A great deal has been written about implementing and managing change in educational organizations and it is not my intention here to provide a review of that voluminous literature. However, there are a relatively small number of characteristics of effective professional development, which have been identified as powerful agents of change.
To paraphrase Stephen Covey (1989) in his The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the starting point must be a vision of the end. If we want to achieve something, we must begin with the end in mind. We must ask ourselves what an effective inclusive program might look like in practice. Our vision needs to draw carefully upon the research that is in print and upon the experiences of other schools. For over time - and change in schools does take considerable time - it is this vision that will provide the nourishment for our on-going clarity of focus.
When thinking about the implementation of new programs, particularly those such as inclusion which require the active support of teachers, I have found Michael Fullan's (1993; 1999) work on the management of change most useful. He perceives the key ingredients in change to be: vision, skills, incentives, resources, an action plan and measurement. When any one of these components is missing, change becomes problematic. In addition, each of these essential elements of planned change has its own in-service requirements. For example, the vision must be known and shared. We must communicate our destination and the specific reasons for our journey. We must teach the skills required and provide opportunities for guided collegial practice. The incentives for the change must be made explicit and the teachers must know how to use the new material and human resources. The action plan must serve as our road map and our milestones for marking progress as we move towards our goal.
Effective professional development improves schools by supporting planned change. If this is the case, then the evaluation of professional development must be linked to school improvement. It is no longer acceptable to assess professional development activities on their respective popularity or entertainment value. The so-called "feel good factor" is simply not an acceptable instrument of evaluation. "Staff development's success will be judged not by how many teachers and administrators participate in staff development programs or how they perceive its value, but by whether it alters instructional behavior in a way that benefits students. The goal is improved performance - by students, staff and the organization (Sparks & Hirsh, 1997, p.5)."
In our work both at the International School of Tanganyika (IST) and with the Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA), we were able to identify five characteristics that were common to effective professional development, which could be directly linked to school improvement. These are:
- A Team Approach
- Strong Leadership and Active Administrative Support
- Sustained Focus
- Modeling What Is To Be Achieved
- Keeping Current
A Team Approach
There are several important reasons why using a team structure in professional development is effective in generating positive change. First of all, the isolation of the traditional classroom teacher is incompatible with successful inclusive teaching practice. Professional opportunities that require collegial collaboration, such as team teaching or Cognitive Coaching, break down that isolation and create the expectation for reflective practice. We agree with Barth (1990) and with Costa & Garmston (1994) that insufficient attention has been given to the important relationship among adults within the school. Barth would place the development of collegiality at the top of the U.S. national agenda of school improvement because "the relationships among adults in schools are the basis, the precondition, the sine qua non that allow, energize, and sustain all other attempts at school improvement. Unless adults talk with one another, observe one another, and help one another, very little will change (Barth, 1990, p.32)." For Barth, collegiality is the bedrock of reflective practice.
Needless to say, collegiality is a great deal more than teachers merely being pleasant to each other. Judith Warren Little (1981, in Barth, 1990) offers an excellent definition of collegiality and shows explicitly how it serves as a cornerstone of reflective practice. She perceives collegiality as comprising four specific teacher behaviors:
1) Teachers talk about teaching and these conversations are "frequent, continuous, concrete and precise".
2) Teachers observe each other engaged in the practice of teaching and administration.
3) Teachers work on curriculum together, designing, researching and evaluating the substance of what is taught.
4) Teachers teach each other what they know about teaching and learning. "Craft knowledge is revealed, articulated and shared (p 31)."
Collegiality doesn't just happen and teachers need to be trained in techniques of professional observation and in strategies for giving and receiving supportive, but also probing, feedback. High quality inclusive teaching doesn't happen overnight and is nourished by regular feedback from trusted colleagues.
Second, there is something in schools that is profoundly resistant to change and to overcome the leviathan-like inertia, a critical mass of practitioners must come to share a vision and an enthusiasm for specific change. The critical mass does not need to be a majority; in fact the threshold can be a significant minority as long as it includes both formal and informal leadership. A team approach to professional development is often helpful in fostering this critical mass.
A team approach can depart, on occasion, from conventional administrative wisdom. For example, concern for conserving our financial resources might result in us selecting only one individual to attend an external conference or workshop. The plan might be for the individual to collect the information, learn the knowledge and skills and then return to the school to provide similar workshops for the colleagues who remained at home. The problem with this model is two-fold. First of all, it is based on the transmittal model that simply treats professional development as the movement of information and the acquisition of skills. There is little emphasis on the development of relationships, attitudes and dispositions, all of which are necessary for significant change to occur. Secondly, a single individual, no matter how enthusiastic he or she may be upon returning to the school, can not carry the heavy mantle of change responsibility in isolation.
