How do teachers learn to become members of a professional community that improve student learning? As mentioned previously, ongoing conversations and observations of teaching practice with colleagues, through the lens of inquiry, is a crucial step. Developing skills of adaptive expertise and letting go of the idea that honing on and improving professional practice is not a sign of weak teaching, are also important.
A professional learning community refers to a group of educators working together to learn about their practice for the purpose of improving student learning (Stoll, Fink & Earl, 2003). Within these communities, Stoll, Fink and colleagues refer to learning becoming “a collective enterprise that ensures individual learning adds up to a coherent whole, driven by high quality pupil learning as its fundamental purpose (Timperley, 2011). The result of these attitudes towards teaching is that it becomes community property, visible not only to the teachers and students themselves, but also to the wider community and to the scholarly community, where teaching needs to be viewed through more of a scholarly window.
What does it look like? Sharing documentation with colleagues:
Focusing the documentation
- Review a lesson or recurring classroom routine or activity such as a student feedback session, preparation and presentation of a project or report, or group work.
- Explore a question about teaching and learning (How are students making sense of a concept? What are the strengths and challenges of group work in your classroom?)
- Determine the impact of an activity or lesson on student learning, attitudes, or behavior
Collecting the documentation
- Think ahead to the moment when the activity, routine, demonstration of understanding, or other behavior is most likely to occur
- Decide on the documentation tools you will use (camera, notebook, tape recorder, video camera)
- Arrange to have a parent, colleague, or student help you document or watch the rest of the class while you document
- Focus on capturing the thinking and activity of one small group rather than trying to document multiple groups
Shaping the documentation to share with colleagues
- Select photographs, video-clips, and/or excerpts from your notes or recordings that relate to your inquiry.
- Be sure to include enough material for a group to engage in a meaningful conversation, but not so much that there isn’t time to both look at and discuss.
- Put documentation into an easily shareable format.
Discussing the documentation
- What are students learning and understanding?
- What are the key concepts or skills the students are working on?
- What evidence do you see of student learning?
How is the group learning?
- How do the interactions or conversations among students help them learn or make learning more difficult? (Consider size and composition of the group, the language and strategies used, the roles students take, and what they choose to share with each other.)
- When does one person’s thinking seem to affect the thinking of another or the whole group?
- What does the documentation suggest about creating better conditions (physical space, time materials, nature of the task, etc.) for learning in groups?
Where do you go next?
- What might you try next to deepen or extend students’ thinking or learning?
- What might be the value of sharing some or all of this documentation, and perhaps your own reflections, with the students? What might you select and how might you frame it?
- What is still puzzling or interesting to you after viewing the documentation? (Reeves, 2008)
Treating teaching as community property not only contributes to improved student learning, it also legitimizes teachers as members of a scholarly community who analyze and contribute to their profession on a regular basis. The way teaching is treated is removed from a community of scholars. There are three strategies that would aid in this transformation:
- Reconnecting teaching to the disciplines: Institutional support for teaching and improvement usually resides in a university where teachers are trained and faculty – regardless of department – can go for help in improving their practice. It’s a perfectly fine idea, except it conveys a message that teaching is generic, technical and a matter of performance; that’s it’s not part of a professional community – it’s something general you lay on top of what you really do as a scholar in a discipline.
- If teaching is going to be community property, then it must be made visible through artifacts that capture its richness and complexity. In the absence of such artifacts and documentation, teaching is a bit like dry ice; it disappears at room temperature. Scholarship in fields of study such as medicine doesn’t dispute the importance of documenting and recording findings. The same approach should be lent towards teaching as well.
- If teaching is considered community property, it must then be open to peer review: Research papers and other documents of teaching have a value, and therefore, an obligation exists to judge it. This is for the progression of the field itself. Evaluations, whether negatively or positively received, have important ramifications for legitimizing teaching as a scholarly endeavor. Teaching then gets treated more seriously, more systematically, and becomes central to the lives of individual faculty and institutions. It also results in procedures from which faculty are likely to learn how to teach better (Shulman, 1993).
What are some of the practices within professional learning that need to take place for this to happen? First of all, there has to be support from individual teachers, group and whole schools that professional learning must be targeted towards learning and school improvement. Teachers’ professional learning plans, and particularly, the teaching practices that are the focus of these plans, should be made public. This way, teachers with a common learning focus can support each other within a professional learning community, and those who may be using a certain practice effectively can share what they’ve learned. These learning plans should also be created to capitalize on specified learning goals and draw on specific teaching skills through effective, targeted professional learning. The plans should be reported on and reviewed regularly (Fullan, 2013).
Essentially, direct observations of the professional practices of teachers by teachers must become the new foundation of professional learning. Colleagues, classroom experience and students are a teacher’s key influences (Reeves, 2008). “Teachers must be high-level knowledge workers who constantly advance their own professional knowledge as well as that of their profession” (Schleicher, 2012, p.11).