Professional Learning for System Change

Authors: Dr. Sharon Friesen, Dr. Barb Brown, Dr. Gabriela Alonso Yanez, and Dr. Michele Jacobsen. Presented at the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management (CCEAM) Conference in Malta.

In this paper, the authors describe a design-based research and professional learning initiative that focused on building adaptive capacity through system-level layers in an area of a larger metropolitan school district.  This five-year initiative involved 47 schools within a large urban school district.  This group of schools are located within lowest socio-economic sector of the district.  They have the highest percentage of students who identify as Indigenous and the highest percentage of student mobility within the district. The district area director identified the need for a long-term, coherent, system level focus on student learning.

The key question guiding this paper is: In what ways do the layers within the system adapt to accommodate emerging new understandings of leading and learning?

The research and professional learning initiative involved university researchers, professional learning consultants, district level leaders, school-based leaders, and teacher learning leaders.  It evolved over five years through iterative cycles of design, guided by a theory of action articulated in the initial design phase.  The first year began with 47 school principals, district leaders, a design team, professional learning consultants, and researchers.  The second-year assistant principals from each of the schools were added and in the third year teacher learning leaders were brought into the initiative.  Principals, assistant principals, and teacher learning leaders each formed their own professional learning community connected using a networked, nested approach guided by complex systems thinking.  A key feature of complex systems is their nested nature, where systems are nested within other systems (Davis & Sumara, 2006). In other words, each individual system is an integrated whole and—at the same time—part of a larger system. Changes within a system can affect the sustainability of the systems that are nested within it, as well as the larger system in which it exists.  This view of nested systems provided researchers with a way to identify how elements of professional learning could be conceptualized as a complex system rather than as an event (Opfer & Pedder, 2011) and how learning in one level of the system affects learning in the other layers.

A complex system thinking approach was necessary to investigate and lead system level learning as it provided an approach to account for the dynamic, multifaceted nature of learning within and across the system layers that traditional linear approaches tend to overlook.   While some research into school improvement has concentrated its focus on the contribution made by systems (Barber, 2009; Levin, 2012; Levin, Glaze, & Fullan, 2008; Mourshed, Chijioke, & Barber, 2010), little of this research draws upon complex systems thinking to guide the research design. Drawing upon a complex systems approach using design-based research (Amiel & Reeves, 2008; Bannan-Ritland, 2008; Dai, 2012; McKenney & Reeves, 2012) and design-based professional learning (Friesen & Jacobsen, 2015), provided the researchers with the ability to focus on learning within each of the system layers–principal, assistant principal, and teacher learning leaders–as learning in one of the system layers must affect and be enacted and supported in another layer (Timperley, 2011).

The analysis and interpretation of the various data led the authors to answer the question guiding this paper and identify how and in what ways four layers in the system adapted to accommodate new understandings and practices of leadership. The authors used a complexity-thinking framework to describe the findings: 1) scalability of change: a focus on students and effective teaching repertoires, and 2) navigating complex landscapes: confronting system conventions.


Friesen, S., Brown, B., Alonso-Yanez, G., & Jacobsen, M. (2018). Professional Learning for System Change. Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management (CCEAM), November 13-16, 2018, Malta

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