The Editorial Board of Valu.Enews met Professor Chris Brown and Professor Cindy Poortman during the last three International Congresses for School Effectiveness and Improvement held in Stavanger (2019), Marrakech (2020), and online due to the Covid pandemics (2021). In the light of the reflections on ensuring quality education for all, that Valu.Enews has promoted during the last four years, the Editorial Board decided to facilitate a “double interview” between the two scholars, on issues such as professional learning, personal motivation of school personnel in taking part in professional development projects, and the exchange of educational best practice. The recent ICSEI Congress on “Crossing Boundaries and Building Bridges” was crucial in delving into such questions, and with the help of the two researchers we try to sum up these key elements.
Chris Brown is Professor in Education at Durham University‘s School of Education. Chris is seeking to drive forward the notion of Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) as a means to promote the collaborative learning of teachers. In April 2021, he co-edited the monograph “Educating Tomorrow. Learning for the Post-Pandemic World” (Emerald Publishing), with Ruth Luzmore (school principal of the St. Mary Magdalene Academy in London).
Cindy Poortman is an Associate Professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Her research and teaching focus on teachers’ and school leaders’ professional development in doing research in teams and networks. Poortman is also responsible for the research program for the education of future engineers 4TU.CEE (Center for Engineering Education) of the Dutch University of Twente.
Chris and Cindy are the co-founders and co-conveners of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement’s network Professional Learning Networks. They edited together the book “Networks for Learning: Effective Collaboration for Teacher, School and System Improvement” (Routledge, London 2018).
Professor Brown, the recent International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement was held online due to the Covid emergency period. You have been appointed as an ICSEI Board Member last year, what do you think about the first online Congress’ organization after 34 years of ICSEI history?
«The pandemic has shown us that new ways of working are possible, and ICSEI is no exception. Although what I find most inspiring about ICSEI is the sense of family and community, I think we showed that an online Congress is possible, and that we were able to replicate much of what is great about this annual event. In particular, I am proud that we still managed to bring together a fantastic range of keynotes and speakers, and provide a wonderfully insightful and knowledge-rich event. Of course, while there are some good reasons to now move a lot of activity to online, I hope to meeting my ICSEI family in person as soon as possible!»
Professor Poortman, do you think that ICSEI’s main aims have been confirmed, even in the context of a distance Congress held entirely online?
«The ICSEI Congress has always been a great opportunity to connect in person to discuss our work and plan further collaborations. Nevertheless, from submitting proposals to putting together the program all involved worked hard to make ICSEI 2021 the best possible online experience. Much effort was put into opportunities for interaction even in keynote sessions, showing that the ICSEI community itself is a Professional Learning Network (PNL) and everyone is committed to keep inspiring each other and learning together. Still we cannot overstate the importance of connecting socially, and we cannot wait to meet in person again as soon as this is possible.»
Professor Brown, what relationship do you think can be traced between school evaluation and educational effectiveness?
«I think that we can only understand how effectiveness does or doesn’t occur as a result of intelligent evaluation. The world is replete with interventions that have failed to make any impact; likewise of interventions that appear to be successful in some settings but not in others. What we need is a process of evaluation that enables us to understand how a theory of change has played out in a given context: e.g. to have knowledge of the activities and interactions that occurred, barriers and enablers to engagement, expected change versus actual change (and so on). It is only once we have this that we can help educators understand how to translate interventions so that they work in a variety of settings to achieve the change desired.»
Professor Poortman, how do you think that taking part in professional development programs for school personnel can help improve schools?
«In a research contribution on which we are working on with colleagues Kim Schildkamp and Chris Brown, we go into the challenge of linking student outcomes with professional development interventions, and PLNs in particular. Several systematic reviews show effects of educator participation in networks on student outcomes, but point to both conceptual and methodological issues at the same time. To evaluate effectiveness, we need to address the theory of action for interventions and use an appropriate research design. In terms of measurement, for example, we need to define PLN elements well (e.g. ‘reflective professional inquiry’). Digital education, both for teachers and students, provides more opportunities to make more use of other data than only self-report data.»
But how can we combine the aspiration to improve schools with the work that teachers do in their classrooms in everyday life?
