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Thriving Amidst Uncertainty: The Impact of Professional Inquiry and Generative Dialogue

Correlating teaching and leading with student learning has historically been an elusive undertaking. Circumstances of the past two years, brought about by the global pandemic, seem to have exacerbated this challenge to link student learning metrics with educational leadership and teacher efficacy largely due to an ever-shifting educational context and, in some cases, to pandemic conditions shaping regressive practices for leader and teacher professional growth. Yet, emerging literature reminds us that sustained, purposeful, cohesive, and systematic efforts focused on collaboration, instructional leadership, and collective efficacy will impact educators’ professional practice and, in turn, support student learning (see, for example, Adams, Braunberger, Hamilton, & Caldwell, 2021; Adams, Mombourquette, & Allan, 2020; Adams, Mombourquette, & Townsend, 2019; Chernowski, 2018). 

This article highlights how, in spite of months of uncertainty, a sustained, intentional focus on inquiry-guided growth plans supported by generative dialogue positively impacted the professional practice of system and school leaders in Medicine Hat Public School Division (MHPSD), an urban jurisdiction in southern Alberta. Complementing sections of this report are the reflections and observations of Mark Davidson, superintendent of schools for the division.

Engaging and Reconsidering Assumptions

“These assumptions resonated with our existing culture with our focus on research supported and data informed professional practice.

They challenged us to commit resources, in the form of time and emotional investment, to the work.”

– Mark Davidson

Over three years (2018 – 2021), system and school leaders were asked to reconsider historical paradigms of student, teacher, and leader learning. This re-conceptualization involved re-imaging the implications of nine foundational assumptions:

  • learning is a process of growth rather than an episode or event;
  • professional learning is a collaborative and constructivist process;
  • authentic curiosity yields problems of practice that enhance professional growth;
  • effective leadership is necessarily distributed and often democratized;
  • the moral imperative of leading learning is to impact student learning as directly as possible through establishing a culture of shared responsibility;
  • all educators are presumed competent; 
  • leading learning requires and causes reflective action that results in conscious competence;
  • leading learning is not accidental, rather it is evidence-based, intentful, and sustained; and
  • central office leaders have a critical role in modeling the leadership of learning.

These nine assumptions provided the essential foundation for this initiative focused on inquiry-guided professional growth plans supported by generative dialogue (see Adams, Mombourquette, & Townsend, 2019). 

The Process for Growth

“The shift to inquiry-guided growth plans and generative dialogue conversations impacted school leaders’ professional relationships by focusing them on thinking and learning rather than completing tasks.

As the superintendent, I observed setting aside a bias toward evaluation and directing action as tangible challenges for school leadership.”

– Mark Davidson

Over three years, leaders at all levels of the division established conditions for purposeful, focused, learner-centric teaching supported by elbow-to-elbow instructional leadership. 

In practical terms, this involved:

  • teachers and leaders using inquiry-guided growth plans based on their respective provincial standard of practice;
  • monthly site visits and conversations characterized by generative dialogue between the system liaison and school leader and, eventually between the school leader and teachers; and 
  • monthly reflection and learning with and among system and school leaders during their Administrators’ Meeting.

Gathering Insight and Reflection

“The high rate of participation in the survey indicates broad acceptance of the value of the work and belief in the value of research as a function of professionalism.

As a jurisdictional leader this tells me our culture is shifting in meaningful and impactful ways toward being an authentic learning organization.”

– Mark Davidson

Designing collection instruments to meet the needs of the school division as well as provide data to inform the larger research community comprised a lengthy co-creation process. Near the end of the three years, school and system leaders were asked to consider: 

  • In what ways will our learning community be different as a result of our work with inquiry-guided professional learning and the use of generative dialogue?
  • How will we know? What evidence will we gather?

Working collaboratively, leaders and researchers drafted both quantitative and qualitative questions to illuminate the relationship between inquiry-informed professional learning and its impact on the learning culture of MHPSD. 

