of professional development.  For the past number of years, GEOEC has partnered with Alberta Council for Environmental Education to host a yearly specialist council conference.  And while the conferences have been good, there has been a steady decline in the number of teachers who I personally know who teach outdoor education in the CBE who actually attend this conference.  GEOEC, in my mind, has become increasingly irrelevant as a result to many teachers.  Specialist council conferences need to be something more than a conduit for the education support sector of ngo’s. non profit and for profit service providers trying to sell their services to teachers.  Great specialist council conferences need to be a place where teachers share best practice with other teachers – sharing their story of success in advancing achievement of students.  Specialist council conferences should be a place where rich conversations about assessment of student learning take place.  Specialist council conferences should be a space where teachers share their passion with others.  I think there is a place for the community to support effective teaching and learning.  There is a place for organizations that provide services to support teaching and learning to share their services with teachers.  But in my mind, 75% of professional learning should be lead by teachers, administrators, or maybe mlearning consultants.  These are the people who live the world of student experience from the beginning of the school year to the end.  Teachers and students are the instructional core (Elmore’s work) who co-deseign learning tasks and assessment strategies. If we want rich learning for teachers, we need to have conversations about what that co-designing looks like that reflects both student interest and teacher expertise of curriculum and their own passion for their work.  I am not trying to devalue the hard work of ACEE or GEOEC over the past number of years, but I am not sure, based on my experiencce at GEOEC conferences over the past number of years, that the rich conversation of teachers sharing best practice with other teachers has been at the centre of the priorities of yearly GEOEC/ACEE conferences.


I had a great meeting this morning with the GEOEC about professional learning.  I am excited to hear of their new direction and priorities around better supporting teachers in their work around environmental and outdoor education in Alberta.  I am excited to connect outstanding teachers in the Calgary Board of Education with opportunities to share their innovative and passionate stories of success.  Whether it be Bishop Pinkham School’s incredible mountain bike skill development program, or GP Vanier’s fantastic cross country ski skill development program, or Sir John A MacDonald School’s social justice club’s installation of the largest solar pv array at any school in Calgary, or Centinnial High School’s incredible integrated focus program combining outdoor experience with science learning, or Belfast School’s amazing community garding initiative, or Tuscany School’s work with honey bees.  There are dozens of exemplar initiatives happening the CBE around environmental and outdoor education.  It is these teachers, and others from across the province who should be making up 75-80% of specialist council conferences and drive in workshop agendas.  Teachers need to learn the stories from other teachers about what they did to advance student achievement, about how they assessed student learning, about the resources they used to make it all happen.  This important work has not been happening at a high enough frequency at GEOEC pd events over the past number of years.  I am excited about the prospect of this type of professional learning happening.  it is work I can support whole heartedly.  GEOEC bring it on!