Professional learning communities


This article was first published in 2013.

The traditional mechanical model of school improvement – to observe and grade teachers; to analyse retention and success rate data; to focus support on those teachers judged to be ‘requiring improvement’ – tends only to positively impact on a small minority of teachers whilst the rest can ‘coast’ or become disenchanted.  Such a model also tends to take snapshots of teaching which are not representative of the whole.

A ‘judge and nudge’ approach – where teachers are graded and then those graded 3s and 4s are given compulsory coaching in order to improve – can also be damaging because many teachers judged to be requiring improvement or inadequate either deny such judgments are accurate, apportion blame with students or others (they are low ability, they are naughty, etc.), or tear their hair out in desperation or depression.

In conclusion, this model of school improvement might fix some organisational weaknesses but does little else.  It certainly doesn’t motivate and empower teachers to get better and to take risks… so what does?

In ‘Drive’, Daniel Pink explores what motivates people at work.  He argues that people tend to be motivated by autonomy – in other words, being accorded control over the way they work; mastery – being good at their jobs and getting better; and purpose – doing a job which is considered meaningful and worthy.

One way to promote autonomy, mastery, and purpose is through the establishment of professional learning communities in which teachers are provided with the time, space and – perhaps most importantly of all – the safety net they need in order to feel able and supported to take risks, to try out new teaching methods without fear or favour.

Joyce and Showers’ report, ‘Student achievement through staff development’ (2002), explores the idea of professional learning communities further.

The authors argue that teaching has at least three times the effect on student achievement as any other factor and assert that teaching is best improved through experimentation.  In other words, teachers need to be accorded the opportunity to try out new teaching strategies and then to candidly discuss with colleagues what worked and what did not.

Joyce and Showers suggest the following method:

Identify training needs: teachers ask themselves ‘What do we feel are our most pressing needs? And ‘What do our results tell us? Then a list of 10-20 ideas for improvement is drawn up, combined, compromised and prioritised into one common goal. This common goal is focused on a process designed to produce better outcomes which will directly affect students’ experiences.

Training is devised: training is planned in the following sequence…

  • Knowledge – new theories and rationale are explained
  • Demonstration – new theories are modelled
  • Practice – teachers try out the theories for themselves
  • Peer coaching – teachers work together to solve the problems and answer the questions which arise during the ‘practice’ stage.

Training is delivered: the above training takes place over a period of time and is continually evaluated.

Joyce and Showers found that teachers must practice new methods 20-25 times if they are to learn how to use them as effectively as they do their usual methods.

There is a lot of research which underlines the importance of deliberate practice in achieving mastery and all insist that practice must be carried out over a long period of time.  Most notably, there is the ‘10,000-hour rule’ propounded by Malcolm Gladwell, Matthew Syed and others, which argues that in order to become an expert you must accrue 10,000 hours of practice.

Joyce and Showers also warn that the first few attempts at trying out a new teaching technique might fail but the teacher must remain positive and keep trying.

This process of experimentation works best – according to Joyce and Showers – when teachers:

  • Practice the use of the new methods repeatedly over a period of time
  • Monitor the effect of the new methods on learners
  • Ask students their opinions on the new methods, garnering further suggestions
  • Bring issues to peer coaching sessions for discussion
  • Help and support others with their experimentation

It is important that leaders support experimentation by modelling what Joyce and Showers call an ‘improvement and renewal’ style of leadership.  That is to say, they display an emphatic belief that it is always possible to get better, no matter how good you already are. And they display the belief that the factors which most affect student outcomes are in students’ and teachers’ control.  They do not blame achievement on socio-economic factors nor suggest that ability is innate.  They do not accept low standards.

Leaders can also promote improvement by:

  • Promoting collaboration
  • Ensuring improvement meetings are frequent and well-attended
  • Expecting a high standard of peer coaching
  • Expecting experimentation to be supported by evidence
  • Being positive and promoting the importance of teachers

Geoff Petty shares a model for improving teaching as follows:

  • Explore the context: understand the key issues in ensuring success for all
  • Explore present practice: understand how we teach at present
  • Explore the pedagogy: understand what other teaching strategies could improve teaching
  • Plan experimentation and implementation: decide ways to teach better
  • Improve and coach-in strategies: develop strategies whilst receiving support from peer coach
  • Monitor: monitor experimentation to ensure they make a difference to students
  • Share and celebrate success: report on experiments and share strategies
  • Embed practice: new strategies are agreed and put into planning for whole team to implement

“Ever tried?  Ever failed?  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

What professional learning communities do best is encourage risk-taking.  Because they are about developing teaching expertise rather than judging colleagues’ abilities, they encourage colleagues to try out new ways of teaching, some which will work and some which will not.

