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.
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
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
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.