An excellent example of a team approach to professional development was employed when the American International School of Lusaka (AISL) determined that it wanted to become more inclusive in meeting the needs of exceptional children. The Director and his administrative team did their research and located a school in a neighboring country, which had an established inclusion program. A consultant from that school was requested under the AISA Consultant Pool Scheme who subsequently spent a week at AISL working with their teachers and administrators. Next, the Director sent four of his staff members, including an administrator, to spend a week at the school with the established inclusive program. The visiting teachers were able to observe classes; study resources; discuss challenges and opportunities with special educators, class teachers and administrators; and actually engage in guided teaching practice with subsequent reflective debriefing sessions. The visitors were also able to reflect among themselves on what was and what was not appropriate and transferable to their own school in Lusaka. Through this collegiality and reflection a shared vision emerged for program development at their own school.
Strong Leadership and Active Administrative Support
Strong leadership and active administrative support are not necessarily the same thing, but both are vital to the development of a culture of reflective practice that will support the demands and challenges of an inclusive program. While the administration within a school forms the official and formal leadership, there is, of course, in every school an informal leadership that can provide powerful support for or resistance to planned change.
Effective professional learning assumes effective leadership to create the motivation and commitment to change and improve. It also involves intensive, sustained, theoretically based yet practically situated learning, with opportunities to observe good practice, to be involved in coaching and mentoring processes, and to take time for reflection. (Hill & Crevola, 1999, p.130)
For many years now educators have distinguished between so-called "top-down" and "bottom up" improvement initiatives. There was a belief that the "bottom up" initiatives, those innovations and improvements suggested by teachers themselves, would be more effective because the "buy in" of the rank and file teachers would be ensured. Studies of schools and teachers engaged in action research (Calhoun & Glickman, 1993, in Joyce, Wolf & Calhoun 1993) did not support the notion that "buy in" was sufficient to effect change in and of itself. Strong leadership, whether from administrators or empowered teachers, would appear to be essential to effecting school improvement plans irrespective of whether the origin is "top down" or "bottom up". Fullan (1993) writes that both top-down and bottom-up strategies are necessary as neither centralization nor decentralization works on its own.
Too often in the past strong leadership has been perceived as synonymous with either autocratic edicts or wily manipulation. Neither the former nor the latter equate with the strong leadership that produces reflective practice. Autocracy and manipulation create an organizational climate of fear and mistrust which precludes the risk taking that is inherent in giving and receiving collegial help.
Effectively strong leaders do not follow established formulas for task accomplishment, but are careful "diagnosticians, problem solvers and leaders of others" in order to identify "needs and create solutions" (Joyce, Wolf, and Calhoun,1993, p.29). The purpose of strong leadership is to generate a collaborative and trusting community in which individuals join together to meet the needs of diverse students.
The importance of administrative support is to a large extent self-evident. However, such support should not be seen as limited only to advocating with policy makers and providing material, financial and human resources. The symbolic leadership of the effective school principal or director cannot be underestimated as a change agent. "Perhaps the most powerful reason for principals to be learners as well as leaders...is the extraordinary influence of (their) modeling behavior (Barth, 1990, p.72)." It is the modeling behavior of principals and directors that creates the implicit expectation for reflective practice. When administrators model learning in the work place, they set a powerful public example for students and teachers to follow. They give a clear message that professional development is so important that there is room for it even in their own, busy schedules.
The reflective administrator literally keeps the torch of change and innovation burning even in the face of challenges and frustrations. For example, the physical presence of the principal or school director at a math or social studies workshop provides a clear and unambiguous message that the leadership values learning. A principal who reads and shares current research about pedagogy gives a straightforward message that in this school everyone is a learner. And adult learning is the essence of reflective practice.
Too much educational reform and concomitant professional development has been of the smorgasbord variety in which schools have sampled a wide variety of innovations, have enjoyed the novelty, but have seen very little lasting change or improvement. Michael Fullan (1991) writes that "the greatest problem faced by school districts and schools is not resistance to innovation, but the fragmentation, overload and incoherence resulting from uncritical acceptance of too many different innovations (p.97)."