Risk-taking and innovation are key to the long-term development of teaching because they help us as professionals to keep on getting better over time.  And as lead learners, teachers should model the process of learning for their students.  We need to show our students that we are also learning all the time and that we are unafraid of trying new things even if that means we sometimes make mistakes.  Actually, not “even if that means we make mistakes” but “exactly because it means we make mistakes”!   After all, to make mistakes is to learn; to learn is to increase our IQs.  As Samuel Beckett wrote back in 1884, “Ever tried?  Ever failed?  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  Teachers need to model the “growth mindset” approach pioneered by Carol Dweck.

Professional learning communities also encourage teachers to do exactly what we want all of our learners to do in order to achieve success: namely, to work outside their comfort zones, to try something difficult.  And setting ourselves tough tasks is also to be encouraged because challenge leads to deeper learning and greater achievement.  Challenge is, after all, a central feature of outstanding learning.  If you think back to a time when you’ve felt challenged either personally or professionally, you’ll probably recall feeling discomfort.  But, once you’d overcome the challenge and achieved, the sense of success with which you were rewarded felt far greater than if you’d achieved something easy without even breaking into a sweat.

The workshops

Dylan Wiliam suggests a six-part structure for professional learning community workshops.  He advocates following the same structure each time so that all colleagues come to know what is expected.  This structure is as follows:

Introduction.  Approximately five minutes to share learning intentions for the workshop.

Starter.  Approximately five minutes as a warm-up or to share some recent positive and negative experiences.

Feedback.  Between twenty-five and fifty minutes for colleagues to talk about what they’ve done since the last workshop, perhaps by talking through their professional development plan.  It is important that all colleagues prepare for this session and are clear and detailed in the experiences they talk about including outlining what went well and what did not, and what they have learned from the experience.

New learning.  Between twenty and forty minutes to discuss new learning, learning which can then be put into practice between this workshop and the next one.  This might involve watching a video, discussing a book, and so on.

Professional development planning.  Approximately fifteen minutes to update professional development plans and organise with colleagues future peer observations and work scrutinies.

Review of learning.  Approximately five minutes to recap on the core learning from this workshop.

Each workshop, Wiliam says, should last between seventy-five and one hundred and twenty minutes.

Garmston and Wellman share 7 Ps of effective collaboration which may be useful in setting a supportive tone at the learning community workshops:

Pausing – this is about allowing all participants time to think, reflect on what’s been said and develop their understanding.

Paraphrasing – this is about the workshop leader reiterating key points, repeating back what others say in order that all participants can hear and understand what is being said.

Probing – this is about the workshop leader asking questions and requesting participants develop their ideas further.

Putting ideas on the table – this is about welcoming everybody’s input and greeting ideas with respect; it is also about the workshop leader accepting that there are different points of view which need to be considered and thought-through without prejudice.

Paying attention to self and others – this is about thinking through how to say something in a way that does not offend others nor incites argument.

Presuming positive intentions – this is about presuming others mean well and trying to prevent argument.

Pursuing balance between advocacy and inquiry – this is about striking the right balance between inquiring into others’ ideas before advocating your own.

Dylan Wiliam at the Institute of Education, King’s College London says that the most effective learning communities run for two years, meet monthly to discuss new ideas and to share experiences, and identify dedicated time between meetings for colleagues to carry out peer observations and to plan collaboratively.

Professor Coe at the University of Durham and CEM agrees that the best professional development is sustained over the long-term, content-focused, active and evidence-based.

Content then process

Dylan Wiliam advocates starting with the content then moving on to the process.  Content is about choosing the appropriate evidence, formulating the initial ideas; process is about according people with choice and flexibility, encouraging them to take small steps forward with support but also with accountability.  In other words, content is about the what?; process is about the how?

Another way of looking at it is this…

As a collective, we should decide on the strategy – what aspect of pedagogy we need to focus on first; and then individual lecturers and teachers should decide on the techniques – how they intend to embed this strategy, what practical changes they plan to make.

For example, the organisation may decide that the first focus should be on improving the quality of the formative feedback given to students by teachers/lecturers and by students themselves.  Then individual lecturers are given autonomy to trial new methods of giving and acting on feedback in their classes.  In other words, individual teachers take ownership of their own professional development.  After all, teaching is all about personality. Every teacher has a different personality and therefore a different way of teaching. Such differences should be embraced not eradicated. We want human beings at the helm of our children’s learning not automatons!

To ensure accountability, every teacher should write his/her own professional development plan which is focused on a small number of changes related to the main strategies of Assessment for Learning.  Every teacher is accountable for keeping up to date with his/her development plan and this involves ensuring that a planned programme of peer observations and work scrutinies take place and that feedback is recorded.

Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


8 responses to “Professional learning communities

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