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Capacity Building for Professional Learning: A Collective Intelligence Construct

My workplace is an independent K-12 co-educational college grounded in traditional values. The current professional learning program is underpinned by a performance and development framework developed for the college based on the AITSL documents – Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2012b) and the Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2012a).  The program centres around a professional growth program and an appraisal process.  I have successfully undertaken the AITSL HALT Certification, and I am a Lead Teacher in the secondary school.  As an informal leader, I am a member of the Humanities Faculty and the Year 11 Academic Welfare Team.  I am also a recognised Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and on the management committee of the Queensland Economics Teachers’ Association. This paper will discuss the strengths and areas of improvement of the professional learning within my workplace in relation to Dr Joan Conway’s (2008) six forms of engagement, an interrogation into the Collective Intelligence of my organisation and how I, as an informal leader, can add to the professional learning culture of the college.

Strengths of Professional Learning

The professional learning process at my school has strengths in four forms of engagement.  The first of these is recognising, valuing and engaging diversity.  Our workplace values are centred on mutual respect, where accepting and celebrating diversity and individuality is key.  Everyone is different and has something to contribute based on their professional experiences (Conway, 2008).  Staff are encouraged to share their knowledge and expertise through student-free days, professional learning communities (PLCs), instructional rounds and whole staff sessions.  Leadership within a teacher’s area of expertise is about passion, commitment and energy (Snell & Swanson, 2000).  At the college, many staff have become experts in an area they are passionate about and regularly share this with colleagues in formal and informal professional learning settings.  Within the secondary school this year, we have had teachers who are passionate specialists in technology, feedback, differentiation, Indigenous perspectives, teaching boys, metacognition, and cognitive verbs provide workshops to staff who want to learn more.

The second area of strength is forming relationships and seeking harmony of differences.  The use of support networks and professional learning communities within the workplace allows learning from each other (Conway, 2008; Harper-Hill et al., 2020; Stoll & Seashore Louis, 2007).  The sharing of achievements and concerns, and interactions between colleagues, lead to a culture of openness that improves teachers’ pedagogical practice, regardless of the stage of their career (DeJesus, 2021; Durksen et al., 2017; Harrison & Killion, 2007).  Within our workplace, this is achieved both formally and informally.  Each year PLCs are built around the areas of school improvement, and teachers participate in their chosen communities.  As time is built into our Monday afternoon meeting program, teachers have the opportunity to share their understandings and build on the experience of their peers regularly.  In the secondary school, all staff share a single open-plan office space; as a natural consequence, there are frequent ad hoc conversations around pedagogy and student achievement. I know that if there is an issue I am experiencing with a student, there will be up to seven other teachers of that student who may have strategies or ideas I can leverage.

The next area of strength is responding to the unexpected with resilience and persistence.  By using the unexpected as an opportunity to learn more and improve practice, the interactions between individuals and the environment will create new meanings (Conway, 2008).  It requires teaching staff to be patient and persistent.  Within an effective professional learning culture, collaboration and supportive environments need to be encouraged as they promote teacher resilience as teachers persevere and even have the opportunity to thrive despite setbacks (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021a; Durksen et al., 2017).  At the college, staff can engage in instructional rounds where teachers open up their classrooms in the hope to build a culture of learning rather than criticism.  These instructional rounds are a four-part process.  It starts with an observing teacher identifying an area of their practice that requires improvement, participation in an instructional round where they view four colleagues, participate in a debrief and then reflect upon their instructional practices in light of those they observe.  The idea is that it builds resilience into their own practice.  Having participated as an observing teacher and an observed teacher, it relies on the observing teachers to believe that their pedagogy isn’t perfect and that they can learn from others in the process.  The only area of improvement would be to give the observed teacher feedback from the observe so that further professional conversations can occur.

An area that my workplace does exceptionally well is planning and monitoring procedure.  The use of data and the action research cycle to identify the next area for school improvement (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2020; Conway, 2008; Nixon, 2016; Tichnor-Wagner et al., 2017).  Individual teachers regularly use plan-do-study-act cycles to improve their practice.  Our Performance and Development Framework includes a future focus where teachers are encouraged to participate in action research to ensure they are exposed to new and emerging practices and the literature that goes with them.  Data is central to all we do; we have access to a data wall for each year level in the secondary school.  This data wall has every student in the year level ranked with their grade point average (GPA), NAPLAN results, predicted ATAR score.  For my classes, I have created a spreadsheet with their previous subject results that impact the subject I am teaching them, their GPA, IEP/PLP details, and the learning support tier.  The data wall, my spreadsheet and the anecdotal information I have collected inform my teaching practice to improve overall student achievement.  Without data and a cycle of inquiry, it is tough to measure the impact on student achievement (Gordon, 2013; New South Wales Government, 2021b).

