Alberta teachers adopt bold new leadership challenge

December 5, 2011
Dennis Shirley

Sometimes leadership is craved and pursued with relentless ambition. At other times it is shouldered unwillingly by force of circumstance. Whatever its origins, it is clear that this is Alberta’s leadership moment—and the province’s educators are at the centre of it.

Think of it. Consistently over the years, Alberta’s schools have generated top results on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. While Ontario has recently reaped the lion’s share of transnational attention for its students’ learning gains and for improved high school graduation rates, Albertans have continued to excel, with results that exceed Ontario’s. And now that Alison Redford has been sworn in as Alberta’s 14th premier and has promised to eliminate Grade 3 and 6 provincial achievement tests, it looks like Alberta is joining other international high achievers, such as Finland, in aspiring to teach above and beyond standards.

And why not? Leadership is never just about fitting into others’ measures; it is also about seeking new horizons that lie beyond what others might be able to imagine. Here again Alberta is leading. In March 2011, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) launched a bold new international partnership with Finland, seeking to learn from one of the most consistently high-achieving school systems in the world. Other jurisdictions talk about partnerships, but often these boil down to a few high-profile exchanges between senior policy-makers, never reaching the school and classroom levels. The ATA is pursuing an altogether different strategy, believing that if the professionals who work in schools every day are provided with real cross-cultural learning opportunities, the benefits will be enormous.

Since the inaugural meeting of the Finland–Alberta partnership in Edmonton, Finnish and Albertan educators have travelled back and forth across the globe, sharing notes on their best practices and questioning long-established routines that come to light when visiting other schools. These teachers and principals have explored ways that their students can have direct communication with one another to foster the cosmopolitan and flexible learning that will be the bedrock of new economies in our rapidly globalizing world. The learning is rapid-fire and the level of reflection among all engaged is serving as a rich catalyst for a new kind of internationally driven professional development.

While some high achievers are content to rest on their laurels, Alberta and Finland point in another direction, restlessly seeking to learn, learn, learn. Along with my Boston College colleagues Andy Hargreaves and Karen Lam, I’m privileged to form a research team to assess what kind of learning is acquired from the Finland–Alberta partnership. We want to see not just what is learned but also how new forms of knowledge are shared and diffused across Alberta. Our research question is, How can an international partnership aid in the transformation of teaching, learning and the management of change in schools?

Subsidiary questions relate to the prosaic everyday nature of lives in schools. For example, how do we organize students’ time and how do we assess their learning? How do teachers in Finland and Alberta experience autonomy and collegiality in their schools? What opportunities do students and teachers have to take on new leadership roles and to develop their capacity and talents in new directions? How do educators in Finland and Alberta understand what makes for a good school, and how does this understanding evolve as a result of participating in the international partnership? Finally, how does participating in the partnership compare with educators’ other experiences of change?

We anticipate that these questions will lead us deep into the heart of contemporary educational and social challenges. We are aware that our world is changing with startling rapidity and that the world our children inherit will be radically different from the world into which we were born. In this new world of the future, will we be able to realize our aspirations for personal freedom, social justice and environmental sustainability? Will our students learn to live in harmony with one another? Will we be able to learn to develop sustainable economies even as the understandable craving for jobs that pay a living wage leads us to seek environmentally hazardous shortcuts to prosperity and abundance? We all seek real answers to these complex, demanding and time-sensitive questions.

No way out exists except to learn our way to the next Alberta, and the next Finland, and the next economy. The journey is uncertain and perhaps even perilous. But the Albertans I’ve had the privilege of gaining as friends and colleagues in the last few years are more than ready for the challenge.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!

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Dennis Shirley is a professor of education at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College. Along with Elizabeth MacDonald, he is the author of The Mindful Teacher (Teachers College Press, 2009). Shirley also coauthored, with Andy Hargreaves, The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change (Corwin, 2009).