Source: Professional Development in Education, Vol. 37, No. 4, September 2011, 513–535.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
The objective for this study was to gain new knowledge about the experience of teachers in the early stage of professional learning community (PLC) development.
Specifically, this study sought answers to the following questions:
(1) What are the thoughts and feelings of school personnel in the early stages of a school change process intended to transform the school’s adult culture into a PLC?
(2) What implications do the identified thoughts and feelings carry for the actions of school leaders and external change agents invited by school leaders in cultivating PLCs?
From spring 2008 to spring 2009, the administrative team of an urban/suburban public high school in the northeastern United States engaged in a process to establish faculty ‘study groups’ for the purpose of building a professional community of learners.
The goals of the study group initiative align partially with the characteristics of PLCs as defined in the theoretical frame for this study.
Methods and data sources
During May and June 2009, researchers assembled three focus groups of three to four teachers each and, employing a semi-structured protocol, asked them questions about their thoughts and feelings regarding the introduction of PLC work.
A total of 11 teachers took part.
Three findings emerge from the data.
First, PLC practices are countercultural to mainstream teacher practice.
The comparison of conventional school culture and the culture of the PLC shows that conventional schools are dominated by procedural thinking at all levels, short-term goals, isolated teacher practice and the absence of shared vision or shared responsibility.
PLCs, in contrast, focus relentlessly on teaching and learning through efforts infused with inquiry, critical thinking, long-term aspirations, and shared vision and responsibility.
Hence, school leaders and external change agents introducing PLCs in mainstream schools must approach the work not as a technical task but as cultural transformation.
Second, group facilitation skill is a crucial leadership attribute for the effective cultivation of a PLC.
The authors argue that both educational leaders and institutions that prepare educators and educational leaders should consider featuring facilitation skills prominently in educator preparation programs and ongoing professional learning initiatives.
Third, to be effective, PLC cultivation must be perceived not as an end-to-itself, but as the means to a clearly identified, shared, and compelling goal for student learning.
The authors explain that the PLC describes an adult culture that supports student learning.
Adult culture is the means; student learning is the end.
Reminding ourselves that the goal of all this angsty activity by the adults is to improve student learning may shed some light.
Otherwise, the PLC work could be easily dismissed as the usual professional development noise interfering with the daily work of teachers in classrooms.
Alternatively, the PLC work could be understood as a professional development option that might appeal to some teachers and not others.
The authors claim that as long as PLC work is perceived by teachers as a professional development option that they may choose to embrace or ignore, then systemwide change is unlikely to occur.
They suggest that by establishing an urgent cause, the leader may then offer assistance to the staff in addressing the problem in the form of an initiative to cultivate collaborative reflective practice with the goal of transforming the school into a PLC.