Change in schools tends to happen slowly. We know from both research and first hand experience that new programs take between two to three years to be established, but these are still very fragile entities. Such programs easily wither on the vine when the leadership for the change initiative departs from the scene - regrettably, an all-to-common occurrence in international schools where relatively high staff turnover creates an on-going lack of continuity.
We also know that new programs take between three to five years to be institutionalized (i.e. they are self-perpetuating even following the departure of the original change agent). In addition, it may take between five and ten years for the core values of a new program, such as the reflective practice required by inclusion, to become part and parcel of the ethos of the school. It is when such core values become embedded in the identity of the organization that a culture of adult learning can be said to be genuinely self-perpetuating.
The focus of professional development needs to be sustained over a significant period of time. Because of the length of time required to initiate and manage complex change in schools, I would argue for transforming annual goals into multi-year initiatives (perhaps 3 to 5 years in duration) with regular (annual or even bi-annual) assessment/progress reports.
Modeling What Is To Be Achieved
Too many times schools fall foul of Ralph Waldo Emerson's familiar saying: "that what you do speaks so loudly no one can hear what you are saying." If we want to produce articulate and literate critical thinkers, we need to be sure that we have teachers in classrooms who model those behaviors. If we want our students to become skillful problem solvers, we must provide the adult models for young people to emulate. "When students work with adults who continue to view themselves as learners, who ask questions with which they themselves still grapple, who are willing and able to alter both content and practice in pursuit of meaning, and who treat students and their endeavors as works in progress, not finished productions, students are more likely to demonstrate these characteristics themselves (Brooks & Brooks, p.9, 1993)."
This same modeling of what we hope to achieve is equally important in the professional development of adults.
I once attended a workshop entitled "New Trends in Instructional Design". The university professor who led the workshop lectured virtually non-stop for over two hours stressing the need for participatory and engaging lesson strategies, relevant project work and, above all, cooperative learning. On two occasions during the lecture, the professor became painfully aware of the contradiction between the content of his message and the mode of delivery and apologized to his audience, explaining that time was very short because of all the content he had to cover. Within a few moments, he settled back into his lecture stride, entreating us not to sacrifice conceptual understanding for mere coverage of the curriculum.
Of course, conceptual understanding was sacrificed. In the transmittal model, excessive teacher talk and over-reliance on textbooks are employed almost exclusively in an attempt to "cover" vast content landscapes which, because there is no link to the students' prior knowledge, often lack relevance for the passive recipient. Rather than "receiving knowledge" from "experts" in isolated and fragmented training sessions, teachers and administrators need to be provided opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in continuous, job-embedded reflection on learning and teaching.
Effective professional development models what it hopes to achieve.
In the field of special education, more is unknown than has yet been revealed. In the next decade or two, scientific breakthroughs in our knowledge about cognition, the significance of emotions to learning and the biology of how the brain works will almost certainly have a profound effect on the way in which we think about exceptional children and the manner in which we attempt to meet their educational needs. If this is an accurate projection of the future, the importance of staying current with developments in educational research and practice becomes axiomatic.
The historical isolation of some international schools, particularly those in remote locations in the developing world, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. As fraught with problems as local telephone service may be, electronic mail and the Internet now provide almost instantaneous access to the latest educational research. Within only a few years, even the most remote and isolated international schools will be linked by the cyber-revolution.
But will schools avail themselves of this resource? Will teachers become widespread consumers of educational research simply because it is now easily available to them? Possibly, but I foresee some obstacles along the way. As imperative as it is to 'keep current', teacher aversion to educational research is very understandable. In the past, research was something undertaken, for the most part, in a laboratory or university, not in the classroom, and therefore the subsequent findings of such studies were not seen to be immediately relevant to the classroom practitioner. Some of the research was disorganized, some was used out of context for political ends, much was contradictory and almost all underwent rapid revision. Having said that, I need to add that staying current is one of the categorical imperatives of the master teacher. Why is it so vitally important? Because we don't yet have answers to pressing questions about learning and teaching.
The current scope of our knowledge and understanding about learning and teaching can be likened to what a mid-century mailman, bicycling his way through sleet and snow, could then envision about e-mail, Internet and the other cyber marvels that we presently enjoy.
Obviously not everyone can keep current with every development. That is not the point. The central issue is that school leaders visibly show that current research is welcomed and valued. Schools need to actively promote structured opportunities (adult study groups/action research) in order to facilitate teacher use of current research. This demonstration of adult learning is the building block of the reflective practice that is required to support inclusion.