The Current Logo

Implications and further questions

Written by Christina Cantrill
January 22, 2012

The act of naming the work that my colleagues are doing online as teacher leadership opens up new ways of considering their work and the communities of which it is a part. As Lieberman and Friedrich write in their introduction, there are over three decades of attention to the role that teachers’ leadership plays in education and for students. Therefore, noticing the ways that teacher leaders are working online could potentially help to expand this work, as well as open new opportunities and ways of talking about the work teacher leaders are doing too.

In the introduction to their study, Lieberman and Friedrich note that “although numerous articles and books advocate for teacher leadership, few, it any, focus on how teachers learn to lead in their own words.” My study also did not focus on how teachers learn to lead in online spaces, but I think the act of calling them teacher leaders then brings this question to the forefront – a question that is increasingly important as both digital literacies and networked learning continue to shift the modes of learning and teaching itself. 

Lieberman and Friedrich also write that “in many ways [the teacher leaders in their study], through their actions and through their writing, help build teacher knowledge about how to lead.” (p. 99) I wonder then, as networking opportunities for teachers expand into online environments, what new and repurposed knowledge is being surfaced for learning about leadership itself.

Through my research, I can see some interesting places where more could be learned or further questions asked, including:

  • What are the implications of taking a learner-centered approach to the ways that we think about teaching and learning in general?
  • What can we learn about the social aspect of learning from paying attention to online communities of practice?
  • What are the possibilities of being public with practice and inquiry within community in a digital and networked age?

What are the implications of taking a learner-centered approach to the ways that we think about teaching and learning in general?

In paying attention to the ways that teachers advocate for what’s right for students, I noticed these teachers advocating what’s right for their colleagues, their family and community members, and learners in general. While these spaces I followed were mostly used among colleagues (although not exclusively), the consistent shift I noticed towards being learner-centered allows for potentially new possibilities in the way we approach thinking about teaching and learning in general.

My experience with the writing project leads me to believe this learner-centered focus is significant. A key piece of what we know about teaching and learning at the National Writing Project is that when practitioners themselves have an opportunity to be learners of practice they can then better support their students in being learners too. Ann Lieberman and Diane Wood in their 2002 study of the National Writing Project, National Writing Project: Social Practices in a Networked Context, write:

WP teachers [talk] about the importance of turning learning over to students so that they would develop a sense of ownership for it. Without that sense of ownership, they argued, learners are rarely truly engaged or motivated. In this spirit, the WP insists on professional development opportunities that are solidly teacher-centered. Teachers name their own problems and articulate their own problems and then have the freedom to design learning experiences around these. (p. 6)

A strong belief in the power of collective learning, especially within a rapidly changing communications and information environment which can at any moment, be new to all, was a prevailing feature of the work that I studied. And these public online spaces themselves provided a wonderful lens through which to see the enactment of this perspective and making the learning visible to others.

What can we learn about the social aspect of learning from paying attention to online communities of practice?

Online is an interesting place to see social learning happening within communities of practice. It would then be interesting to further map or follow-up on questions about how these practices might influence the ways that teachers in networks learn and how this impacts their work with their students. We have seen the impact of this at the writing project, ie. participating in supportive reflective communities of practice can support shifts in deeply held core beliefs and practices (McDonald, Buchanan and Sterling, 2004). I am curious about the potential for this in more generalized online spaces too.

Lave and Wenger’s work on communities of practice and what is considered “legitimate peripheral participation” I think is an important part of some of the dynamics you can see online and ways that teachers connect within these online communities. I noted the intention with which my colleagues are being public online, within communities of colleagues, and what feels important to me here is the intention with which they talk about supporting their colleagues in going public with their work in similar ways too. This starts to get to the “how” that Lieberman and Friedrich talk about in their study. Therefore, points of interests might include paying more attention to these spaces overall as well as how do they specifically support participants in being community members, in taking an inquiry stance and being public, over time.

Tensions around being public in these communities were also named by my colleagues – it can be risky and complicated and requires critical attention to power dynamics as well as fostering and support. In what ways do these teachers bring attention to these matters would be another approach for further study.

What are the possibilities of being public with practice and inquiry within community in a digital and networked age?

In my study, there is clearly a shared belief in the power of being public with practice, particularly within an-inquiry driven community. And these teachers are creating spaces all over the web for this to happen. Lieberman and Wood’s work studying the NWP seems important to bring back in here as it speaks to the way that the writing project has historically supported teachers in going public with their work and creating collegial forums for critique and discussion. Described as key to breaking down classroom teachers “isolation and silence” they write that writing projects support teachers in learning to give and receive critique in professional ways that further support their leadership. Through doing so, they also found that within the writing project community, teachers “developed common investment in the quality of their public contributions.” (p. 6)

I think it is significant too that these teachers are publicly leading with an intentional inquiry stance towards their work. And because they are such active participants in creating and promoting emerging online spaces that supports this kind of inquiry, they are leading in shifting power dynamics in the field itself too.

Lytle and Cochran-Smith in Inquiry as Stance: Practitioner Knowledge for the Next Generation call for an expanded view of practitioner researchers not only as teachers who work in dialogue with leaders but as leaders themselves. Lieberman and Friedrich, in reflecting on teacher leadership within the conclusion of their study, talk about the relationships between academic research and teacher knowledge and their intentions in creating the conditions that foster and demonstrate how “teachers and researchers can collaborate to deepen our knowledge about teaching, learning and leadership.” (pg 102).  In my study, I believe my collleagues are contributing to these conditions for collaboration and role-shifting through their public leadership and inquiry.

In the course of this study I also interacted with spaces, like Youth Voices, where there is an intention to create inquiry-drive community/ies of practice that includes both youth and adults (or teachers and students). Although my study did not focus on that work to any depth, the act of opening the classroom door and going public with practice clearly provides the opportunity for these kinds of learner-centered interactions across ages and roles and this would be another important area for further study with a community like Youth Voices which is working to make this happen.

#Occupyedu too was a powerful example of stance-taking that I was excited to be paying attention to during the course of this study. Modeled off of a MoveOn.org campaign, we culturally continue to learn how to act and mobilize in online (as well as off-line) spaces, so this is an interesting example to learn more from in that light. Specifically interesting here too is to learn more about how teachers are standing by their beliefs about what is best for students and learners and leading advocacy and activist efforts in support of the kinds of communities and opportunities they would like to see.

Most importantly, forums like these — as well as TTT, #engchat, Coop Catalyst, and the other blogs and social media that my colleagues and other educators are using — demonstrate, in increasingly visible ways, what is possible when teachers work and learn together as professionals in inquiry-driven communities of practice.

Many thanks to my colleagues for their important work and participation in my study.