Thomas Steele-Maley, lead technology and innovation officer at GEMS World Academy-Chicago, writes about the importance of the school's professional learning program. Steele-Maley will revisit the topic in future posts.
 "Once you have convinced a large group of people of a plan to build a different future, the most important strength of an organization is new thinking."
—Peter Theil, co-founder of PayPal, from his book, Zero to One


Building a different future

GEMS World Academy-Chicago, the first North American school from the award-winning GEMS Education Group, is moving into its second year with a bold goal -- to build a different future for education. One of the core reasons for GEMS' success in sustaining and scaling educational innovation is its unique professional learning program.

To ensure that we remain a unique place of learning, professional learning is embedded into all aspects of the organization, from the mission and vision to daily practice in the classrooms. This "anytime, anywhere" professional learning takes many forms across the school, and it involves everyone. The result are stunning collaboration, creativity, and an atmosphere filled with effective professionals serving the most discerning parents in Chicago.

A Summer of Professional Learning

Summer is the time of professional learning for schools, and at GEMS World Acadprofdev2.jpgemy, we leverage this time in unique and highly effective ways. New faculty are immersed into a world of systems-thinking for innovative curriculum design, prototyping, and practice. Though the innovative curriculum is defined for new faculty, the emphasis is on experiencing first-hand what GEMS faculty members are expected to do.  New faculty learn through doing as they collaboratively plan inquiry-based curricula in the classroom, throughout the building and, perhaps most importantly, on Field Studies. 

New faculty soon join veteran faculty as equals, having experienced a GEMS education and added their unique ideas and expertise to the school's practice. What follows are weeks of participatory professional development led by people across the organization.

During the lead up to the start of the current school year, our professional development program included the following components:

  • Chief Learning Officer Mary Elizabeth Wilson, Head of School Geoff Jones, and Head of Lower School Andrew Slater led a World Cafe Workshop and other norming workshops. These were highly academic and deliberative sessions focusing the organization's commitment to including everyone in the articulation of the mission and vision of the school. 
  • Nationally recognized experts in mathematics, reading and writing joined expert faculty leaders to deliver professional learning.
  • Faculty collaboratively built their inquiry-based curriculum
  • The vast technology ecosystem at GEMS World Academy was illuminated and used to deliver much of the professional learning, thus providing new and innovative ways to collaborate and participate in professional learning while gaining important new skills, creating new contexts for learning, and asking probing questions about the future of education.
  • Faculty planned their Field Studies cycles in the city (the "field") to understand the incredible opportunity and complexity of using the city as a learning laboratory for our students. See some of this work in the video below.



Leveraging Technology for Collaboration

Sustaining innovation is taken seriously at GEMS.  Whether in strategic planning or designing an interdisciplinary unit of inquiry, the need for ongoing collaboration, transparency and organization is essential for effective teams. Our faculty meets weekly to build and enhance our inquiry-based program during the year. Collaborating this way is not always easy. We decided that we needed project-management software that would help drive our professional learning and ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration. In the spring of 2015, we successfully piloted such a tool, Basecamp, and then launched it across the school for professional learning and collaborative planning in 2015-2016. Using Basecamp provides a powerful and intuitive way for our faculty to cultivate strong interdisciplinary teams, identify needs and think in new ways. From an organizational perspective, Basecamp has allowed us to see how we are learning and leading as an organization, the incredible work we are doing on a daily basis, and the arc of new possibilities to manage.

What's next

Our professional learning program began in late summer, but it did not end there. As the school year unfolds, our teachers will participate in the GEMS World Academy Faculty Seminar Series, a participatory professional learning endeavor undertaken by the Institute for Research and Innovation. The seminar series perpetuates ongoing growth in our faculty, administration and school community while also providing an outlet for disseminating the thought leadership of GEMS World Academy to others.

The faculty seminar promotes the core mission and vision of the school by helping faculty members update their knowledge of developments in specific disciplines, and then place that knowledge in the context of the innovative practices so essential to GEMS World Academy and beyond. Faculty seminars are intended to spark intense intellectual consideration of research, design and practice in the GEMS World Academy program, the field of education, and beyond.

Collaborations among faculty, staff and outside professionals are vitally important. Each year, certain seminars will be dedicated to furthering thought leadership in the field of education. These public events bring sought-after experts and GEMS faculty together for public panels. GEMS families, community members and others gather for these exclusive events that highlight our globally recognized faculty as thought leaders. The first 2015-2016 seminar, tentatively scheduled to take place this fall, is titled Field Studies: Building on a Foundation of Experience

Building the future of education will take the collective work of everyone involved in a school's organization. It is not enough to offer pieces of professional learning and support. Instead, we need to cultivate the dispositions of everyone to imagine, understand, use and create the sustained innovations necessary to do something truly different, prescient, and needed in our world. To this end, GEMS World Academy-Chicago is exploring, experimenting and cultivating innovation through ongoing professional learning. 

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