In 1999, Alberta’s educational partners (government, school districts and the Alberta Teachers’ Association) did something remarkable—they decided to support teachers in a radical way. The next year, the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) was born. This grassroots educational program funds research projects designed by Alberta teachers—projects with the potential to improve schools and help children learn. In three-year AISI cycles, teachers design research methods, collect and analyze data, and report findings.
I have been fortunate to work with AISI since the outset. During the past 11 years, I have reviewed more than 1,500 reports of site-based, action research projects that describe in teachers’ own words their professional learning.
In 2006, my colleagues Phil McRae, Leah Taylor and I wrote Celebrating School Improvement, which reviewed AISI final reports from the first two three-year cycles. The book was awarded the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s 2007 research award. This article builds on that book by reviewing 11 years of research data from AISI school improvement projects to examine how this research affects education.
Several things make AISI a unique research treasure. I know of no data source like it in the world. Implemented in all Alberta school districts in 2001/02, AISI is now in its fourth three-year cycle. AISI funds K–12 Alberta school jurisdiction projects “that address local needs and circumstances to improve student learning.” AISI is action research at its best. Teachers create and direct research, design procedures, collect and analyze data and report findings. Final reports provide a remarkable data set for researchers, as teachers speculate on their learning while they research school improvement.
AISI is not perfect, but where it has been practised as intended, it has worked amazingly well. Indeed, AISI has earned a prominent place in global educational research.
Unfortunately, the provincial government has decided to cut the AISI budget by 50 per cent, a hewing that is short-sighted and augurs a sad day for Alberta’s educational reputation.
In this article, I discuss 10 research findings that highlight AISI’s local and global contributions to educational research.
- Project-based learning (assessment for learning, differentiated instruction)
AISI has demonstrated the efficacy of project-based learning and showed that student and teacher engagement, using differentiated instruction, is linked to student learning. AISI research helps us understand the effect of constructivist principles on teaching and learning. Problem-based learning motivates students and improves both time on task and student achievement. AISI shows that actively engaging students and teachers improves learning and behaviour.
- Student engagement
AISI shows that student learning should be the foundation for teaching. Students learn through action. AISI research finds that successful, student-engaged classrooms combine the following:
- Learning that is relevant, real and interdisciplinary (at times moving from classroom into community)
- Technology-rich learning environments (computers and scientific equipment, multimedia resources and diverse forms of communication technology)
- Positive, challenging and transparent learning environments with high expectations that encourage risk taking (successful students set goals and engage in assessment for and of learning)
- Collaboration in peer-to-peer relationships between students, and between students and teachers
- Communities working together to plan, research, develop, exchange and implement new research and strategies and materials
AISI has changed Alberta’s learning culture. Student learning has increased because teachers have worked with and beside other teachers. Teachers have also repositioned themselves in the classroom—moving from being in front of students to being beside them. Educational language, activities and resources focus on learning first and achievement second.
- Parental involvement
AISI shows that parental involvement is crucial to student learning, though findings suggest that parents are not as involved in schools as they could be. Welcoming parents and community members into classrooms as more than just visitors is an ongoing challenge.
- The influence of technology
AISI findings teach us that technology works best when it supports and advances critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and problem solving. AISI found that technology is not the curriculum: it is a teaching tool. Technology aids problem-based learning, helps teachers locate illustrations of concepts, allows Alberta classrooms to connect with classrooms around the world, and introduces otherwise unavailable perspectives, activities and resources.
- Teacher professional learning
Perhaps AISI’s most valuable contribution has been to support teacher professional learning. AISI shows that teachers are competent researchers and leaders. Given their front-line proximity to education’s issues, teachers are perfectly situated to innovate and implement positive action, track how their actions influence learning and determine the effect of change. My review of AISI research suggests that the following three central concepts support learning:
Building a teacher community is socially and professionally powerful. First of all, teachers working in community employ multiple and individual skills, experiences and insights. Second, enhancing community relationships helps students. Rather than fostering individualism and competition, AISI encourages all students to succeed. Third, the school community includes parents, school staff, other schools and external agencies; with AISI, schools become hubs that connect all of them.
AISI has fostered a research community where people practise agency. AISI positions teachers as action researchers who make a difference. Alberta teachers have learned that knowledge is power and that they can lead change.
AISI helps people help people. As a teacher educator at the University of Alberta for 35 years, I have met many young teachers who, without exception, enter education because they like children and want to help them. AISI supports this good work and has even re-energized long-time teachers’ first love of helping children learn. As well, AISI improves teacher morale.
