In the last decade many schools and colleges have introduced Professional Learning Communities and/or Supported Experiments cycles, as vehicles for teachers to reflect on research and practice, explore new approaches, experiment in their classrooms, collaborate and share what they learn from that process. After supporting over fifty projects to set up and embed such models in schools and colleges, I have noted that certain conditions seem to enable them to flourish. Without these conditions, which are all related to different kinds of space, these initiatives often struggle in the initial stages or have limited impact as they simply lack space to take root and grow. In my experience as a project planner, coach and trainer, it is worth reflecting in context before embarking on PLCs, Supported Experiments or action research cycles and discussing your responses to these questions:
1.What kind of space are you hoping to create within the existing culture by introducing PLCs, Supported Experiments or wider action research cycles?
In some settings this is about fostering teacher ownership for professional learning; in others it is more about encouraging innovation in TLA practices; sometimes it is an explicit move towards a cultural change in collaborative practices and the way people communicate with each other at work. Reflecting on and discussing the differing visions for this work helps you put an appropriate plan in place to realize them.
2.Which physical and virtual spaces can be harnessed for collaboration, sharing and reflection on the methods and practices that are being explored?
These can include online areas with research and resources, communication tools such as Zoom or Skype, TLA base rooms or coaching hubs in schools/colleges. It is of great benefit to participants if these channels of communication and areas for resource storage are planned in at the early stages of the PLC process, so they can be accessed throughout and added to as the work evolves.
3.Where is the space in the working day for people to be able to collaborate in PLCs and on Supported Experiments or action research? How can time be set aside and protected so that the process can come to life?
This requires commitment and planning at management level to identify slots in which PLCs or experimental practice groups can meet. The critical role of senior leadership in enabling and prioritizing this cannot be underestimated. Positive and decisive leadership makes a massive difference to how extensively teachers can engage in these professional learning processes. Middle managers also play a key role in keeping this work visible and building its momentum within curriculum areas/teams and I have written about how they can do this in the blog post below:
I have seen how powerful it is to ring-fence a team meeting slot every three or four weeks, allocate time on staff development day each term and commit a slot each week on the calendar where staff are not teaching and are involved in developmental activities. These spaces allow activity to take place and momentum to build around innovation and collaborative practice, for the benefit of staff and learners. In organizations where time is not allocated and protected, I see facilitation/coaching teams struggling to bring staff together and keep the conversation going about the work, despite their desire to do so. Time to talk and think together is a vital ingredient in dynamic, vibrant professional learning as people connect with each other and develop their thinking and practices through dialogue.
4.Who has the expertise to build reflective, safe spaces in which staff can explore new approaches, raise issues and challenges and feel supported to move out of their own comfort zones?
Without these kind of spaces being created in PLCs, the depth and reach of the developmental work can be limited. This often means looking at the human resources available and their respective skill sets, e.g. Advanced Practitioners, TLA Coaches, Learning Mentors and Teacher Educators. A key question is how much space they have to accommodate the facilitation role within the PLCs as part of their current role and timetable.
5.How will that facilitation/coaching space and time be resourced or recognized as well as defended against all the other competing demands at work?
Many organizations develop capacity for peer coaching as part of their experimental practice process and I am often invited to train up teachers in peer coaching and reflection skills so that they can facilitate conversations with colleagues in engaging and thoughtful ways. This is a really exciting and positive model for extending the pool of staff with developmental expertise within the organization and for providing an option for role development outside the rigid structures in many settings. Resourcing and recognizing the contribution of these staff members requires thought and planning from the outset if goodwill is not to be stretched too far. If they are receiving remitted time, this needs to be honoured, respected and communicated from the initial planning stage and onwards throughout the process. If honorarium payments or other incentives related to time off in lieu are being offered, there needs to be commitment to these, showing that this contribution is valued. For me, the respect for developmental work, the valuing of its contribution to positive culture creation and quality improvement need to be shown through actions to support the work to flourish, starting from the top of the organization and enabled at all levels.
6.Where is the space for capturing the learning journey and disseminating reflections, new practices, research and resources from the PLCs?
It is important to think about whether this is a virtual space for storage of case studies, posters and classroom resources or whether informal or more structured events will play a role in this sharing process. In some settings, I have seen a lack of focus on capture and dissemination of what has been learned and I think this is a lost opportunity. Learning fairs, “show and tell” events and TLA festivals allow teachers to consolidate their own learning via articulating it to peers and many teachers have told me that attending such events has sparked new exploration in their own practice afterwards.
7.Are we ready to commit time, effort and skills to help this work to flourish?
In my experience, Professional Learning Communities and Supported Experiments can be really valuable as models for engaging teachers with relevant, motivating development that emerges from their work with learners. Without addressing the questions above through dialogue and committed action plans it is hard to create the spaces for them to flourish.