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  • Professional learning communities andsystem improvementAlma HarrisInstitute of Education, London, UK

    Michelle JonesTwynrhodyn Primary School, Wales, UK

    AbstractThis article outlines the progress and impact of professional learning communities within,between and across schools, as part of the implementation of whole system reform in Wales.It describes the way in which professional learning communities are being developed to sup-port improvement and change across the education system in Wales. The article focuses ona group of schools that piloted a model of professional learning communities that subse-quently have become a key part of the reform process in Wales and it highlights some of thechallenges faced by the schools in establishing and sustaining professional learning commu-nities. The article concludes by suggesting that professional learning communities offer oneway of generating changed professional practice that can positively contribute to system-wide improvement.

    Keywords: distributed leadership, professional learning communities, schooleffectiveness, school improvement, school reform, system improvement

    Introduction

    In Wales a major reform effort is underway to secure success for each student in everysetting and to transform an entire education system. System-wide reform is taking placeat school, local authority and government level in order to secure higher education per-formance and improved learner outcomes. Substantial effort is being put into buildingthe capacity for large-scale reform in a deliberate and purposeful way. This basis for thisreform is set out in two strategic documents: The Learning Country and The LearningCountry: Vision into Action (Welsh Assembly Government, 2006). Both documentsmake a commitment to using the school effectiveness and improvement research evi-dence to secure improved learning and teaching outcomes. Consequently, in 2006/07the Welsh Assembly Government introduced a National School EffectivenessFramework (SEF) as a way of achieving system-level reform and improved studentoutcomes for all students. The School Effectiveness Framework1 is based on robust

    Improving Schools AuthorsVolume 13 Number 2 July 2010 172181ISSN 1365-4802 DOI: 10.1177/1365480210376487

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  • research evidence and is the key policy document that will drive reform and system-level improvement in Wales over the next few years.

    To contribute to the implementation process, professional learning communities(PLCs) within, between and across schools are being established in schools in Walesto build the necessary capacity for change. The PLC model is a way of ensuring thatthere is the opportunity for professionals to learn new practices and to generate newknowledge. As Resnick (2010) highlights, collaborative routines among teachers arean important component in securing improved student learning outcomes. These col-laborative routines have been described in various ways but are best described as net-worked learning communities or professional learning communities (Stoll et al.,2007).

    In this article we define professional learning communities (PLCs) as they are character-ized and understood within the school effectiveness and school improvement literature.These fields view the professional learning community as a powerful staff developmentapproach and a potent strategy for school and system improvement (Harris andChrispeels, 2008; Hopkins, 2007; Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007). The idea of a pro-fessional learning community is grounded in the knowledge and experience that hasbeen gained over many years from encouraging teachers to work together more collab-oratively (Darling Hammond, 1996; Guskey, 1986; Louis and Kruse, 1995). It has beeninformed by the literature about effective organizations which shows how they access,circulate and distribute knowledge as a way to achieve continuous improvement(Leithwood et al., 1997; Sergiovanni, 1994).

    Foundational work by Rosenholtz (1989) showed that professional support throughteacher networks, professional collaboration and expanded professional roles improvedteacher efficacy and enhanced teacher effectiveness. Research has also shown that teach-ers with a high sense of their own efficacy are more likely to adopt new classroombehaviours and are also more likely to stay in the profession. Little (1982) found thatwhen teachers had the opportunity for collaborative inquiry and the learning related toit, they were able to develop and share a body of wisdom gleaned from their experi-ence. More recently, distributed leadership and shared decision-making have beenassociated with positive changes in teaching performance (Harris, 2008, 2009; Stolland Seashore Louis, 2007).

    The professional learning community model in Wales is one that reinforces professionalnetworking and collaboration as a main lever for change (Egan and Hopkins, 2009;Egan et al., 2009; Hopkins, 2007). It reinforces that PLCs can stimulate and spreadinnovation about learning and teaching practices, as well as to raise collective and indi-vidual professional performance (Hopkins, 2006). A professional learning communityis a group of connected and engaged professionals who are responsible for drivingchange and improvement within, between and across schools that will directly benefitlearners. The basic argument is that by cultivating professional learning communities itis possible for schools to improve student achievement through changing teaching andclassroom practices. The idea of professional learning communities is underpinned bythe concept of distributed leadership (Harris, 2008). Distributed leadership is primarilyconcerned with the reciprocal interdependencies that shape leadership practice. A dis-tributed perspective on leadership recognizes that leadership involves multiple individuals

    Harris and Jones: Professional learning communities 173

  • 174 Improving Schools 13(2)

    and crosses organizational boundaries. Distributed leadership encompasses both formaland the informal forms of leadership practice. Consequently within professional learn-ing communities, distributed leadership is characterized by teachers working togetheron a shared area of enquiry (Harris, 2009). Distributed leadership provides the infra-structure that holds the community together, as it is the collective work of educators, atmultiple levels who are leading innovative work that creates and sustains successfulprofessional learning communities.

    This article focuses on the ways in which professional learning communities, locatedwithin, between and across schools have the potential to contribute to system-levelimprovement. It looks at the conditions that need to be in place for teachers withinPLCs to continuously seek and share learning; and to subsequently act on what theylearn. The article reflects upon progress made in a pilot phase of PLCs in Wales and out-lines some of the challenges of sustaining professional learning communities as part ofa process of implementing system-wide reform.

    Professional learning communities and system reform

    The quality of an educational system cannot outperform the quality of its teachers andtherefore a concerted effort is being made in Wales to improve professional practicethrough participation in professional learning communities within, between and acrossschools. Evidence would suggest that professional learning communities offer a verypowerful way of engaging teachers in reflecting upon and refining their practice.Securing improvement across large numbers of schools and classrooms in Wales will nothappen unless teachers are fully engaged in the change process and feel a high degreeof ownership about the outcomes. Having the right reforms is not sufficient; there hasto be a basis for changing professional practice and for ensuring that schools and teach-ers drive that change.

