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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

How COVID-19 is Redefining the Future of Professional Learning Networks

Confined to my kitchen table for a fourth week, I was joined for a short time on Thursday by the great and the good of international education. More than one hundred school leaders - a veritable hall of fame - brought together by the Association for the Advancement of International Education for its now regular zoom-powered conversation.

Faced with the current global pandemic, voices were heard, ideas were shared and time was spent just being together. And, even though I was a silent observer in the gallery seats, I left the meeting all the better for stopping by.

It reminded me of Steven Johnson’s description of “the reef” in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and the idea that great creative milieus are like coral reefs - teeming, diverse colonies of creators who interact with and influence one another; places that we come to for nourishment, connection and a collective pursuit of a future that is still just beyond our collective view.

Over the past month, not unlike so many of my colleagues in schools around the world, I’ve been a part of more professional learning conversations than I would ever have imagined possible. They have come in all shapes and sizes and crossed all time zones. Increasingly, however, I begin to recognise that these conversations all come in three Acts.

A photograph of a group of people sitting around a campfire
Professional Learning Networks are conversations in three Acts

Act One: We begin by talking about hints and tips, Grab ‘n Go ideas that we can quickly replicate to plug the gaps in our own thinking. None of us can keep up with the pace of what is required right now, so we throw each other these life-jackets to save us all from drowning in the endless lists of things to do.

Act Two: Buoyed by this practical support, we look around at what is happening and start to look for patterns in the chaos, we remind ourselves of what is important, we start to create meaning by scaffolding ideas upon ideas. In short, we start to co-create the future and reveal what Steven Johnson calls the “adjacent possible” that lies just beyond our view.

Act Three: In the final Act, ironically, it is not about anything we say or do. It is a state of being and, for me, it’s the real reason why we come together - virtually or in conferences around the world. We are travelling companions. We always have been. Some of us for many years now. We’ve learned. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve had some successes along the way, and coming together is a symbol of just that - that we are all in this together. And this evokes the most important outcome of all: courage. The courage to speak when we don’t exactly know what to say. The courage to decide, when there appears to be no clear path ahead. The courage to imagine the future of school, when the securities of “normal” have been knocked right out from under our feet.

Despite the title of this post, I don’t actually know how COVID-19 is going to redefine the future of professional learning networks. But just maybe, on the other side of this interruption in normal life, we will find ourselves gravitating more towards authentic conversations than conferences; networks that are more about serving than being a service provider; and those rare opportunities to sit around the fireplace with travelling companions and tell stories of hope and courage.


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