The end result of our year-long, job-embedded professional learning journey, The Connected Learner Experience, is the action research project that each team completes and presents at our year-end culminating celebration. Action research is a process in which our educators collaboratively examine their own educational practice systematically and carefully. They work together to identify a problem within their school or community, and then collaboratively to solve it. Action research is meaningful, positive, and reflective. It is data-driven, action-based, improvement-focused, and it’s transformative.

We hope you enjoy and are inspired by this interview with our team from Friends School of Baltimore and their culture of collaboration project.

The oldest school in one of America’s foundational cities, Friends School of Baltimore is a progressive community of learning; its commitment to balance in education the product of centuries of work teaching children to find and keep their own balance in a world that is forever changing. Firmly rooted in the enduring values of the Quakers, today’s School is a vibrant, 21st Century learning community that chooses simplicity over material possession; peaceful resolution of conflict over aggression; integrity over expedience; equality over elitism; and stewardship of the earth as a collective and personal responsibility.

Here’s a sneak peek into their exciting action research

Your action research project tackled the possibility of developing a culture of collaboration at Friends School. What made you aware of this particular challenge in your school? Why did you land on this issue as the focus of your action research project?

We started with the idea of developing a culture of collaboration, and then saw the value of being a connected learner and merged the two ideas. Collaboration has been identified as a core element of the Teaching and Learning Paradigm at Friends School. Being learners ourselves helped us develop empathy for others who are just beginning this journey, and we wanted to help others see the value in developing a PLN, and then see how this would increase our ability to collaborate. In order to find out how our faculty currently learns, we designed a 6 question survey to being the process.

How we learn

A wordle answering the question "how do we learn outside our school?"

Tell us a little bit about the process you went through during your journey through PLP’s professional development this year? How did your action research come together? Who did what and how did you identify who would be good at different aspects of the project?

Being told to begin our process by  doing nothing new in our classrooms and just be learners was quite freeing for many of us in our group. There was no pressure to do anything but learn and lurk, if you will. We began meeting during our scheduled webinars with a couple of meetings in between them. Twitter was new for some of us and being able to lurk in and out of communities at the beginning was very new and proved to be non-threatening. It didn’t take long, however, for us to begin trying new things we learned about in our own classrooms. We then saw the value in connecting to others and contributing our own ideas to our learning communities.

Building our learning communities began to become invaluable and that was where our real action research came together. At first we brainstormed ideas and thought we would create a Ning. It then became clearer after talking to each other that we needed to shift the culture of our school before we would help our colleagues understand the value of going to a Ning. We continued to fight the nay-sayers in our own minds and realized we would have to leave them behind. There will always be people that say, “Yes, but…” and in order to facilitate growth and change, we would have to say, “Yes, and…”. We all contributed to the growth and forward movement of our group in different ways. Our team leader provided structure for us to meet and then helped re-state members’ ideas in a way that was positive and could help move us forward. Other members that were ahead of some of us in being connected helped us see the value in ways we could not yet think about because we didn’t have the wisdom or experience.

Some members were “task masters” and helped create a long term plan in order to get things accomplished by our “due dates.” Some members were skilled at creating videos and Power Points and some members were quiet, deep thinkers that provided excellent and thoughtful feedback just at the right moments. Last, but not least, many of us were outgoing, dramatic and most importantly, willing to take risks!

The Friends School of Baltimore action research team

The Friends School of Baltimore action research team

What was your biggest revelation or aha moment during this year’s action research?

I think our first Aha moment was when we realized we were putting the cart before the horse in creating a Ning. The second Aha moment was definitely when we shifted from “Yes, but…” to “Yes, and…” That really helped us shift our own thinking and move us forward in a positive way.

Our biggest revelation eventually became the theme of our presentation: “Yes, and …” At first, we found it hard to be motivated to act because we had all encountered resistance in one form or another from our colleagues when we tried to interest others in the idea of connected learning. We were worried that we would be ineffective in making change because all of these “yes, but …” voices would stop us from even expressing our ideas. We realized that we had to silence these voices and forge ahead because constantly thinking of the roadblocks would prevent us from moving forward. We adopted the improv theater concept of “Yes, and …” where we support each other’s ideas and build on them. That is the only way to move forward. Once we stopped concerning ourselves with the few negative voices in our community, we were able to obtain a more accurate picture of how many people truly were open to our ideas.

