Source: Teachers and Teaching, VOL. 23, NO. 3, 262–283, 2017
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
This study explores how professional learning communities (PLCs), an indicator of a supportive school environment, can enhance beginning teachers’ professional learning in differentiated instruction (DI). Furthermore, it examines how structural and cultural school conditions foster the development of PLCs in the schools’ organization.
This study was conducted in Flemish primary schools.
A comparative analysis was carried out in three schools with high (case A), medium (case B), and low (case C) levels of beginning teachers’ professional learning in DI, as assessed by changes in practice.
Semi-structured open-ended interviews were administered from the school leader, the special needs coordinator and two to three beginning teachers in the three schools.
The analysis indicated that the three cases could be situated at different stages of PLC development.
The authors can situate case C in the ‘beginning stage’. Firstly, teachers in this school talked most of the time about practical matters such as schedule lesson planning. Secondly, the members of the school team identified themselves with subgroups within a larger group and a sense of individualism was more present than group responsibility. The limited development of the PLC characteristics in case C is a clear indication why beginning teachers in case C did not feel supported in their DI learning.
Case B can be allocated to the ‘evolving stage’. Firstly, teachers discussed both practical issues and pedagogical didactics. Secondly, the special needs coordinator was involved in providing DI forms to beginning teachers. As such, schools in the evolving stage recognize that members of the teaching team can be resources for each other’s learning and teaching practice and are therefore aware of the fact that teachers’ intellectual growth is not an individual responsibility. The evolving PLC, established in case B, is reflected in the perceptions of the beginning teachers who indicated that the school policy staff within the PLC help them to professionalize in DI.
Case A can be assigned to the ‘mature stage’. Firstly, all members of the teaching team participated in discussing issues related to DI. Based on these results and the statement of the beginning teachers that diverse actions within the school team foster their professional learning in DI, the authors can conclude that case A is the school with the strongest learning environment for beginning teachers.
Furthermore, the authors found that more organizational structures were installed to stimulate PLC development and DI implementation in case A than in cases B and C. Case A is the only case who systematically installed organizational structures to facilitate DI implementation. The results also revealed that cultural school conditions play an essential role in increasing the social capacity of schools and developing PLCs. The process of creating a DI vision varied among the three cases. The results indicated that only in case A, the authors could identify initiatives to develop and maintain the DI vision. Furthermore, the findings showed evidence that when all teachers participated in the development of the school’s vision on DI, a stronger sense of collective responsibility toward students was developed.
Finally, the authors noticed that not all special needs coordinators were indicated as strong teacher leaders. Principals of cases A and B clearly indicated that the special needs coordinator had an expert role in supporting beginning teachers’ DI learning. In contrast, a person without DI expertise was appointed as a special needs coordinator in case C. Hence, members of the teaching team did not view this person as competent in supporting them in their DI professionalization. The results also showed that the principal’s leadership styles to elaborate structural and cultural school conditions differed strongly. The principal of case C scored low on the structural and cultural dimensions of leadership, whereas the principal of case B scored high on the structural aspects but moderately on the cultural aspects. The leadership of principal A scored high on both the structural and cultural dimensions.
This study has implications for policy-makers. The authors believe it is essential that schools consider to stimulate beginning teachers to have in-depth conversations with colleague teachers on how to use DI in the classroom. Furthermore, they recommend that school leaders thoughtfully decide who can fill in the position as a special needs coordinator. Finally, the authors argue that policy-makers need to be aware that PLCs can play a key role in teachers’ professional learning and may consider to include collegial dialogue as a formal part of teachers’ job description as well as to stimulate schools to programme scheduled planning time.