Areas of Professional Learning Improvement

While there are areas of strength, there are areas in which my school needs to improve. For school-wide improvement to occur, there needs to be mutual trust, shared purpose and respect and freedom for individual teachers to investigate and try new things (Conway, 2008; Conway, 2015; Conway & Abawi, 2013). According to Conway (2008), the third engagement area is fostering a culture of trust and hope. The trust that new ideas and skills are being learnt and refined by the teaching staff and the hope that it will work (Conway, 2008).  According to Tschannen-Moran and Hoy (1998), trust is confidence, hope and reliance on the words and actions of colleagues are in the best interest of all involved.  The degree of trust within the teaching staff and between teachers and the principal affects the success of school improvement (DeJesus, 2021; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 1998).  The trust that the principal will act in the best interest of the teachers and the teaching staff believe they can rely on their colleagues’ integrity when difficulties arise (Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 1998).

The second area of professional learning improvement is the sixth form of engagement, capturing a heightened consciousness of the creation of significant new meaning.  Teachers must have the opportunity to experience the aha moment, express what has been learnt and the implications with colleagues (Conway & Andrews, 2016; Conway, 2008; DeJesus, 2021).  It is also about capturing the collective intelligence and continuously creating and advancing ways of improving student achievement (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2020; Conway, 2008; Conway & Abawi, 2013; New South Wales Government, 2021a).  Many great moments occur at the college; however, many go unnoticed, and as such, not all teachers get the opportunity to share their learning with colleagues.  In most cases, those who are the most vocal about their epiphany get noticed and asked to share.  It is not to say that their understandings are not valuable; it means that those who like to keep their accomplishments to themselves do not get the opportunity to discuss their discoveries and contribute to creating significant meaning for the organisation.  It also potentially means that the proverbial wheel gets reinvented by other teachers over and over again.  Capturing best practice is essential for the organisation to continue to grow collective intelligence (Conway, 2008).

Collective Intelligence

According to Conway (2008), collective intelligence within a school context is achieved when all six forms of engagement converge. A community of teachers develops the ability to create new knowledge, meaning, and pedagogy to improve student achievement (Conway, 2008; Meza et al., 2018).  The ability to solve the problem is more efficient and effective when working collaboratively than as isolated professionals in our classrooms (Cornu, 2013; Secundo et al., 2016).  Often the solution to improving student achievement lies within our colleagues.  However, when working in isolation, we often do not realise that the answer lies in a conversation between colleagues about how best to work with a particular student or group of students. It is the conversation that creates the know-how (Conway, 2008; Cornu, 2013).  It is hard not to improve student outcomes by harnessing the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and the teachers’ years of experience at the college (Salminen, 2012).

Within our professional learning program, the professional learning communities (PLCs) allow collective intelligence to exist on a small scale.  Within these PLCs, better decisions are made as all perspectives, ideas, and feedback are accepted (Friedrich et al., 2016; Wilson, 2018).  While improving the teacher efficacy of those involved, it is not ‘captured’; the benefits are not as far-reaching as is believed as individuals are not inclined to share what they have learnt (Cornu, 2013; Eckert, 2018; Organisational Psychology Degrees, 2021).  With efficacy comes increased motivation and self-direction; this, in turn, becomes infectious, and responsibility becomes shared for the solutions to be implemented (Wilson, 2018).  As a result, the outcome is successful and sustainable (Cornu, 2013; Wilson, 2018).

For collective intelligence to thrive at the college, the organisation needs to move away from a hierarchical leadership structure to a more distributed style of leadership where teachers are leaders (Wilson, 2018). Interactions need to be fostered outside of the department walls so that authentic relationships can thrive (Conway, 2008; Wilson, 2018).  These relationships would ensure that innovations could be implemented quickly as the power structures are not in play (Friedrich et al., 2016; Wilson, 2018).  When communication becomes multi-directional, transparent, and inclusive, the community feels like a team; the six forms of engagement can be activated and sustained, leading to collective intelligence (Conway, 2008; Cornu, 2013; Friedrich et al., 2016; Wilson, 2018). 