- Creating conversational, pedagogical spaces
AISI research supports the power of collaborative, teacher-to-teacher professional development. AISI’s grassroots leadership has done a better job supporting learning than expert-driven, external professional development has. AISI research shows that site-based professional learning works when teachers discuss effective teaching methods and work together to solve problems.
- Creating new cultures
AISI research shows that the most important changes are in the area of culture—the way things are done within a community of learners. Important cultural changes emerging from AISI include a move from isolation to collaboration, from hierarchy to shared leadership and from expert-driven to inquiry-based decisions. Shared learning activities help teachers develop cultures of collaboration that improve schools.
- Leadership and teacher empowerment
AISI shows that leadership grows best horizontally and not vertically. Omni-competence—a belief that the leader is the wisest and most competent—has limitations. AISI findings suggest that collaborative leadership supports student learning better than hierarchical leadership. AISI encourages teachers and students to become leaders and stakeholders deeply committed to a common vision. Shared leadership motivates and supports change because it empowers shared responsibility. AISI research finds that student learning increases when teachers become school and curriculum leaders.
- Professional learning as a model
During early AISI cycles, professional learning communities (PLCs) were in vogue. Although PLCs have waned, their attributes and goals live on in Alberta schools. Professional learning has grown as teachers and administrators exchange and act upon what they learn to address specific challenges. These actions enhance professional effectiveness and improve student learning. The literature on professional learning highlights five attributes: (1) supportive and shared leadership (2) collective creativity (3) shared values and vision (4) supportive conditions and (5) shared personal practice. AISI showed that teacher professional learning effectively increases teacher professionalism, and links educational practice and student learning.
Many school authorities have adopted lead-teacher models as part of their AISI work. Lead teachers provide expertise, training or coaching to other teachers and school personnel by conducting research, providing workshops, setting priorities and building communication. Lead teachers model how schools can improve collaborative activity, teaching and research skills, build consensus and discuss teaching and learning.
- Strategies for professional learning
AISI research demonstrates an effective, sustainable process for teacher professional learning by
- discussing how professional learning supports student learning;
- keeping professional learning goals focused, successful professional learning groups work toward improvement;
- ensuring that professional learning plans strategically support learning goals and measure improved learning;
- recognizing that comprehensive, ongoing professional learning requires time to implement classroom strategies and formatively evaluate experiences;
- building learning plans that develop broad leadership skills;
- aligning planning to specific school learning to enhance teacher knowledge, skills and attributes;
- building professional learning plans that link to teachers’ Professional Growth Plans; and
- designing professional learning strategies that support district, school and individual goals.
Six major findings came out of this study.
- One fundamental research finding found a close relationship between teacher professional learning and student learning. As teachers increased their abilities and professional learning, student learning improved. Teacher professional learning improved teachers’ expertise and increased educational standards.
Furthermore, professional learning succeeded when its quality and nature changed. Drive-by professional development in one-off, expert-led workshops provide limited benefits. AISI findings support ongoing professional learning that grows as teachers work to solve site-based problems.
- School-based professional learning was most effective when it was sustainable and connected to innovation and problem solving. Such professional learning had lasting influence.
- Professional learning worked best when it was timely, targeted to personal needs and interests, job-embedded, long term and became a habit that changed culture.
- Cultural changes take a long time. Professional learning increases as teachers act upon opportunities. AISI found that staff development follows research, team support, teacher release time for learning and classroom visits. Research activities encourage professional learning. Indeed, AISI’s success in grooming leaders centred on engaging teachers in research activities.
- AISI’s success hinged on professional learning at the teacher level. The best professional learning occurred when teachers coached teachers. Strong professional learning contributed to successful AISI projects. Such professional learning developed in response to shared leadership and the growth of teachers’ abilities as they evolved into leadership.
- The principal’s involvement was important to successful implementation of projects that supported student learning. Staff bought in when school leaders engaged them in the process. Indeed, the importance of establishing shared leadership cannot be overstated. Recent research on effective professional learning shows that key principles must align professional learning with student learning. These principles are focusing on learner needs, setting high standards for students and teachers, instituting individual and organizational change that support ongoing professional learning and allowing small changes to guide a larger vision.
AISI research findings suggest that change begins with incremental steps guided by a clearly articulated vision of a future that extends beyond the walls of classrooms and schools.
We have learned much in 11 years.
Dr. Jim Parsons is with the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta and is an active member of AISI’s university partners. He is a frequent contributor to the ATA Magazine. Parsons is the author, along with Kelly Harding, of Little Bits of Goodness—Ten Years of AISI: Impact on Teachers, Schools, and Beyond, published in 2009.