In the CHAE Report (Spring 2016), Dr. Dirkx shares insights from his collaborative work examining professional development and teach communities in the service of fostering organizational transformation in an Italian university.

Written by James West, doctoral student

Professor John Dirkx and his colleagues at the University of Padova, Penn State University, and Texas State University- San Marcos are examining professional development and teacher communities in the service of fostering organizational transformation within a large Italian university. Together, this team is working to develop and test a model of professional development for teachers within the University of Padova, Italy. For Dirkx, participation in the project represents “an integration of a number of long-standing and emerging interests in research, theory, and practice of the professional development of educators who work with adult learners, and the potentially transformative processes that may be stimulated within them and their organizations.” The overall goal of the project is to stimulate change in teacher practice by fostering change in the culture of teaching within the university. In addition to the Italian and American researchers, faculty participating in this project include 12 volunteer senior faculty and 18 volunteer junior faculty belonging to different departments within the University. This effort represents the first structured attempt at the University of Padova, as well as the whole of Italy, to promote staff development and to enhance academic innovation and educational change within university contexts. 

Says Dirkx: 

“Over the last 15 years, I have become increasingly interested in this work within international contexts. Working within these contexts helps illuminate a number of important dimensions of educational change within higher education, including awareness of diversity and the importance of intercultural awareness and competence; a deep understanding of change as reflecting the dynamic inter-relationship of the individual and the larger social and cultural context; and the critical importance of understanding and learning to work across sectors within any substantive project of educational change.” 

From practice to communities

The model guiding the University of Padova project is grounded in constructivist and transformative learning theory as well as learner-centered teaching. It consists of three theoretical dimensions: 

  • fostering a critical, reflective practice among individual teachers; 
  • cultivating learning communities among the university faculty; and 
  • establishing a network with other universities in Italy that have expressed an interest in and a desire to transform teaching practices within their institutions. 

Training involves fostering knowledge and skill among faculty participants in the project in reflective practice, self-directed learning, peer coaching, and faculty learning communities. In addition, the researchers are building awareness of this program and connections within interested Italian universities. The current research focuses on two primary questions: (1) What kind of reflection on teaching practice have the teachers developed, and (2) Does peer exchange and evaluation within the interdisciplinary community created play a role in teachers’ new learning? 

Changing the paradigm

 Preliminary findings, presented at the 8th annual International Conference of Education, Research, and Innovation in Seville, Spain, demonstrate an increased awareness of key aspects of good teaching, the critical importance of interaction with students, and use of formative and summative assessment in student learning. The majority of participating teachers have piloted some approaches or techniques in their actual classes. Participants give strong emphasis to peer learning and evaluation. The challenges and sharing within the community constitute for them the most important and innovative element, especially in a university context that privileges individual teaching rather than collective practices. Results show an ongoing change of paradigm. Despite a lack of previous pedagogical knowledge, participation in the project encourages junior faculty to constantly review their current practices and senior faculty to move toward development of departmental learning communities and the use of peer coaching activities among colleagues. Institutional support is required by all of them to foster improvement of teaching and change in organizational culture. 

A long history

 The University of Padova project connects to much of Dirkx’s other international work. He has worked on similar efforts in developing countries such as Vietnam, Pakistan, and Rwanda. Many of the universities Dirkx has worked with in those countries were between 20 to 50 years old. Padova, which was established in 1222, has a much longer history, and Dirkx shares how this current project “generates a new respect for how deeply and historically rooted is much of our theory and practice in higher education.” He explains that his work with Padova highlights the important roles history and tradition play in educational change efforts. Dirkx believes the combination of his work, with newer and older international institutions, provides a more comprehensive lens by which to approach improving university teaching.