«Two of my PhD students, are looking into this from the perspective of professional development (in PLNs) for sustainable school improvement. They are using a ‘core components’ lens for sustainability, rather than a ‘fidelity’ approach. In his paper “The conundrum research-practice partnerships face with system variability”, McNaughtonv states: ‘taking innovation to scale faces context-specific conditions’. Moreover, in PLNs in general and research-practice partnerships in particular, practitioners, researchers (and policy-makers) work together on evidence-informed innovation, aiming to combine general guidelines from research with context-specific knowledge and experience to improve student outcomes.»
Professor Brown, what can we learn from decentralized interventions for the development of professional skills for schools? How can the experience of those who have participated in these kinds of programs before us help us?
«For me the answer comes from holding research conversations with those involved. From the innovators themselves, such conversations need to help us understand how a given intervention was designed to be implemented and how it was intended that practitioners should engage with it (as well as what should happen as a result). But we also need to engage with practitioners to understand their lived experience of the intervention and whether this reveals flaws in programme design or implementation. We can then play these lived experiences back to the innovators who can then amend their programme as appropriate.»
In this context, an element such as the individual will to “get involved” in programs aimed at the improvement of the ability to read educational data and school processes seems to be essential. Is that so?
I think the role of emotion is super important here. For instance the work of Schildkamp and Datnow “When Data Teams Struggle: Learning from Less Successful Data Use Efforts” shows us that how practitioners view the purpose of (for example) data teams is vital: with data use efforts focused on accountability being far less fruitful than those focused on continuous improvement, or an explicit focus on equity, which are ‘more likely to lead to school policies and practices that expand students’ opportunities to learn’. Likewise, when teachers experience negative experiences with data use, such as shaming and blaming or feel that their time is being wasted, they are far less likely to be engaged. Positive experiences, on the other hand, (for example, working with a productive team that is delving deeply into learning) are likely to encourage teachers to become more engaged, motivated, and in turn, more reflective.
Professor Poortman, the possibility that teachers have to go round with other colleagues involved in these kind of projects who work in similar realities, but at the same time different and not very comparable to each other, does not represent a possible limit to the success of programs like these?
One of the basic guidelines for working in PLNs is that participants have a shared sense of purpose focused on student learning. PLN participation should be in line with what educators want to work on because of issues in their daily practice, rather than something on top of everything else. Of course this is easier said than done, and lack of facilitation in time and alignment with school vision keep being some of the main factors impeding effectiveness. On the other hand, here are just a couple of quotes of some of the PLN teachers in our projects: ‘I keep learning new and different things and can apply them directly’; ‘Dynamic and inspiring’; Fun ánd better learning results’; ‘I learned so many new things!’vi. Although improved student outcomes are the ultimate goal, teachers also value PLN participation in itself as a pleasant and useful process of professional development.
Binkhorst, F. (2017). Connecting the dots: Supporting the implementation of teacher design teams. Enschede: University of Twente. Prenger, R., Poortman, C. L., & Handelzalts, A. (2019). The effects of networked professional learning communities. Journal of teacher education, 70(5), 441-452.
Brown, C., Poortman, C., Gray, H., Ophoff, J. G., & Wharf, M. M. (2021). Facilitating collaborative reflective inquiry amongst teachers: What do we currently know?. International Journal of Educational Research, 105, 101695.
Doğan, S., & Adams, A. (2018). Effect of professional learning communities on teachers and students: Reporting updated results and raising questions about research design. School effectiveness and school improvement, 29(4), 634-659.
Prenger, R., Poortman, C. L., & Handelzalts, A. (2019). The effects of networked professional learning communities. Journal of teacher education, 70(5), 441-452.
Schildkamp, K and Datnow, A. (2020) When Data Teams Struggle: Learning from Less Successful Data Use Efforts, Leadership and Policy in Schools, DOI: 10.1080/15700763.2020.1734630.
Tappel, A., Poortman, C.L., Schildkamp, K. & Visscher, A.J. (2020). Factors influencing the sustainability of a data use intervention. Paper presented at the 33rd International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, Marrakech, Morocco.