Professional Learning Community

[tinytoc level="1"]What’s a department to do?[/tinytoc]

I was looking around for some research into groups of teachers developing together, as a way of following up from the assignment I wrote last year on CPD in schools when I came across “A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning” (Vescio et al 2008).

One of the first things that Vescio & Co point out is that Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are, as we’ve said, very much in fashion. They cite Du Four (2004) as evidence that we should be cautious against the use of the phrase PLC as a label, empty of meaning. But why should we investigate such an approach, what would be the point of changing the way that we work together, so that we obtain more of the characteristics of the PLCs in the study by Vescio et al.?

Put simply;

the greater the extent of reported staff involvement in professional and pupil learning, the higher was the level of pupil perfomance and progress in both primary and secondary school’ (Bolam et al 2005: 132)

In other words, PLCs rasie standards and attainment. Just how dramatic this effect can be is suggested by Bolam and Co’s finding that the proportion of students reaching ‘grade level’ in a school could rise from 50% to 80%, and by Phillips’ (2003) finding of a change in the pass rate at elementary schools from 50% to 90% in subjects as diverse as literacy and numeracy.

The interesting thing about Vescio & Co’s analysis is that, although common threads, similarities of approach and of thinking all emerge, what is not being suggested or illustrated is a particular _way_ of teaching. Instead of prescription of what to teach and how, much more stress is placed by them on a common set of values and practices. These seem to be:

  • An explicit and continuing focus on pupil learning and attainment;
  • The use of data to ground, illustrate and support ideas about teaching; and
  • A committment to teachers working together to improve learning;
  • Legitimising teacher learning, authority and development

I want to address each in turn, to illustrate what I learned from this article about these themes.

[tinytoc level="1"]Focus on pupil learning and attainment[/tinytoc]

Not simply [...] that pupils are taught, but [...] that they learn (Du Four 2004)

In many of the studies cited by Vescio et al, this focus wasn’t of the nature of a laudible ‘desire’ to see pupil learning, but the discussion, agreement and articulation of specific goals and aims. So instead of ‘we’d like to improve our KS3 results’ we might go for ‘we’d like pupils to be able to confidently use criteria for assessing the significance of an historical event’. From those concrete goals discussions can grow about pedagogy and assessment, which is much harder to do when thinking ‘pupils must do better’.

[tinytoc level="1"]Using data to ground, illustrate and support ideas about teaching[/tinytoc]

If we’re being precise about what we’d like students to learn, we have to be much more precise about how we’re going to assess attainment. However, this focus goes far beyond marking and testing. By focusing on the data we’re using we can question what that data is – can we merely rely on the summative KS3 tests, can we take into account softer data like observations, or pupil feedback? Using grounded data also gives us more authority and agency. No longer are we forced to rely on hunches, we can adduce evidence.

Working together

Working together is often characterised as ‘sharing good practice’, but this study points out that there are many more possibilities for collaborative work having a positive impact on teacher practise and on pupil attainment. The term ‘sharing good practice’ is also misleading – it supposes that some teachers are doing things well and others perhaps badly. It might be better to place the focus on ‘sharing and discussing ideas and resources for learning’, or a similar focus. The studies in Vescio et al’s meta – study set out a number of ways that these ideas might be shared and discussed:

  • Joint lesson planning and resource creation
  • Groups discussing and planning key stage three overvies and schemes of work
  • Sharing resources and practice
  • systematic note taking, which informs colleagues about their work and decisions taken
  • observation, feedback, video taping of lessons
  • investigation of teaching problems (and I would add successes)
  • collectively generating new ideas
  • literature study circles.

[tinytoc level="1"]Legitimising teacher learning, providing teacher authority[/tinytoc]

By moving away from a ‘deficit’ model of professional development, which sees knowldege as a kind of treatment which is apllied to deficient practice, we can legitimise learning. If we’re fixing a deficit then admitting a need to learn, is to admit fault or error. If instead we’re all committed to developing our practice and to helping pupils attain more and more, that we have the power to chose the ways that we go about these developments then learning is a mark of professionalism, and of committment, not a sign of weakness or deficiency.

[tinytoc level="1"]Professional Learning – collaborative development?[/tinytoc]

What I’m going to be looking for in the future is ideas for implementing these models in the department I’m leading next year. I’ve had a few ideas already, which I’ll be running past the department in the summer term, but I’d like to plan for this properly. If you’re (1) reading this and (2) thinking I know of some good ideas that others have used, then please get in touch, or leave a comment.

Vescio, Vicki; Ross, Dorene; Adams, Alyson. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, v24 n1 p80-91 Jan 2008

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