Being a teacher leader within a Professional Learning Community is a critical and valuable task as we move towards the 3rd decade of the 21st century. It is one key to creating an equal playing field where all learners can achieve high performance outcomes. This has not been achieved through many of the teaching pursuits currently fashionable. For example,

“Active learning can be pursued through small group discussions; cooperative learning tasks; independent research projects; use of hands- on manipulatives, scientific equipment, and arts and crafts materials; use of computer and video technology; and community-based projects such as surveys, oral histories, and volunteer service. But even highly active students can produce work that is intellectually shallow and weak.” (Newmann 1996 “Authentic Pedagogy and Student Performance”)

“Poor Proxies for Learning (Easily observed, but not really about learning):

  1. Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
  2. Students are engaged, interested, motivated
  3. Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
  4. Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
  5. Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form)
  6. (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently).” (Coe 2013 Improving Education: A Triumph of Hope over Experience)

Are students learning? It’s a key question. It’s obvious from the above quotations and from many other studies that learning and teaching are often happening but that learning is not always the result of teaching, and that teaching is not always effective in learning, whether the classroom is ‘active’ or ‘traditional’. While the one may be more enjoyable than the other, it is not inevitably more effective.

We also know, and have known for a long time, that reducing the size of classrooms, having teacher assistants, tracking students, the popular version of mind-set (rejected by Dweck), student control over learning, problem-based learning, and many others lack effectiveness, or lack effectiveness compared with their cost (cf. Hattie Visible Learning among others).

A Professional Learning Community is not a panacea. But it is a highly effective way in which to raise the standard of discourse and to place learning at the center of the conversation. Ask your colleagues in various departments or teams to solve the following problem:

A teacher has a class of 20 students. In your school’s grading system of A, B, C, D, E, and F, how many students will be in each category at the end of the year?

I am no longer astonished by the variety of responses I get in individual schools when this problem is posited. Some think all should get As; some have a percentage failure rate; some put students in each category. Most try to balance what they think ‘should be’ with what their experience tells them is ‘reality’.

This is where the Professional Learning Community (PLC) comes in. Parker Palmer writes that “good teachers bring students into living communion with the subjects they teach. They also bring students into community with themselves and with each other”. He has caught the essence of what must also be true for teachers. Establishing, developing, nurturing a PLC in your school as a teacher leader is the best hope a student has for an experience in which learning is possible at a high level for everyone.

Richard DuFour provides clear guidelines for action. I extract his big ideas here: (What is a Professional Learning Community? 2004):

  1. Core Mission of Education is to Ensure that All Students Learn
    1. What do we want each student to learn?
    2. How will we know when each student has learned it?
    3. How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?
  1. Educators work Together to Achieve their Collective Purpose of Learning for All
    1. Critical learning outcomes identified and interrogated by the team
    2. Authentic ways to provide formative / feedback assessment developed and examined for validity
    3. Assessment criteria practiced till done consistently by all teachers
    4. All practice is public
    5. Everyone is part of one or more teams
    6. No excuses
  2. Measure of Effectiveness is Based on Student Outcomes
    1. All teachers have access to the methods, results, ideas, talents of every other teacher
    2. All teachers consciously seek out successful practice and test it in their own context
    3. Focus on continuous improvement
    4. Practice in reflective dialogue

What happens when administrators or colleagues are not on board and implementing these big ideas is not possible in the school as a whole? The answer is to practice these ideas in your own sphere. The focus on learning will change what happens in the students’ experience, slowly at first, but then more quickly. Most cultures have an ethos of helping students. Your PLC will have an ethos of helping students through the collective action of their teachers. For example, imagine a student who is struggling with a concept in class. Without the PLC, the teacher invites or requires the student to see them in a study hall, or before/after school. The teacher works individually with the student. With the PLC, the teacher takes the concept to the team, identifies the issue, shows the method/s she is using, relates other reactions for other students to her teaching. The team share alternative methods being used, interrogate the learning objectives, consider the student’s strengths and weaknesses, create a team strategy that can help this student but also any other student facing the same issue. Now, it is not about the teacher helping the student learn using her own resources, but the teacher-team collaboratively learning and helping the student learn using combined resources. Of course, your colleagues might claim that they are doing this already by dropping into each other’s offices. But they are not engaged in a systematic PLC approach that culturally requires constant learning on a weekly basis – it is haphazard and doesn’t embed learning within the community as a whole.

Here are three examples of PLC type intense teacher professional growth methods taken from three different and international educational contexts:

Lesson Study (Japanese: kenkyuu jugyou – research lessons)

  • Preparation of a best possible lesson
  • Observation by peers and recording (video etc.)
  • Reflection/discussion of strengths and weaknesses
  • Suggestions for improvement
  • Implementation (the cycle continues)

Learning Circle (Singapore – Teachers’ Networks)

  • 8 two hour sessions
  • Teacher trained as facilitator
  • Teachers offer ‘problems’ (sharing their assumptions and personal theories, experimenting with new ideas and practices, and sharing their successes and challenges)
  • Using reflection, dialogue, and action research

Critical Friends Groups (Brown University, USA)

  • Introduction
  • Description
  • Careful listening
  • Questioning for feedback (‘warm’, ‘cool’, and ‘hard’)
  • Reflection
  • Debriefing

Here are common criteria that seem to be necessary for leading a successful PLC:

  1. At least 50 hours of meeting time a year (research suggests student performance improvement of 21%)
  2. Teacher directed with teacher leader and administrative support
  3. Development of trust for genuine sharing of practice (good and bad)
  4. Willingness to learn by all members of the team
  5. Focus on student learning at all times (i.e. time on other matters is not officially counted as PLC hours even if done within the context of the PLC)
  6. Elimination of one-time one-shot PD events
  7. The work of the PLC is directly connected to the individual teacher’s classroom
  8. Accountability for improvements in student outcomes determined through data collection, analysis and reflection (to be determined by the PLC)
  9. Time to collaborate provided in the working day / year

Caveat: it is notable that professional growth operates differently for teachers at different stages on their learning journeys. For those who are new to teaching, or who have not progressed far from where they began, while collaboration is a positive mechanism for inclusion, it is not a powerful driver of learning. Here, a mentor or coach from within the group may be helpful in helping the teacher direct their journey. Expert teachers are not amenable to this kind of “controlled” growth because their journey is at a different place. For them, collaboration for learning and making their teaching visible is a more appropriate process.