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Great to Excellent

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

Great to Excellent: Considerations for

Professional Learning as the Next Stage of

Ontario’s Reform Agenda is Launched

By: Dr. Jenni Donohoo

© Copyright 2013 by Learning Forward Ontario.

For information:



The Ontario school system is ranked amongst the highest around the

globe. In examining the 20 most improving school systems in the world,

McKinsey and Company (2010) identified Ontario as a top performer with

a history of sustained improvement. Results from the Program for

International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that Ontario students

were among the world’s best readers. Furthermore, the Organization for

Economic Co-operation and Development (2010) identified Ontario as a

high performing education system naming the province as a “world leader

in its sustained strategy of professionally-driven reform of its education

system” (p. 71).

In the report entitled ‘Great to Excellent: Launching the Next Stage of

Ontario’s Education Agenda’, Fullan (2013) reviewed what has been

accomplished in Ontario over the past nine years and identified focus,

consistency of practice, and collective capacity as the strengths of

Ontario’s whole system reform approach. Noting that what started out as

the government’s agenda has since become a system’s agenda with “the

deep, widely shared ownership on part of the teachers, schools and

school board leaders” (p. 2). Fullan cautioned about becoming

complacent and pointed out that there remains much more to do in

moving forward.

Fullan (2013) suggested two core aspects of the next phase of reform in

Ontario. The first aspect was to maintain focus on the three core priorities

while developing new, ambitious goals that will address gaps (e.g. ethnic

sub-groups). The second aspect involved engaging in “focused innovation

relative to higher-order skills and qualities, test what works and spread

effective practices” (p.7). Stressing the importance of cultivating

leadership in all graduates, Fullan identified six key qualities (character,

citizenship, communication, critical thinking and problem solving,

collaboration and teamwork, and creativity and imagination) that

contribute to the well-being of students and society. He suggested that

these qualities can and must be “defined, operationalized in practice,

measured to mark success and to clarify progress and next steps, and

widely shared in terms of spreading what works” (p. 8).

Fullan’s look back and look ahead at Ontario’s reform agenda raises

important questions for those responsible for professional learning to

consider. These include the following:

• What factors have enabled the shift from isolated practice to

collective practice and teacher ownership in Ontario?

• What still needs to be accomplished in regard to professional


• What implications do Fullan’s suggested core aspects hold for

system leaders in regard to their role in supporting professional


• How will we get there?

Each of these ideas is expanded upon in the section that follows.

What factors have enabled the shift from isolated practice to collective practice and teacher ownership in Ontario?

The reasons we have seen a shift from isolated practice to collective

practice and greater teacher ownership in school improvement efforts is

because of two factors that go hand in hand: greater investments in

employees and the transformation of professional development


Over the past few years, models of professional development offered in

Ontario school boards have improved significantly, reflecting the

characteristics outlined in the Standards for Professional Learning

(Learning Forward, 2011). Rather than devoting personnel, time, and

other resources to system-wide professional development based on

broad topics chosen by central office staff, school teams are engaging in

professional learning designs that are more constructivist in nature.

Collaborative inquiry is an example of such an approach that is being

widely implemented across the province. Collaborative inquiry enables

participants to generate knowledge and meaning as they move through

the stages, co-constructing new understandings through learning by doing

and reflecting on the incongruence between espoused theories and

theories-in-use. Other examples include teacher moderation, lesson study,

and the development of common formative assessments. These

structures help to de-privatize practice and result in greater consistency

of practice. In addition, the improved professional learning structures help

bring to focus what adults need based on identified student learning


Structures have been put into place to connect peers-to-peers and enable

within school and across school networking. Educators are examining

their practice collaboratively as a result. Onsite supports including

instructional coaches have helped to ensure more consistent and deeper

implementation of high-leverage practices in classrooms. Ontario’s

Leadership Strategy has helped to increase administrators’ capacity to act

as instructional leaders and support change in schools. In schools where

teachers are provided meaningful voice in decision-making for school

improvement, increased ownership is resulting. As professional

development is becoming more relevant and contextual in schools in

Ontario, educators are placing greater value on the time and opportunity

to learn from and with each other.

What still needs to be accomplished in regard to professional learning?

McKinsey and Company (2010) suggested that collaborative practices are

what makes system improvement self-sustaining noting that

“Collaborative practice is about teachers and school leaders working

together to develop effective instructional practices, studying what

actually works in classrooms, and doing so with rigorous attention to

detail and with a commitment to not only improving one’s own practice

but that of others as well” (p. 75). Levin (2008) also noted that the

“collective ownership by educators of the practices that we know work

for more students” (p. 106) is “the journey of pedagogical improvement

we should be seeking for all schools” (p. 106).

It is necessary to continue to identify and utilize professional learning

designs that promote collective practices. Peer-to-peer coaching,

instructional rounds, collaborative inquiry, and protocols (e.g. tuning

protocols) all promote a contextual, collective approach that will continue

to move Ontario’s education system toward de-privatized practices.

