The PLG is possibly the best professional development available to teachers.
My first foray into Professional Learning Groups was in the late 1990s when I was completing my Masters in Applied Linguistics. We saw our little group of three teachers, whose common interest was learning with laptops, as a collaborative action research team. We each taught the same group of students a different subject, French, Social Studies or English. We visited each other’s classrooms and gathered data on laptop learning from observation and student survey. For me, the French teacher, this contributed to my Masters degree as well as my professional development. We teachers initiated the project and gained support from the school’s forward-thinking principal, Gail Thompson, who supported us with PD funds and release time. Now such projects have become mandatory and therein lies an advantage as well as a risk. They have also, in my opinion, been hijacked by the Community of Schools movement.
Professional Learning Groups have been a key feature of professional development in New Zealand secondary schools for past two decades. In my current school I have investigated and improved my practice and my students’ learning outcomes by collaboratively researching:
- Memory strategies and brain research (2017)
- Rethinking national assessment practice (2016)
- How to encourage Pasifika students in language classes (2015)
- Finding fine-tuned tools to measure and track day-to-day learning in language classes (2014)
- Developing effective language learner strategies for national assessment (2013)
- Finding why some students and not others choose to continue learning a language (2012)
- How to enrich language learning through online talk (2011).
What ensured my commitment and conscientious involvement in each of these groups was the fact that I proposed the area of concern based on the students in front of me, found others with similar concerns, and developed my own research questions. The school provided the vehicle within which this became possible. In other words, a key feature in each of these PLGs was teacher agency.
In the past year or two, as my school has joined a Community of Schools (COS), my ability to initiate and choose based on the students in front of me and my personal concerns regarding them has become secondary to the concerns of the COS. The Community has decided what my concerns need to be and pushed me into a narrowed choice of topics to research. My PLG research has become less relevant to me and my particular set of students. The satisfying component of the PLG, teacher agency, has diminished, and so, I believe, has the potential for improved outcomes in my classroom.
I believe that teacher agency is an essential element for improving learning outcomes for our students. It is hinted at but not explicitly stated in the research literature. Yes, there are valuable school-wide and cross-curricular understandings to be had, but I would maintain that a key component of the success of the PLG is genuine teacher choice. And not just choice. Teachers must be able to initiate as well as choose what they want to investigate and what is relevant for their own teaching practice and their own classroom. Where this does not occur, teacher buy-in is at risk and we return to simply ticking boxes. I fear that the recent move to Communities of Schools has indeed hijacked professional development.
So what does the literature say?
The characteristics of the Professional Learning Group:
- they are groups smaller than the whole staff
- the teachers in each group come from a range of learning areas
- they focus on cross-curricular topics related to teaching and learning
- their intention is to develop teacher understanding and enhance practice, with the ultimate goal of improving student outcomes (Baldwin, R, 2008).
The rationale behind this is:
- shared vision and values that lead to a collective commitment, which is expressed in day-to-day practices
- solutions actively sought
- openness to new ideas
- PLGs work as teams and cooperate to achieve common goals
- experimentation is encouraged as an opportunity to learn
- questioning of the status quo, leading to an ongoing quest for improvement and professional learning
- continuous improvement based on evaluation of outcomes rather than on the intentions expressed
- reflection in order to study the operation and impacts of actions taken (Education Council, 2017).
Lots about common goals but not much about teacher agency here. I would love to read some research regarding the bottom up versus top-down aspects of the PLG format. I have a hunch that a balance provides the best results for teacher buy-in and student outcomes and that where the top-down imperatives are in the ascendancy, then so will be teacher complacency and diminished learning outcomes.
However, look at the lower left quadrant in this diagram from the Education Council (2017).
In the 1990s, as a member of a successful Professional Development (PD) group running the programme in a forward thinking school, we worked hard to ensure three directions to our balanced programme: school-wide PD, subject-specific (curriculum) PD, and personal PD, which included contributing to a teacher’s attendance at conferences as well as tertiary studies. The Communities of Schools movement and the Education Council’s interpretation of their own diagram, has omitted to explore the responsibility component of the above quadrant.
So, I would say, take care, school leaders. Remove teacher initiative and choice from Professional Development programmes and funding and suffer the consequences in teacher buy-in and student outcomes.
Do you really want self-responsibility AND shared/joint responsibility or are you inviting PD box-ticking for teacher registration purposes?
Post Script: It was gratifying to read in today’s Herald a quote from Susan Warren, Comet Auckland’s chief executive. The article quotes Susan saying that the new Communities of Learning have taken control of teacher professional development.