Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

An Impact Assessment of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN)

2.3.1 Knowledge in practice: Reflection through inquiry

An earlier but still influential conception of teacher learning stems from Cochran-Smith et al’s (1999) study that highlighted the difference between “knowledge of” practice versus “knowledge in” practice. This distinction provides an important entry into this discussion. The authors’ efforts to differentiate teacher knowledge from the “old” model of teacher professional development centered on “knowledge-for-practice” – and adopting a “new” model centered on “knowledge-in-practice” and “knowledge-of-practice” signals an important antecedent for subsequent scholarship in teacher learning. Specifically, from the perspective of knowledge-in-practice, teacher learning is based on the idea that “knowledge comes from reflection and inquiry in and on practice” (p. 267, emphasis added). In professional development initiatives based on this conception, “facilitators often work with groups of teachers, functioning as supportive outsiders who push others to question their own assumptions and reconsider the bases of actions or beliefs” (p. 271). While Cochran-Smith et al’s (1999) work emphasized the importance of context (i.e. the application of learning to specific interests or needs of teachers) and the role that facilitators can play in enhancing such learning, there is an equally important feature: that of deconstructing or reframing existing teacher beliefs and understandings about the nature of teaching, learning and students themselves. This echoes my earlier discussion of the literature on teachers’ beliefs as they relate to Aboriginal education. Questioning assumptions provides the catalyst through which learning is enabled, both generally as reported in the field of teacher learning, but also specifically in learning about Aboriginal pedagogies and practices.

Professional development, at least in its “traditional” form, is increasingly challenged and critiqued as an effective means to enhance teacher learning and a “paradigm shift” seems to be gathering momentum. Evidence of this comes from the work of Timperley and her colleagues (Timperley, 2011, Timperley & Alton-Lee, 2008, Timperley, Wilson, Barrar & Fung, 2007). These scholars have helped educators understand that the focus of teacher learning is derived from students’ needs and how professional development can help to support this goal. This alternative conceptual framework for professional development features cycles of inquiry and knowledge-building with student outcome in schools as its focus (Timperley, 2011). The effectiveness of this model is evidenced in their empirical study entitled the Teacher professional and learning development: Best evidence synthesis iteration (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar & Fung, 2007) and through reports on a nation-wide professional development project in New Zealand (Timperley et al., 2009). While the focus on student achievement is important, Hargreaves (2007) offered an important caveat, arguing that data-driven instruction can drive educators “away from the passion and enthusiasm for rich processes of teaching and learning in classrooms and enriched relationships with children, into a tunnel-vision focus on manipulating and improving test scores” (p. 183). To counter this, Hargreaves (2007) places an important emphasis on creating professional learning communities as these “make deep and broad learning their priority” (p. 192), rather than a narrow emphasis on particular forms of student achievement and concomitantly, testing regimes.

The shift in emphasis from single event, individual teacher learning to collective forms of learning and knowledge building through inquiry is also evidenced in the plethora of research now available on what are called Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). This literature posits that a PLC is a community “with the capacity to promote and sustain the learning of all professionals in the school community with the collective purpose of enhancing student learning” (Bolam et al. 2005, as cited in Vescio et al., 2008, p. 81). Stoll et al. (2006) listed five characteristics of PLCs including: 1) shared values and vision; 2) collective responsibility; 3) reflective professional inquiry; 4) collaboration; and 5) group, as well as individual learning (p. 226-227). In other words, a community is built on a common vision through which the group makes an ongoing commitment to work personally and collectively to enhance the success of his/her learners. This literature helps illustrate the ways in which learning is more effective when it is a shared and collaborative experience.