The utilization of powerful designs alone however, does not guarantee

that deep learning will occur. What still needs to be accomplished in

regard to professional learning is twofold. While greater collective

practice is occurring, there is a need to build greater collective knowledge

of adults in regard to supporting student achievement based on identified

student learning needs. There is also a need to build greater capacity of

school-based leaders (formal and informal) in facilitating meaningful adult


The learning needs of teachers are surfacing due to a relentless focus on

the identification of student learning needs as the basis for the work.

While powerful designs that mobilize the capacity of peers are in place,

some teams are only beginning to touch the surface when it comes to

developing a common understanding the cognitive needs of their

students and how to best support student learning. Teachers need

additional guidance, time, and resources to help them develop a deeper

and common understanding of how to support the identified learning

needs of their students.

Fullan (2013) noted the need for “strong central leadership” (p. 11) in

moving the work forward. Those who find themselves in the role of

instructional leader are grappling with what it means to truly leverage

learning in professional learning and are looking for guidance in how to

“intentionally interrupt” (Katz & Dack, 2013) and overcome the barriers

that get in the way of adult learning. When engaging teams in learning

designs and various protocols, administrators need to ensure that new

understandings based on reliable research emerge and that these new

understandings result in changes in classroom practice.

What implications do Fullan’s suggested core aspects hold for system leaders in regard to their role in supporting professional learning?

Fullan’s two core aspects are: a) sustaining improvement and b) engaging

in focused innovation relative to higher-order skills and qualities, test

what works and spread effective practices.

One implication for system leaders is to continue to bring awareness

regarding disparity among various sub-groups (e.g. Crown Ward students,

First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students, and students studying at the

applied level) and to continue to allocate resources based on identified


There are a number of implications regarding deeper and widespread

innovation in focused areas. As Fullan (2013) noted, educators need to

build on current knowledge and experience, develop a common

understanding of higher-order skills and design learning experiences that

develop these skills and dispositions. Shifting roles - teacher as learner,

(teacher as coach, teacher as activator, and teacher as facilitator) and

student as teacher – along with promoting meaningful student voice and

greater student autonomy will become increasingly important if we are to

produce the quality of leadership in every graduate.

Fullan (2013) noted the need to share widely and spread what works. If

we are to spread effective practices, networks at all levels must be

established. Reeves (2008) noted that, “Teachers are influenced most by

direct observation of the effective practices of other teachers. Therefore,

the most effective central office administrators will become the architects

of networks in which effective instructional practice is shared in as few

degrees of separation as possible” (p. 81). System leaders, including staff

developers, are also influenced by the direct observation of effective

practices of others responsible for adult learning. Therefore, the most

effective school board and provincial networks will provide opportunities

for the sharing of effective leadership practice in as few degrees of

separation as possible.

How will we get there?

Fostering a careful balance between autonomy and dependence.

By affording schools even greater autonomy in determining where, when,

and how to allocate human and financial resources for professional

learning, teacher leaders will continue to emerge. If given the time and

space and provided the opportunity to identify and solve problems of

practice together, innovation will occur and the work will be selfsustaining.

In terms of dependence, this is not in reference to fostering a heavy

reliance on outsiders as experts, but rather fostering trusting relationships

between central office staff and school based leaders. As Levin (2008)

pointed out learning communities often require the assistance of an

outsider who may be in a position to push teams to a deeper level of

learning. In addition, an outsider can support school based leaders by

assisting them in developing their leadership practice. How the outsider

carries this work out is of the utmost importance. Outsiders can take on

various roles (e.g. participant-as-observer, co-planner, expert, feedback

coach, etc.). Roles need to be clearly defined and understood in order to

ensure relationships maintain intact.

Central office personnel responsible for supporting those who lead

learning in schools need to constantly examine and reflect on their

practice. Superintendents, consultants, staff development coordinators,

and coaches would benefit from identifying, examining, and reflecting on

their own problems of practice. Opportunities should be provided through

board level and provincial level networks for leaders of system learning to

consider how to enact their practice skillfully, be observed and observe

others in practice, obtain feedback, and share reflections. This will further

assist in launching Ontario to the next level of performance.

Standards for Professional Learning (Learning Forward, 2011) is the third

iteration of standards outlining the characteristics of professional learning

that lead to effective teaching practices, supportive leadership, and

improved student results.

To learn more about the Standards for Professional Learning visit


Fullan, M. (2013). Great to Excellent: Launching the next stage of Ontario’s

education agenda.

Katz, S., & Dack, L. (2013). Intentional interruption: Breaking down

learning barriers to transform professional practice. Corwin Press,

Thousand Oaks, CA.

Learning Forward (2011). Standards for Professional Learning. Learning

Forward, Oxford, OH.

Levin, B. (2008). How to change 5000 schools: A practical and positive

approach for leading change at every level. Harvard Education

Press, Cambridge, MA.

Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C., & Barber, M. (2010). How the world’s most

improved school systems keep getting better. McKinsey

and Company, London, England.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2010).

Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons

from PISA for the United States. Downloaded from:

Reeves, D. (2008). Reframing Teacher Leadership to Improve Your School.

Association for Supervision and Curruciulum Development.

Alexandria, VA.

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