The Next Big Questions in Learning For Alberta's Teaching Profession

May 21, 2010
J C Couture

“Our DNA was written by monkeys banging away, not on typewriters, but at one another, for millions of years. Imagine how quickly life will transform when DNA and biochemistry are altered with thoughtful intent.”
—A. Garrett Lisi[1]

The quote from theoretical physicist A. Garrett Lisi is a compelling statement both about the past and about potential developments in science and technology that will take us into unchartered territory. As we move into a watershed where advances in nanotechnology and biology will allow us to literally rewrite the script on what it means to be human, the next big questions in educational research will be difficult to predict.

Yet this theme issue of the ATA Magazine is a timely opportunity to speculate about the major directions the Association’s research might take in the decade ahead. The ATA’s current research is based on issues such as administrators’ workload, special education and educational accountability; these will not necessarily be the same issues that will preoccupy the educational research community in the years ahead. While the ATA is driven by priorities identified by the Annual Representative Assembly, our organization’s challenge is to avoid pursuing inquiries that simply endeavour to invent a better version of yesterday.

While there is no one definitive source on future directions for educational research, one inspirational organization is Project Zero, which was founded by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1967. Led in the past by such luminaries as Howard Gardner and David Perkins, Project Zero continues to demonstrate foresight. For example, Project Zero poses four questions about the future of learning:

1. What do we know?
What do we know about globalization, the digital revolution and brain research and their influence on learning and education?

2. How might we rethink learning?
How do we need to rethink the what, who and how of learning as a result of these changes or forces?

3. What should we do?
What should I and others do differently to meet the demands of the future of learning in practice?

4. What will these changes lead to?

What consequences could such educational changes have for students and society? What is our role as responsible 21st century educators?[2]

As we think about the answers to these questions, we should consider the future directions of learning. Following are three areas of research that the ATA should consider embarking on.

1. Affirming the need for arts in education

Researchers will embrace the overwhelming evidence that demonstrates the positive influence of music and the arts on learning. Reignited by the work of researchers such as James Catterall,[3] an expansion of arts programs in Alberta schools leads to a generation with enhanced skills and interest in not only the arts but more broadly in what Matthew Crawford calls “manual competencies.”[4]  

Catterall and his associates have proven that music students tend to do better in math than non-music students. In his view, future research will demonstrate how disadvantaged students can benefit from arts programs and exposure to problem-based studies that engage hearts, hands and minds.

Catterall calls for research on the neural development of children and youth using brain-imaging technologies. His team, using diagnostic tools like MRI and CAT scans, is exploring the neuro-functions of children involved in learning using spatial reasoning. If we are strategic in Alberta, where the arts thrive in our communities but have been marginalized in our schools, this province will become a beacon for this type of research in the future. 

2)  The imperative of leadership in uncertain times

Given the growing complexity of school-communities and diversity of students in our schools, teacher leadership will become a focus. And while administrator and leadership development will remain important, research on producing teacher leaders will gain prominence in the decade ahead. The hierarchical and bureaucratic cultures that typify many schools today will be replaced by a realization that teacher leadership strategies, supported by research, will ensure that schools become places of creativity and ingenuity.

A more systematic approach to nurturing and sustaining teacher leadership is necessary. For example, based on the fact that 1,500 to 2,000 new teachers entered the profession in the past three years, by 2015, there will be a minimum of 10,000 potential candidates for graduate programs.[5] Such a large potential cohort of future teacher leaders bodes well for the future, as long as we capitalize on it.

3) Sustaining communities of practice that engage complexity

The literature on organizational improvement notes time and again that if we are serious about school reform, “it is about learning as a community”[6] in ways that enhance the professionalism of teachers.

In a symposium sponsored by the ATA in 2006, David Peat,[7] a world-renowned expert on chaos theory and author of more than 20 books, noted that people need to understand that complex organic systems like modern society can be influenced in positive ways by small but powerfully disruptive “gentle actions.” Peat concludes that in an age in which the expert is increasingly fallible, responsibility falls on engaged citizens to reaffirm the values, meanings and ethics of their society. Peat argues that smaller, community-generated interventions (gentle actions) working together have a greater effect than a handful of grandiose world-changing projects backed by influential stakeholders.

Future Research and the future of Teaching

In order for the teaching profession to thrive and adapt, it will have to draw on research that it carries out with its education partners.

In the Association’s strategic plan, two fundamental questions frame the future opportunities and challenges facing the membership: “In advancing public education, what kind of teachers do we want to become?” and “What kind of ATA do we need to be to support this work?”

The ATA has identified 10 characteristics that describe the organization it wants to become. Three of them point to the importance of the Association’s leadership role in creating a culture of learning and innovation to enhance student learning.

  • The Alberta Teachers’ Association has legislated jurisdiction in key areas of professional practice.
  • Alberta teachers and their professional association are widely respected and valued for their commitment to enhancing learning opportunities for children.
  • The Alberta Teachers’ Association is a respected authority in educational policy development, research and practice.

During much of the past decade in Alberta a climate of fear and negativity has characterized the public sector as inefficient and wasteful and suggested that it be dismantled in favour of open markets, school vouchers and performance pay. Much of this culture of fear has been driven by what Naomi Klein described in her book The Shock Doctrine—The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.8

It is time to counter these attitudes and reaffirm the value of public education by focussing on research that builds capacity for learning. Here in Alberta, as we move away from a narrow focus on bureaucratic accountability and micromanaging the work of teachers in schools, and if the promises of Inspiring Education: A Dialogue with Albertans bear fruit, teachers and their Association have every reason to be optimistic about the future of educational research in Alberta.

J-C Couture is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.



[1] A. Garrett Lisi. 2009. “Changes in the Changers,” in John Brockman (Ed). This Will Change Everything—Ideas That Will Shape the Future. New York: Harper. 270–73.  

[2] http://firesidelearning.ning.com/group/harvardprojectzero

[3] Cited in Richard Deasy (ed.) 2002. Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development. This book can be downloaded free from the Arts Education Partnership website (www.aep-arts.org).

[4] Matthew Crawford. 2009. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin.

[5] This calculation is based on a conservative estimate that with 1,750 new teachers entering the profession in each of the years between 2008–15, and assuming a 30 per cent attrition  rate, approximately 10,000 teachers will be in the age-experience bracket typical of education graduate students. 

[6] Louise Stoll, Dean Fink and Lorna Earl. 2002. It’s About Learning (and It’s About Time): What’s In It For Schools. London: Routledge/Falmer.

[7] “Changing Landscapes of the Next Alberta,” available from the Alberta Teachers’ Association (www.ata.ab.ca).

8 Naomi Klein. 2008. The Shock Doctrine—The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Toronto: Random House Canada.