First Transformational Change EdD Graduate Follows Passion

On November 29, 2013, Joanne Robertson successfully defended her Doctor of Education (EdD) thesis entitled, “Passion-Based Learning: The Design and Implementation of a New Approach to Project-Based Learning (PBL) for Alternative Education.” Dr. Robertson is the first graduate of the Transformational Change EdD Program, which was introduced in September 2011.

The nature of Robertson's work as a Director of Instruction in the North Vancouver School District, along with her experience in the design of in-service opportunities for teachers, has provided her with professional growth and development opportunities during her career, but the idea of pursuing graduate work at the doctoral level appealed to her.

When asked why she chose the Transformational Change EdD here in the Faculty of Education at SFU she told us that she was looking for an EdD program that would broaden her understanding of instructional practices beyond the K-12 experience. More specifically, Robertson was intrigued by the idea of examining educational practices within a cohort of educational leaders from a variety of settings. She considered the exploration of the complexities of transformational change and leadership within a cohort to be exciting, especially since the program prioritized the relational aspects of learning and work.

While Robertson expected to learn more about organizational development, she was surprised at how transformational change also applied to her personal development as well. Like many professionals, she had always tried to keep her personal and professional worlds separate. However, this EdD program encourages students to examine not only their external, organizational world of learning, but also to look within themselves. Courses at the outset are designed to allow the development of greater self-awareness and an enhanced attunement to others by exploring the role of aesthetics, type theory and dialogic processes. "These courses and the reflective portfolios we designed at the end of each term helped me to develop a better understanding of myself and of my relationships with others," says Robertson.

The diverse backgrounds of the students in the program (including people from post-secondary and aboriginal education, health care, visual arts, law, human resources, and technology) made for challenging and enriching, albeit positive, experiences. Robertson believes those moments “challenged our thinking, enriched our dialogue, and…will continue to resonate with us…causing us to reflect on and revise our actions and beliefs as we return to our professional worlds.”

As she conducted her research and began writing her thesis, Robertson began to recognize the importance of situating herself as "an individual shaped by family history, personal events and professional experiences" within her research. As part of this change she faced one of her biggest challenges: the ability to shift from a 'stance of doing', a characteristic of demanding leadership roles, to a 'stance of study', which Robertson describes as "engaging with ambiguity and complexity, staying deliberately curious and learning to become more dialogic in my interactions with others."

Robertson’s passion for the research she undertook was evident throughout her thesis and during her thesis examination. She set the bar high for her fellow classmates by completing her program in seven terms and was also awarded the top mark in her examination.

Reflecting on her journey, Robertson tells us, "I learned so much from the students and teachers who were involved in the development of the project-based learning model at the alternative school. I was inspired by the students' creativity and passion and by the resiliency they had developed to overcome the challenges in their lives. I was also impressed by the courage of the teachers at the school in pioneering a curriculum design that would engage these vulnerable youth, and by the ability of all staff at the school to collaborate in authentic ways with one another for the benefit of the students."

As for future plans, Robertson hopes to publish her research and share her findings with other educators through conferences and other opportunities. "I think the success these teachers had in re-engaging youth with school through the project-based learning model is so important," says Robertson, "and it could inform our approaches to curriculum design in other educational settings."

Inspired by Joanne's thesis and work with Passion/Project-Based Learning, Field Programs is working with North Vancouver School District to offer the first Graduate Diploma in Education to support teachers' professional development through the "Frameworks for Innovative Teacher Collaboration and Inquiry" Graduate Diploma program. Applications are being accepted for this program until March 21, 2014.

Dr. Joanne Robertson spent the first part of her career teaching and providing leadership in a French Immersion program, and for the past decade she has spent her time as an administrator taking on the roles of Vice Principal, District Principal and most recently, Director of Instruction. She has also worked in the Faculty of Education here at Simon Fraser University as a Faculty Associate and is currently an Adjunct Teaching Professor and Faculty Advisor in the Teacher Education Program at the University of British Columbia.

Joanne Robertson with her committee. From left to right: Dr. Allan MacKinnon, Dr. David Kaufman, Dr. Carolyn Mamchur, Dr. Joanne Robertson, Dr. Milt McClaren, Dr. Byron Robbie, and Dr. Bernard Schissel (External Examiner from Royal Roads University).