School Improvement Episode 10: Effective professional learning communities

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Jo Earp: By building strong professional learning communities (PLCs) school leaders can improve not only the quality of teaching, but also student outcomes. So, what does an effective PLC look like and how do you go about building one? My guest is Dr Lawrence Ingvarson, a Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). He's developed ACER's Professional Learning Community Framework (PLCF). The framework covers five key domains: professional culture; leadership; a focus on student learning, wellbeing and engagement; a focus on improving professional knowledge and practice; and teachers who think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.

JE: So, Dr Lawrence Ingvarson, welcome to Teacher magazine. You've said a professional learning community should be ‘a way of life and not an add-on program'. What do you mean by that?

Lawrence Ingvarson: I mean that a professional community is about the way in which staff members work together normally, it's the habitual ways of working, it's the ordinary way of life. It's not an additional program …

The important point to remember about a professional community is that at its heart, it's a community guided by professional values, it's about the way people work together, particularly an emphasis on collaboration in work, particularly an emphasis on acceptance of a mutual responsibility to review one's practice in the light of research and feedback.

It's about how and when teachers find ways to … I like the expression ‘working shoulder to shoulder', where teachers quite often decide to plan together and to review their work together, to gather good data about students and how they're going.

I also often recommend to schools when they're interested in moving towards a more professional culture, quite simply think about: How can we simply improve the frequency, and the quality of conversations that teachers have about their work, about their students' learning? Particularly conversations where what's on the table in a conversation is examples of students' work, or examples of students' progress so that concrete things are guiding the discussion.

It can be fatal to set up professional learning teams and the team sits around the table and says ‘well, what's the agenda? Where are we going?'. A professional community is guided by a very strong set of professional values and the heart of those values is ‘what can we do together to ensure that we offer a high quality education for our students?'.

JE: Now, you've also said that ‘A professional learning community that leads to continuous improvement in teaching practices and student outcomes does not just happen.' So, can you take us through some of the elements of effective leadership in PLCs?

LI: Well, effective leadership – what is leadership? Leadership is making things happen in a sense. Leadership is saying ‘I mean it', ‘We're going to do this' … ‘This is what I value' (this may be a principal or school leaders), ‘This is what we value'. You've got to get that shared vision and you've got to work very hard at that, but there must be that commitment. But then the second stage of good leadership is ‘Well, how are we going to make this work?'. That's when you become very democratic. So, leadership is about mobilising groups of people in a collaborative effort to improve opportunities for student learning.

… Leadership is a characteristic of the group. A professional community is an accountable community, but it's an accountability to each other. [At the heart of that] is putting the interests of the clients first – how well are we serving the interests of our kids? But also hard questions like: Are you keeping up with research in your teaching area? What can we do here to encourage more leadership amongst ourselves? What can we do to encourage connections to best practice elsewhere?

It's very important in a professional community that we see that leaders are, wherever possible, promoting professional learning in their group, they're promoting opportunities to take on leadership roles, they are models themselves of people who keep up with research, that they encourage people and expect people to themselves keep up with research in their area of practice.

JE: At the individual level, at the teacher level, it's very much about a shared understanding, a shared vision and working together?

LI: Absolutely. I would say one of the biggest challenges we face is it's not that we don't know what good practice is, it's that we're not very good at ensuring widespread use of proven, successful practices, research-based practices.

We know a lot about the structure of accomplished teaching, it's pretty basic you know – you know your kids well, you're taking the trouble to find out where they are and understand what their current situation is, and you plan goals that are matched to those needs, you select suitable activities to help them and then you assess … it all hangs together like that in accomplished teaching. That's what you want to see.

So, you want to encourage widespread use of successful practices. You need standards, that's the purpose of the standards, but a professional community also needs ways of … promotion. Where all teachers are encouraged, have the incentives, to move towards those standards and again recognition. So, a strong professional community is a community based not on years of teaching, but it's based on expertise. It's a community based on the idea that everyone continues to learn how to teach and improve their teaching. But you need to make the career structure, pay scales and things like that, consistent with that. That you're willing to give recognition and rewards for evidence of reaching high standards.

JE: There's lot of detail in the framework that we've been talking about today – there are rubrics and indicators for each domain and you've broken down those five areas. And we've only touched on a very small part of that today. So, for teachers and leaders listening to this who want to find out more and set things in motion hopefully in their own schools, what can they do?

LI: Well, first of all what I'd recommend is that they sit down with the staff with the framework and get a clear understanding of the domains. But then it's important for schools to get some sort of feedback on where they stand in relation to the characteristics of a professional community.

… We provide a link to an online survey that principals can pass onto staff, they complete the online survey and we provide a report very quickly (within a week or so) based on the results of that survey. Schools are saying that that feedback is not only useful but extremely useful. Because it's on all of those domains to do with how well teachers currently work together, questions like ‘are we all pulling in the same direction?', questions about leadership ‘is the leadership really providing a strong, shared vision?', the extent to which they focus on student learning.

I think it's particularly important, there's a domain to do with professional learning and that gives schools a very good idea of ‘the extent to which staff members feel that, as a result of working in this school I am improving my teaching'.

And the last domain [has] got a focus on performance and development culture, in the sense of annual reviews. To what extent are teachers actually getting really good feedback about their teaching? (from other teachers, from students, from parents)? How well is the process of teachers reviewing their practice ­– annual performance reviews – how well is that system working within the school?

So, once the schools get the report – we provide a report with commentary on the survey results – then we open up discussion, we try to be useful in where to next. But school leaders usually have a pretty good idea of what needs to be worked on once they've got the survey result, because the results are very specific and particular.

Now, what's also very useful – many school leaders want to measure progress. And so some schools are taking on the professional community framework and questionnaire, getting the reports, in the expectation that in a year's time they will do it again. So, they are very interested to measure progress.

Some principals of course, school leaders, are looking for recognition themselves and [the framework and questionnaire] is a way that they can provide evidence that their leadership is making a difference in very specific ways.

JE: But, it all starts there with the Professional Learning Community Framework and we'll put the links on our site. For now, Dr Lawrence Ingvarson, thanks for sharing your expertise with Teacher magazine.

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When discussing student learning with teaching colleagues what do you base the conversations on? Do you use concrete examples of student work and teaching practice?

As a school leader, how do you keep abreast of research in your area of practice and how do you encourage others in your professional community to do the same?

How often do you reflect on your own practice and discuss this with colleagues? How do these discussions inform your future practice?