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Professional Learning: A Regional Reflection - What to stop, start and sustain?

I was on the train between Aberdeen and Glasgow when an e-mail popped up telling me the 'It Starts with a Question' Education Scotland event I was travelling to was still on. It hadn't even occurred to me it might be cancelled. The next day there were more signs that change was ahead, such as the presence of antibacterial gel and the new greetings that replaced the usual hugs and handshakes. Within days all face-to-face professional learning activity had been paused by Education Scotland and across the Northern Alliance.

The last twelve weeks have been, and continue to be, immensely challenging for many personal and professional reasons. Our routines have changed immeasurably at home and work, as has how we work and learn together. While we continue to face the ups and downs of change and uncertainty, there are also some personal and educational silver linings and opportunities emerging.

I am currently seconded to the Northern Alliance Central Team from my substantive post as Depute Head at Meldrum Academy where I have worked since it opened in 2002, first as a middle leader before joining SLT. Supporting and developing others has always been a rewarding part of my role. My post with the Northern Alliance requires me to collaborate widely to support leadership development across eight local authorities as we shape a new system and ways of working with each other, strengthening connections and improving access to high-quality learning. 

Unique to the Northern Alliance is its rurality, covering 54.8% of the landmass of Scotland yet representing a small percentage of the Scottish population. As we adapt and relocate more professional learning to the virtual world it is becoming increasingly accessible. Day-to-day opportunities have greatly increased, fuelled in some cases by immediate need, but also through the ease with which people can now come together. There is increased flexibility around how and when professional learning takes place as face-to-face programmes are recorded, remodelled and moved online. For many, it’s no longer just what’s available locally. It feels like a more level playing field for colleagues across Scotland and we have seen that we can learn together in ways that don't impact on precious family time, result in travel exhaustion, or cost a lot of money. 

Countless virtual opportunities have sprung up to connect, collaborate and network in a very short time. From blethers, chats and webinars, to development groups and professional learning sessions, activities can be widely accessed from Shetland to the Borders. There will be reduced isolation for many as more online networks become accessible, something that is particularly important for our rural colleagues at this time. This is a unique time globally and our shared experiences are bringing us closer as educators.

My professional learning has changed over the last 12 weeks, Masters dissertation on the back burner temporarily (now due November thankfully). My essential learning has been practice-focused, rapid and refreshingly messy at times. I have felt a sense of increased camaraderie and support as colleagues acknowledge that we are all in this together and learning together as we go. 

The small Northern Alliance team are based hundreds of miles apart but have been brought closer together through this shared moment in time. We have welcomed new colleagues, collaborated and learned together far more regularly in a virtual world than we did back in the old 'normal' one. While the technology and platforms always existed, the online option was generally for those who could not attend a meeting in person. In a few months, we have leapt forward as a team and will continue to do so as we further develop our knowledge and skills to work and learn in a virtual environment.

It may be some time before any of us can contemplate planning or attending a professional learning event in person. I wonder how the changes to the way we have started learning and working together, will continue to shape practice in professional learning. As we renew our education system some questions keep recurring:

  • What are the things we haven't missed and do not want to bounce back to?
  • What new ways of working do we want to keep and improve?
  • What are the things we have missed and want to see return?

I haven't missed travelling or the time and nights away from home. I have loved being able to connect with others and engage in learning from the comfort of my home. I wonder how we can continue to work in agile ways that enable teachers to participate in professional learning at a time and place that suits them. 

I want to keep webinars. I enjoy the format and the ease with which knowledge can be shared, my thinking stimulated and the way they lead me down the Google rabbit hole to find out more. I think there is huge potential to build on this approach and virtual connections and networks in general. 

What have I missed? People. Much as I enjoy online learning, I am a social creature and deeply miss the human interaction that even face-to-face online learning can't always provide. I miss the social aspects and interactions that deepen connections and sustain my learning. Going forward, in the context of my role, I need to consider how 'face-to-face' professional learning offers progress, what is suitable to adapt to the online environment and what benefits from people being in the room for the learning to be of most value. 

Questions like this are being asked the country and the world over, across all systems. There is no longer a normal - instead we have an opportunity to use the knowledge and skills we have gained as we have adapted, learned and grown in the last few months to shape the future. Let's look forwards and continue to refresh and renew the ways we work and learn together as adults, keeping the best of the old and blending it with the best of the new. 

The Education Scotland Evolving Systems Thinking programme and the work of Simon Breakspear, including his webinar 'Building Back Better' have informed my thinking and this article. Many thanks to Annette Beaton, Alison Weatherston and the team at PLL for always sharing their learning so generously.