Following achievement of a teaching qualification, many teachers fail to prioritise their lifelong and continuous learning (Hustler et al, 2003). As a member of the Society for Education and Training, practitioners are merely asked to ‘commit to undertaking continuing professional development (CPD) that has an impact on your practice, each year’, with 30 hours previously requested by the IfL. The General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTC, 2013) require primary and secondary teachers to undertake a minimum of 35 hours. In England however, there is no prescribed quantity for primary and secondary teachers. Conversely, teachers in Singapore are entitled to 100 hours CPD per year, in addition to a budget of approximately £200-£350 per year to spend on their professional activities (OECD, 2011). This difference in CPD allowance correlates with the World Education Rankings (2009), whereby Singapore has above average Reading, Maths and Science scores, compared to the UK, who fair average in all three areas (OECD, 2011).
Those teachers that prioritise their CPD often find the training uninspiring due to a ‘one-size fits all approach’ that usually have unattractive financial costs (Hustler, et al, 2003). Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009) and Scales (2011) support this notion with the suggestion that a new paradigm of professional development is needed in order to reject the ineffective ‘drive-by’ workshops that are commonplace in education, led by ‘experts’ from outside of the classroom telling teachers what to think and do.
“So what is the answer?”
Professional Learning Community (PLC) is a conceptual model focussing on the collaboration of a team sharing the same vision values and goals, working towards continuous improvement (Defour et al, 2009). Mullen (2009, p. 18) defines PLC as;
“a model of school organization designed to foster collaboration and learning among school personnel and to harness this organizational learning to enhance the learning of all students.”
PLC’s are grounded in the assumptions that knowledge is best understood through critical reflection with others who share similar experiences and that increasing this knowledge will improve practice and enhance learning (Vesico et al, 2008).
Current PLC literature indicates that if utilised effectively they can have a significant positive impact on teaching and learning (Cordingley et al, 2003; Bolam et al, 2005; Stoll et al, 2006; Parry, 2007). Cordingley et al (2003) found in their review that substantial improvements in teaching and learning are developed through collaborative CPD. The benefits to teachers included: greater confidence in taking risks, enhanced knowledge and practice and developed enthusiasm for collaborative learning, which benefited students learning. In addition to this, Stoll et al (2006) suggest that by developing PLC’s, there is considerable promise for building sustainable improvement across an institution.
“Sounds great, but there must be some negatives?”
In spite of these positive assessments, DuFour (2004) has been critical of the use of the term PLC, as he feels that it is used so ubiquitously that it is losing its meaning. This notion is supported further by Caine and Caine (2010) who imply that much of what is done in PLC’s miss the point, due to a failure to recognise that in order to be effective, the right underlying conditions need to be created.
Here it is worth noting McMillan and Chavis’ (1986) work who state that there are four key factors that defines a sense of community in order for it to be effective: “(1) membership, (2) influence, (3) fulfilment of individuals needs and (4) shared events and emotional connections”. Newmann et al (1996) extend these factors with five essential characteristics of their own, including: shared values, a clear focus, reflective dialogue, making teaching public and finally collaboration. Both models appear to have collaboration and shared vision grounded within them.
This has been evident in the literature whereby Graham (2007) found a positive correlation between PLC activities and teacher improvement in a first-year middle school and central to this improvement was same-subject, same-grade teacher teams. These findings are corroborated by Parry (2007), who investigated teacher effectiveness through structured collaboration in professional learning communities within a middle school. It was found that professional learning activities comprising of the same subject, teacher teams and grade had the potential to achieve significant improvements in teacher effectiveness. As can be seen, both of the articles above were successful based on collaboration and a shared vision (same subject).
Parry (2007) also notes that the extent of the effectiveness was dependent upon leadership and the nature of the conversations within the learning communities. In light of this, in creating a learning community, one must ensure that those involved have some ownership and autonomy to promote engagement. Prescribing strategies to teachers inevitably removes the autonomy of those undertaking CPD. Conversely, too much ownership may result in a lack of focus and power struggles between individuals in the formation of the community.
These key points are evident in a study by Busher (2005) who investigated the development of inclusive learning communities in schools. Much of the emphasis was based upon the power relationships between members of the PLC, students, support staff and middle management. Busher (2005) informs us that ‘how power is used and distributed to construct collaborative cultures, and the part played by middle leaders, is central to the development of a learning community’. It is suggested that if learning communities are enforced by middle managers, then the effectiveness of the learning community will be limited. Wiliam (2007) asserts that teachers need to engage with colleagues in a teacher learning community (TLC) for at least two years in order to see improvements in student learning. He also believes that the format of TLC’s is sustainable due to working independent from school management. It could be inferred from this that PLC’s should not have its agenda too tightly focused, firstly to allow for organic growth and secondly to ensure independence.
“What’s the verdict?”
So there we have it, all the evidence suggests that a PLC model has the potential to be a highly effective and engaging CPD tool. Though the impact is difficult to measure, the feedback I have received through using them in my role has been extremely positive, with a culture shift of willingness to share and participate in CPD. Below is a simple framework that I have used and though it does not use the research suggestions exactly, I tried to keep it as grounded in the research as possible.
- Provide a series of evidence based focus areas that have arisen as development needs from observations and learner feedback.
- Allow members to choose a PLC group with an evidence based focus that they wish to develop – no more than 6 members per group.
- Provide a framework to allow the PLC to create a shared vision with action plans.
- Schedule regular opportunities for teachers to meet and reflect over the academic year.
- Encourage peer-to-peer observations to provide evidence of impact.