Professional Learning Conversations | Steve Barkley

Professional Learning Conversations

I focused on the phrase “professional learning conversations” while reading an article by Dr. Kristine Needham titled 5 Conversations for Professional Growth. She explores the terms ‘professional conversations’, ‘learning conversations’, ‘professional learning conversations’, ‘coaching conversations’, and ‘feedback conversations.’

Dr. Needham shares that the term “professional learning conversations” was coined by Lorna Earl and Helen Timperley in their book, Professional learning conversations: Challenges in using evidence for improvement, to describe a particular form of evidence-informed conversation.

“It includes more than conversations with some attention to evidence. Instead, it is an iterative process of asking questions, examining evidence, and thinking about what the evidence means in the particular context.”

Earl and Timperley identify three qualities required for these kinds of conversations:

  • having an inquiry habit of mind
  • using relevant data
  • relationships of respect and challenge

The concept of dialogue is integral – mutual understanding of each contributor’s claim and the values, together with the reasoning and data, on which they are based.

Inquiry Habit of Mind

According to Earl and Katz, an inquiry habit of mind is a way of thinking that seeks to gain profound understanding, reserve judgment, tolerate contradictions, have different perspectives and ask questions.

The Knowles Teacher Initiative lists seven practices for inquiry:

(a) reflecting on and planning for inquiry,
(b) asking inquiry questions,
(c) collecting and generating data,
(d) analyzing data,
(e) understanding implications and taking action,
(f) engaging with critical friends,
(g) making inquiry public.

Assisting in the formation of questions for inquiry is a key role for those facilitating teacher dialogues in PLCs and coaching activities designed to generate teacher insight and learning. (See an earlier blog, Designing Discussion for Inquiry and Learning) One of the greatest reinforcements I can receive during a coaching conversation is the teacher’s response, “That’s a great question.”

“A good question can move a conversation forward and create the opportunity for others to broaden their awareness, think deeply, plan, learn, and grow.”

– Jim Knight, The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching

Using Relevant Data

Whenever I am working with teachers who are in some form of data review, my opening question concerns how reliable the teachers feel the data information to be. If the teacher assessment of reliability is low, I know that issue needs to be addressed before we proceed. If we are working with system assessment or state-testing data, I’ll ask teachers to identify student results that they sense are not accurate and to bring to our next meeting data/evidence from their classroom that would question the test data. This activity can create a round of valuable inquiry conversation, sometimes uncovering a realization that teacher formative assessment is not measuring the same standard/level of complexity as the formal testing.

There is another area of data that I believe to be critical to the ongoing inquiry process once it has moved to action. I usually use the word “evidence.” Evidence that the actions we decided to take have actually been executed. Most action plans are built around initial changes in teacher behavior, leading to changes in student learning behaviors, that hopefully lead to the desired learning outcomes. Too often, the only data later collected is a learning outcome assessment. Had the group gathered evidence as teachers worked to change their actions, they may have discovered that unconsciously teachers hadn’t changed. They may uncover that the teacher change hadn’t generated the sought student learning behavior change. In either of those cases that feedback would lead to continued inquiry and adjustments in the plan. Collecting this evidence can be a task for the instructional coach or carried out through peer coaching among group members.

Relationships of Respect and Challenge

I think that listening is a key element of respect and common goals push us to challenge ourselves and each other. I’ve focused a lot of my coaching practice on questioning. Asking questions that communicate my interest in the important work of the coaches. Questions that communicate my listening to what the coachee has previously shared. Respect for what the coachee wants to accomplish with her learners creates a relationship where I’m allowed to shine the light on a challenge.

I just received approval from a central office educator I am coaching that reinforced the role of respect and challenge. She said, “Steve, I love and hate working with you.” That statement came as she felt respected for what she is doing and achieving while uncovering her own challenge for what needs to be done.

I find this comment from Margaret Wheatley an important consideration. How do we focus on what is important?

We spend so much time in complex group processes focused on team building, problem-solving, effective communications, etc. But what happens when we forget about technique and just try to be present for each other? Have you experienced what happens in you and others when we really listen to each other? In my experience, the techniques and methods actually keep us from one another-we stay focused on whether we are doing the technique correctly rather than becoming focused on who is in the room and what they want to say.”

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