    But teachers collaborating is not enough. There are numerous examples around theworld of well-funded teacher networks that fail to produce the gains expected, simplybecause they are shallow or empty networks devoid of any real focus on improvinglearner outcomes. If too loosely configured, it is easy for professional learning com-munities to pay attention to everything else except learning and teaching, and in sodoing, to significantly reduce the potential impact of their work. Improvement throughprofessional learning communities is only possible if teachers collaborate and focus onthe real work of improving learning and teaching (Harris and Jones, 2009).Improvement through professional learning communities means focusing on improvinglearning outcomes or better learning. It means addressing the hard questions aboutclassroom practice and actively seeking to change teachers practice. Fullan (2009: 12)talks about the importance of creating cultures for learning that underlines the impor-tance of people learning from each other and being collectively committed to improve-ment. In Wales, it is this infrastructure of learning that is being forged throughprofessional learning communities that has the potential to change the system.

    The model of professional learning communities being established in Wales is charac-terized by teachers participating in decision-making, having a sense of purpose, engag-ing in collaborative work and accepting joint responsibility for the outcomes of theirwork. Empowering teachers in this way and providing them with opportunities to lead

  • Harris and Jones: Professional learning communities 175

    is based on the simple but powerful idea that if schools are to meet learner needs, theymust provide opportunities for teachers to innovate, develop and learn together (Harrisand Jones, 2009). The evidence supporting professional learning communities suggeststhey have the potential to improve achievement and raise performance (Goldenberg,2004; Saunders and Goldberg, 2005; Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007; Verscio et al.,2008; Whitehurst, 2002). They are a powerful vehicle for changing teachers behaviourand improving student learning outcomes (DuFour and Eaker, 1998; Little, 1982).Effective PLCs tend to be characterized by shared values; a focus on student learning;reflective dialogue and action enquiry (Hord, 1997; Mason, 2003; Mitchell andSackney, 2000; Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007).

    Where professional learning communities work best, there is evidence of more satis-faction, higher morale, and lower rates of absenteeism among teachers. Teachers whoare part of a professional learning community tend to be more effective in the classroomand achieve better student outcomes (Huffman and Jacobson, 2003; Lewis andAndrews, 2004). Finally, there is evidence of teachers having a greater commitment tomaking significant and lasting changes in their classroom and beyond that can con-tribute to systemic change.

    It is recognized that professional learning communities offer only one lever for system-level change; there are clearly others. The model of professional learning communitiesin Wales is one that embraces networking and collaboration and has the potential tosecure significant change and improvement (Egan and Hopkins, 2009; Egan et al.,2009; Harris and Jones, 2009; Hopkins, 2007). It reinforces that networks of schools canstimulate and spread innovation as well as collaborate to raise collective and individualperformance (Hopkins, 2006). The model aligns with the Pedagogy Strategy and theCPD Review in Wales that endorses a move from individual professionalism, tocollective professionalism where it is the norm for practitioners to work inter-dependentlyrather than independently. Only through such mutual dependence and collectve workingwill the capacity to deliver large-scale reform be generated. The approach to PLCs inWales is also system-wide as it engages schools, local authorities and national policy-makers in supporting and maintaining the system change.

    The current work around PLCs is premised upon a number of key principles. First, thatsystem-wide change is only possible through entire system collaboration and network-ing. Second, there is a central and non-negotiable focus on pedagogical improvementand improving learner outcomes. Third, the model uses action enquiry approaches, as adriver for change in classroom practice. Theoretically, the model also draws heavilyupon the theory of change implicit in Wengers (2000) notion of communities of prac-tice. Within such communities, practice is developed and refined through the collabo-ration of groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion abouta topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoingbasis (Wenger, 2002: 4).

    As highlighted earlier, the literature is clear about the way in which successful profes-sional learning communities function (Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007). Learning in thecontext of professional learning communities involves working together towards acommon understanding of concepts and practices. The focus is not just on individualteachers learning but on professional learning within the context of a cohesive group

  • 176 Improving Schools 13(2)

    that focuses on collective knowledge and occurs with a context of mutual trust andlearning. But the reality is rarely as neat or straightforward as the literature would sug-gest, inevitably there are some challenges and some potential pitfalls.

    The pilot phase

    During a pilot phase of the implementation of the School Effectiveness Framework inWales, associates were appointed to work regionally with clusters of schools to gener-ate innovation and activity in line with the policy framework. Different approaches andmodels of implementation emerged in various parts of the country. Within one region, anapproach to building professional learning communities was piloted as a way of generat-ing local improvement capacity aligned to the priorities within the School EffectivenessFramework. The project involved six schools, two secondary, two primary and twospecial schools. Each school was committed to participating in a project over an aca-demic year that was aimed at securing change and improvement through the develop-ment of professional learning communities within, between and across schools. TheLeading Learning for School Effectiveness (LLSE) project, as it became known,involved a partnership between academics,2 SEF associates, the Welsh AssemblyGovernment and schools.

    As highlighted earlier, there are many different definitions of professional learningcommunities and indeed many different ways to construct them. The model adopted inthe pilot project was based on an action enquiry approach that has been utilized suc-cessfully by many school improvement programmes including Improving the Qualityof Education for All (Hopkins et al., 1997). The core idea is that school-based actionenquiry becomes the driver for change and innovation within, between and acrossschools. The prime purpose of the professional learning community therefore is for pro-fessionals to enquire an...

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