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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

The Privatisation of Professional Learning

The idea that, every now and again, we stop what we are doing and participate in a "conference", "symposium", "job-a-like" - call it what you like - has been around longer than any of us can remember.

But why do we do this? Why can it feel so good, every once in a while, to throw down our tools and head off excitedly in search of the latest professional learning event?

At the beginning of their book on Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement, Dufour and Eaker suggest that a part of what is going on here is the need that we all have for community. To pursue the point, they quote the work of Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson (1994):

Community means different things to different people. To some it is a safe haven where survival is assured through mutual cooperation. To others, it is a place of emotional support, with deep sharing and bonding with close friends. Some see community as an intense crucible for personal growth. For others, it is simply a place to pioneer their dreams.

In these few lines, I find some clear hints at what might be happening when we meet together: cooperation, support, bonding, sharing, growth, dreams. When things go the way we hoped, professional learning events can be about all of these things and more besides.

But they can also be less. A lot less. All of us can remember that event that was overpriced and underwhelming; that motivational speaker that made me laugh until I cried, but half-an-hour later I couldn't remember what he actually said; that workshop that seemed so full of good ideas, but once I got back into the office it felt like I was all alone, building a space rocket with no manual.

A photograph of people taking notes at an event
The privatisation of professional learning: a story in three acts.

To counter these frustrations we've taken appropriate steps. We've introduced the TED-style talk in place of the traditional keynote; we've learned the art of thinking protocols and filled our workshop walls with brightly coloured Post It notes; we've opened up the conversations to anyone following a hashtag; and we've even (finally) recognised that it is often the service-providers, who were once relegated to the coffee lounge, who are the most expert in a particular field.

Looking back over a decade of involvement in professional learning events for international schools, however, there is one trend that intrigues me more than any other. I call it the privatisation of professional learning.

This is a story in three acts.

Act One

The privatisation of professional learning began when we took a long, hard look at professional learning events that were on offer and started to wonder why we were forgetting everything that we had "learned" on the journey home. We decided that we would be better off bringing the expertise to us, rather than sending out a select few.

Act Two

After a few years, when our in-house events took on greater complexity. We moved from bespoke training sessions to theme-based, multi-day events that also offered a chance for parents and students to get involved.

Act Three

Impressed by our ability to put on consecutive large scale events, design programmes, bring in top facilitators, and find a place for multiple stakeholders, we felt it unfair not to open up these learning opportunities to friends and colleagues, near and far. We even learned how to provide all of the trimmings, from online registration and the latest event app to trendy swag bags and themed social evenings.

Looking around at the landscape of international education today, it is clear that the transformation is almost complete. In the just the same way as nationalised industries around the world have been sold off and broken up into dozens of competing enterprises, there exist today dozens of schools, consultancies, and service providers each operating a small piece of the professional learning business.

The question is, are we any better off?

Privatisation of national industry is often pursued on the promise of higher quality and lower cost. For the consumer, however, the day-to-day reality can often be quite different. The marketplace can feel more confusing; quality and price can vary enormously; and things can all-too-often fall between the gaps, because no single "owner" feels responsible for the overall user experience.

For many schools, the privatisation of professional learning was pursued on the promise of a more personalised learning experience; an experience that not only delivered quality at a price we could afford, but was a catalyst for lasting change.

In the end, however, I do continue to wonder whether we haven't just broken up the professional learning business into a thousand different pieces, made the overall experience more confusing, and found ourselves replicating in our schools the very de-personalised events that we so desperately wanted to avoid.


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