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Research shows both innovation and challenges in teachers’ professional learning space in Canada

| Teaching profession

If there is one thing that most people can agree on about education, it’s that schools are becoming increasingly complex. Shifting demographics, the ever-changing needs of diverse learners, and the growing proliferation of technology have certainly altered our understandings of quality teaching and learning. What new skills do teachers need to keep abreast of these changes? What kinds of learning experiences do they require to meet evolving student needs? Do all teachers have access to such experiences? These are the kinds of questions that jurisdictions are attempting to grapple with, as the importance of teachers’ knowledge, skills and practices has become widely recognized in education policy debates and practices both nationally and internationally (Campbell, Zeichner, Lieberman, and Osmond-Johnson, 2017; Darling-Hammond and Rothman, 2011).

Indeed, some of the most educationally successful countries have robust opportunities for teacher learning and leadership (Darling-Hammond, et al., 2017). Our recent study on professional learning (PL) in Canada (Campbell, et al., 2016; 2017), for instance, highlighted several innovative teacher learning opportunities including Ontario’s Teacher Learning and Leadership program, the Finland-Alberta Partnership (FINAL), and Newfoundland’s Teachers in Action, just to name a few. Overall, we found the state of professional learning in Canada to be vibrant; valuing a broad range of students’ and professionals’ learning outcomes and acknowledging the need for a range of relevant, practical, and collaborative learning experiences within and beyond school walls. We also identified several common challenges that spanned the country: inequity of access to and funding for PL (teachers in rural and remote areas, for instance, may not have the same opportunities as their urban counterparts), questions about the sufficiency of funding, and issues around dedicated time for PL during the regular school day.

Underpinning all these challenges, however, it was also apparent that tension remains about who should control the professional space around professional learning (Campbell, Osmond-Johnson, Faubert, Zeichner, and Hobbs-Johnson, 2016; 2017; Lieberman, et al., 2017). Across much of the existing evidence, the appropriate balance of system-directed and self-directed professional learning for Canadian teachers is complex and contested. For instance, according to a 2014 pan-Canadian survey by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), while the majority of teachers (55.5%) reported having some authority to make decisions about their professional development, the majority (52.3%) also perceived that this autonomy had reduced and eroded over time. Recent calls have been made to “flip the system” (Evers and Kneyber, 2016) and build the “professional capital” of the teaching profession (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012), drawing further attention to the need for a more balanced approach in which teacher professional learning increasingly becomes the purview of the profession itself.   

Teacher organizations across the country have long advocated for teacher voice and choice around professional learning. Our cross-jurisdictional analysis of collective agreements, mission statements, and websites, for instance, revealed all 16 organizations to be heavily involved in supporting professionally led professional learning. This support has taken many forms, including provisions for guaranteed funding secured through the collective bargaining process and special grants for teacher-led research teams. They are also providers of a variety of learning opportunities, including induction and mentoring programs, conferences, workshops, grants, committee work, and a variety of teacher leadership programs. Participation is voluntary and the learning is primarily teacher-led and participant-driven. The Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association, for instance, provides funding to local branches, specialist councils, and individual schools for Teachers Talking to Teachers, a program that supports the development of teacher-led PL in local contexts. In a similar vein, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society has developed the Teacher-Led Learning Team to design and deliver half-day workshops by teachers, for teachers and the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation operates the provincial Facilitator Community, a collaborative program where teachers become skilled developers and facilitators of professional learning for their peers (Osmond-Johnson, 2017).

In other instances, initiatives are partnership projects with other educational stakeholders. In British Columbia, the New Teacher Mentorship Project (NTMP) (which ran from 2013 to 2017) was funded by the Ministry of Education and developed in partnership between the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), the University of British Columbia and the Superintendents Association (Mentoring BC, 2016). Likewise, in Ontario, the Ontario Teachers’ Federation has partnered with the Ministry of Education for over a decade on the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (Lieberman, et al., 2017), where teams of teachers can apply to conduct a self-directed learning project.

Not surprisingly, interviewees across the study considered their teacher organizations to be a trusted source of PL by teachers, for teachers. Opportunities for teacher collaboration both within and beyond the school are considered vital and there is a rejection of the notion of a ‘one size fits all’ approach. These are all elements which the existing research literature identifies as features of high quality professional learning. Moreover, we found Canadian teacher organizations to work alongside governments to develop innovative learning opportunities for their members, often in spite of economic downturn and times of challenging relations with government. In Ontario and Alberta, for instance, while the relationship between the Ministry and the teachers’ organizations have been tested at times, they have partnered on several joint professional learning initiatives. Even in British Columbia, where the BCTF and the government have been at odds for over a decade (Poole, 2015), there has been evidence of a new path forward that recognizes the important role the teachers play in directing their own learning (Brown, et al., 2017). 

Debates over the appropriate balance of control over professional learning are not likely to wane anytime soon, however. As has been highlighted throughout this issue, discussions around the professional space of teachers are controversial and contentious, particularly amidst looming budget cuts in most jurisdictions. Within this context, advocacy work around issues of equity of access and teacher autonomy in directing their own learning remains as an area of both concern and opportunity for Canadian teachers’ organizations and their professional agendas.

Brown, S., Hales, A., Kuehn, L., and Steffensen, K. (2017). The State of Educators’ Professional Learning in British Columbia: Case Study. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., Faubert, B., Zeichner, K., and Hobbs-Johnson, A. (2016). The State of Educators’ Professional Learning in Canada: Executive Summary. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., Faubert, B., Zeichner, K., and Hobbs-Johnson, A. (2017). The State of Educators’ Professional Learning in Canada: Final Research Report. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

Campbell, C., Zeichner, K., Osmond-Johnson, P., and Lieberman, A. (2017). Empowered Educators in Canada: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Canadian Teachers’ Federation. (2014). Highlights of CTF Survey on the Quest for Teacher Work-Life Balance. Ottawa: CTF.

Darling-Hammond, L., et al. (Eds.) (2017). Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World. New York, NY: Wiley.

Darling-Hammond, L., and Rothman, R. (Eds.) (2011). Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High-Performing Education Systems. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education and Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Evers, J., and Kneyber, R. (2016). Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. London and New York: Routledge.

Hargreaves, A., and Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York, NY: Teachers College Press and Toronto, ON: Ontario Principals’ Council.

Lieberman, A., Campbell, C., and Yashkina, A. (2017). Teacher Learning and Leadership: Of, by and for teachers. London and New York: Routledge.

Osmond-Johnson, P. (2017). “Leading Professional Learning to Develop Professional Capital: The Saskatchewan Professional Development Unit’s Facilitator Community.” International Journal of Teacher Leadership, 8(1).

Research shows both innovation and challenges in teachers’ professional learning space in Canada