In September 2021, an invitation was extended to all teachers, school, and system leaders to provide their perspectives through the completion of an electronic survey. It might have been expected that, administered as it was during the height of the global pandemic, voluntary participation in the survey would be low. However, nearly 50% of MHPSD teachers and 100% of school and system leaders responded to the survey providing a high level of certainty that diverse voices and perspectives were heard, representing a majority of educators in the division.

What Have We Learned?

Drawing together the responses of 17 principals, 27 vice principals, and 5 executive leaders, this chart highlights the impact of the initiative on various aspects of professional practice: 

Inquiry-based professional learning
supported through generative dialogue has positively impacted:

My capacity to respond to challenges
to student learning.

The frequency of my professional conversationswith colleagues.

My curiosity about teaching and learning.

My level of professional efficacy.

My willingness to share my professional learning.

How I plan for professional growth.

The quality of professional conversations
between my teachers and me.

My levels of relational trust.

Student learning.

Agree/
Strongly Agree


96%


100%


100%


100%

95.5%


100%

100%



100%

97.3%

Disagree/
Strongly Disagree


4%


0%


0%


0%

4.5%


0%

0%



0%

2.7%

“This data will prompt us to continue to implement Generative Dialogue as a critical part of our system’s ongoing commitment to research supported, data informed, and collaborative professional action to benefit learners.

I was most surprised by the near universal agreement that Generative Dialogue had produced tangible benefits, not only for teachers, but for the students they serve.”

– Mark Davidson

A number of key understandings emerged from the reflections of system and school leaders.

Specifically, when inquiry-informed professional learning is supported through generative dialogue, leaders experienced:

  • increased levels of reflective practice; 
  • heightened professional autonomy and shared responsibility for student learning;
  • enriched utilization of facilitated collaborative practice;
  • refined sense of the role of instructional leadership; and
  • enhanced levels of trust throughout the division.

Additionally, these leaders clearly linked their professional growth through inquiry-informed learning to a positive impact on student learning within the division.

To Thrive Amidst Uncertainty

While challenging in every aspect of life, the past two years have also offered opportunities to re-imagine learning, teaching, and leading. System and school leaders in MHPSD intentionally, with clear purpose, sustained their focus on inquiry-guided professional growth supported by generative dialogue and, in doing so, contributed to shaping an environment for educators to thrive in the midst of uncertainty. As reported, this environment nurtured growth in various aspects of leaders’ practice including a positive impact on perceptions of professional efficacy, the quality of professional conversations with teachers and, ultimately, the learning of students. 


References
Adams, P., Braunberger, D., Hamilton, S. & Caldwell, B. (2021). Leaders in limbo: The role of collaborative inquiry influencing school leaders’ levels of efficacy. Canadian Journal of Action Research, 22(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.33524/cjar.v22i1.551
Adams, P., Mombourquette, C., & Allan, S. (2020). Threads of continuity: Sustainable equitable leadership in times of crisis. EdCan, 61(3). https://www.edcan.ca/magazine/fall-2021/
Adams, P., Mombourquette, C., & Townsend, D. (2019). Leadership in education: The power of generative dialogue. Canadian Scholars Press.
Chernowski, S. (2018). Positive teacher leadership: Building mindsets and capacities to grow wellbeing. International Journal of Teacher Leadership 9(1). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1182707.pdf

Sharon Allan is a sessional instructor, Pamela Adams and Carmen Mombourquette are associate professors at the University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta. For more information about implementing inquiry-informed professional learning supported by generative dialogue, please contact: sharon.allan@uleth.ca, adams@uleth.ca, carmen.mombourquette@uleth.ca

Mark Davidson is the superintendent of schools for Medicine Hat Public School Division in Medicine Hat, Alberta. For further information about this initiative, please contact Mark at mark. davidson@sd76.ab.ca

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