While the benefits of collective intelligence far outweigh any of the costs, there are some unavoidable issues.  According to Noubel (2007), there is a point when collective intelligence becomes ineffective as it meets a natural limit.  Once that limit is reached, the interactions become complex and create distractions rather than results (Klein, 2007; Noubel, 2007).  With a large staff, we may have reached that natural limit.  The secondary school staff currently share a single open-plan staffroom, while the primary school staff are in small staffrooms in each year level building.  A strong argument for the success of collective intelligence is that the college staff need to be physically close in order to interact naturally and adjust their behaviour as the circumstances require (Klein, 2007; Noubel, 2007).  Noubel (2007) says that as we continue to seek knowledge and technology improves, these limitations are hastily diminishing, provided the participants see personal growth and the value to both themselves and society.  Other conditions that need to be met include creating an essential agreement and an information system connected to the internet that can capture the group’s collective memory (Noubel, 2007). 

The ultimate aim in my workplace is to continue to improve NAPLAN and ATAR results; as such, a collective intelligence framework needs to be utilised.  As action research and plan-do-study-act cycles are currently used, an adapted version of the collective intelligence framework proposed by Elia and Margherita (2018) alongside Conway’s (2008) six forms of engagement (discussed above) would need to be implemented for us to build capacity.  Elia and Margherita (2018) have a two-part framework; part one is a problem resolution process that defines, analyses, investigates, brainstorms, prototypes and tests, before evaluating and implementing the solution (Elia & Margherita, 2018). Part two is the problem resolution matrix which informs the stakeholders of their responsibilities concerning the phases of the problem resolution process (Elia & Margherita, 2018). 

Adding Value to the Professional Learning Culture

Since being made redundant from my eLearning position, I have questioned myself as an informal leader.  As part of my transition back to the classroom full time, I successfully underwent the exemplary teacher process at my school, followed by the AITSL HALT certification as a lead teacher (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021d).  As part of this process, I was told I was not a teacher leader, and I didn’t have the support of some of my mentors.   According to Tschannen-Moran (2014), trust between colleagues is based on perceived competency, commitment to students, and availability. As an informal leader, my first step to adding value to the professional learning culture is to take responsibility for my part in the trust breakdown (Tschannen-Moran, 2014).  This includes building more trust with my mentor and mentee within our appraisal process and aspiring HALT program by being more available to support staff.

Crowther et al.’s (2009) teachers as leaders framework outlines the key areas to add value to the professional learning culture as an informal leader.  When working with students and staff, I will strive for pedagogical excellence and demonstrate that teaching makes a difference and helps create a positive future and a better world for all students (Crowther et al., 2009).  This involves nurturing a culture of success with my students and colleagues (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021c; Conway, 2014).  By continuing to reflect and use research to improve my classroom practice, I will also take a more active role within the professional learning communities to encourage collective intelligence with the aim to improve student outcomes (Bauman, 2015; Conway, 2008; Crowther et al., 2009; Meza et al., 2018).  In particular, as an area of passion, I will continue to work with the cybersafety committee alongside all staff and students to find solutions to the issues the cyber world presents us with every year to ensure safety.  By demonstrating the teachers as leaders framework, I can add value to the professional learning culture at my organisation.

Ultimately I will be the most effective and add value to the professional learning culture by being relevant, collaborative, reflective and student outcome-focused (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021b).  According to Bauman (2015), for sustained school success to be achieved, teacher leaders need to use autono-collaboration.  The cyclical process of working collaboratively with colleagues and then taking the time to reflect on how it will work in my classroom and altering it to suit my students (Bauman, 2015).  Thus aligning classroom practice with research and theory.  The value will be seen as a curriculum specialist or instructional specialist as I open up my classroom and practice for feedback from colleagues (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021b; Bauman, 2015; Harrison & Killion, 2007).  I will also take the time to observe others and what they do in the classroom (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021b; Harrison & Killion, 2007).  I will also build a learning community between schools to help focus on best practice with economics teachers around the state (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2021b).  Lastly, I will draw on my expertise as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and provide professional learning opportunities on using technology and data in the classroom.  By doing so, I hope to be a catalyst for change (Harrison & Killion, 2007).


Working in an independent co-educational college, the professional learning program aims to centre around professional growth in all staff.  This paper has analysed the strengths and areas of improvement based on Dr Joan Conway’s six forms of engagement and discussed my workplace’s collective intelligence.  The strengths of the professional learning program centre around recognising, valuing and engaging diversity; forming relationships and seeking harmony of differences; responding to the unexpected with resilience and persistence, and planning and monitoring procedures.  The areas of professional learning improvement are fostering a culture of trust and hope and capturing a heightened consciousness for the creation of significant new meaning.  While we are working towards collective intelligence, we still have a lot of ground to cover.  In particular, we need to foster more conversations between colleagues about our classroom practices and take the time to try new things with our classes to see what works and what doesn’t.  This paper finished with a discussion on how I can add to the professional learning culture.  It is evident from the research and my practice that we have a long way to go if we will utilise collective intelligence to improve student outcomes.


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