Improv was a great way of showing what our journey was like. We took risks, supported each other, and listened. But most importantly, we “yes anded” the process, even when we were unsure of the destination. We found out that by building on one another’s strengths, we could go farther faster.

The team used a focus group to help come up with the survey questions

The team used a focus group to help come up with the survey questions

How did the concepts and strategies you learned during your PLP journey help you along the way?

The “storming, norming, performing” concept helped us to realize that the process was not going to be easy – that learning is messy and the stages and feelings we had during the process were completely normal. The strategy of checking in to the community every day, or spending short chunks of time doing this kind of work, or lurking before we become participants helped some of us not feel overwhelmed with the work before we were ready to move forward.

When we hit a roadblock, the PLP community was there to offer suggestions and ideas. It was our PLC in action!

What was a major challenge or roadblock you encountered during your project? How did you mitigate this difficulty?

Limiting the scope of our project was hard for us. We wanted to do too much when our faculty wasn’t ready to have connected learning foisted on them. So we scaled back and focused on Becoming a Connected Learner! Yes AND…

What was the most positive or transformative thing to happen as a result of your project?

Because resistance is often louder, we did not have a good sense of how many people were actually interested in developing a community of professional growth. We feared that it would be considered “one more thing” and not a priority to our colleagues. We feared others feeling overwhelmed or turned off. However, what we found was that our faculty was truly open to being connected learners; they saw the value and a few had already started taking steps toward building their PLNs.

Do you think this project will have implications into the future? Is it ongoing?

The administration is very interested in what we have learned and in sharing it with the rest of the community. It may change the way we approach professional development, as we can see some disconnects between our current professional development and the ways of learning identified by our faculty. We hope our action research project will aid/guide our administration in looking at other possible ways to plan professional development. The administration has been very supportive throughout the entire process. We all feel called, in one way or another, to help others who are just beginning this journey to navigate it and address any anxieties they may have along the way.

We learned that most of our faculty likes to learn by doing, so we plan on working with small groups to help them become connected. We also want to follow up with them to keep the learning moving forward. So often, we learn something, but don’t get the chance to practice or talk with others, and what we learned dies. This needs to be an ongoing process.

How has being a part of PLP changed you as a teacher or leader?

Paula – It has helped me to trust the process more. I learned to trust that we as a group are headed in some direction, even if we can’t see that direction clearly at the moment. I needed to “unlearn” what I felt a “leader” was, or how others had defined that term for me, in favor of being the person that I am. While we may not be able to see the direction, we did have to trust that we would know when we were on the right track, or when we had to get back onto the path again. We had to keep faith that it would all be alright in the end. It’s this kind of trust that allows creative risks to happen.

Linda – Being a learner first and having a community to support me kept me growing and changed the way I learn. I have so much more to share and want to help others see the value in connected learning.

Molly – The value of moving along the journey together with a cross-divisional cohort impacted me the most.

Heidi – Being a part of PLP has truly transformed me. Before I began this process, I was wondering how much longer I could stay in this profession. I am so excited about what is going on in education and want to be a part of and positive force in this revolution.

Kimberly – My students are blogging and are connecting with others outside of our school. I have also helped some of my faculty with blogging and using other web 2.0 tools. As for me as a learner, rather than always having to “search for or go after” information, I am now allowing the information to come to me through RSS feeds, Google Reader, Twitter, etc. I don’t feel as isolated as I sometimes did before PLP.

Join us for a year of action research and learning

Check out the complete details on The Friends School of Baltimore’s project hereLike the idea of using action research to solve problems in your school? We have built an entire year of job-embedded learning around action research and social media tools called The Connected Learner Experience. Teams are forming now. Check it out here and join us for 2012-13.

About the author
Powerful Learning Practice is professional development for the 21st Century. Our model is collaborative and community-based. We've helped over 4,000 teachers and administrators worldwide to re-envision their classrooms, schools, and their roles in education. Become a part of the movement today. Sign up for an info session to find out more, and while you're at it, follow us on Twitter.