On the edge: Shifting teachers’ paradigms for the future

Funding year: 
2 years
Auckland University of Technology (previously NZCER and Waikato University)
School sector
Project start date: 
January 2013
Project end date: 
March 2015
Principal investigator(s): 
Dr. Jane Gilbert
Research team members: 
Ally Bull, Margaret Giroux, Liesje Stevens
Research partners: 
Jane Gilbert & Jennifer Garvey Berger, with John Wright (Mercury Bay Area School), Ngaire Harris (Hauraki Plains College), & Sally Haughton (Wellington East Girls’ College)


Project Description

This project was designed to explore the conditions needed for New Zealand teachers to experience the transformational learning we argue is needed for future-oriented schooling. Its focus was teachers’ thinking. The research looked at how a group of teachers’ thinking changed as they participated in a professional learning and development (PLD) programme. This PLD had two parts: a university course on educational futures, and a workshop designed to support cognitive growth.

Why did we do this research?

In recent years we have seen some concern that our schools aren’t preparing today’s learners for the fast-changing world they will live and work in. Strong arguments for change are being made. However, while there is much talk of future-oriented learning and teaching, investigations of what this actually means for individual teachers are few and far between. This project’s starting point was that future-oriented education involves much more than providing new learning spaces and new technologies. While this “hardware” is important, to give it functionality, new “software”, in the form of teachers ready to think outside the 20th century system they were educated in, is needed. Teachers need support to be ready for this. This project was designed to investigate the kinds of support needed and how  it can be provided.

What did we do?

A group of education professionals were tracked as they participated in a professional learning and development programme (PLD) designed to support “transformational” learning. Researchers explored changes in their thinking, via interviews and other interactions. Thirty-one educators participated in the PLD across three cohorts in 2012, 2013, and 2014.  Twenty-three of these remained through to the research project’s final interviews in 2015.  


All participants said that their thinking had changed, but only about a third experienced “transformational” learning. Of this group, most were either senior leaders in schools, or outliers – people who had come into education via alternative pathways. All in this group reported experiencing deep personal change.  All said that they now “thought differently”, and that they had more awareness of the assumptions underpinning their thinking.  Some talked about giving up their “knower” identity and/or thinking differently about knowledge.  All in this group described being exposed to multiple perspectives, and a growing ability to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously.  All mentioned an increased ability to “see the system”, to appreciate the inter-connectedness of everything, and all expressed greater capacity to tolerate uncertainty.  All of this group described this project as having been “energising” or “exciting”, but also “daunting” and “scary”.  At least half wondered if they could continue in their current roles. All now saw future-oriented education, not as a template to follow, but an expansive set of new possibilities.

The PLD was a big commitment for the participants. It seems likely that this played some part in producing the changes they described. They all said that the amount and depth of reading they’d had to do, the weekly reflections they’d had to write, the discussions with others from different contexts, and the multiple opportunities they had to engage with the ideas were all important factors in their learning (although many reported not enjoying these activities at the time).  They identified particular ideas as being “powerful”, and, while they said that many of these ideas weren’t new to them, the PLD helped them to “make sense” of them, to see connections between these ideas and others, and to develop a personal position in relation to these ideas. 

However, the PLD was used very differently by the participants. Some used it to learn “about” educational futures and/or adult cognitive development, to add ideas into their existing schema. Others used it to understand themselves, their professional contexts, and their actions in those contexts in new ways, as an opportunity for personal cognitive growth. Given that the PLD was not selective, this difference was probably important. It retrospect, it seems that the PLD was sufficiently open―or “psychologically spacious”―to allow people to engage at a range of levels, to make sense of it in ways that are appropriate and/or useful for their particular developmental needs at that time. 


Transformational learning is difficult and not everyone is up for it.  This means that PLD designed to build future-ready teachers needs to be "personalisable" for individual developmental needs. This doesn’t have to mean designing a multiplicity of different programmes, but rather offering programmes with activities and tasks that are “psychologically spacious” enough to allow different ways of engaging, from different developmental starting points.

Future-oriented teacher PLD should involve, not adding new ideas and approaches to teachers’ existing repertoires, but supporting teachers to think and work effectively with uncertainty, complexity and ongoing change.  Becoming future-oriented requires teachers to have frequent opportunities to participate in sustained collegial debate, opportunities to engage with ideas at a deep level, well beyond what is possible in the congeniality of staffroom conversations, or the filtered, abbreviated, and often superficial contexts offered in social media spaces.


Project Contacts          

Professor Jane Gilbert
School of Education, AUT University
Email: Jane.Gilbert@aut.ac.nz

Ally Bull
New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER)
Email: Ally.Bull@nzcer.org.nz