Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Professional Learning Community: A passing fad, or something more?

In order to be current in their respective fields, all career professionals require some form of professional development. Physicians, law enforcement officials, and massage therapists all go through training or attend workshops that will help them become and stay effective in their positions. Educators are no different. They, too, attend trainings and workshops aimed at improving classroom effectiveness. For the past ten years or more, many schools have opted develop their staff by creating a professional learning community (also known as the PLC).  Many have considered the professional learning community the antidote to the one-and-done workshop model of professional development where some “more knowledgeable other” presents information and then teachers go back into their classrooms and do who-knows-what with it.

The PLC model of professional development calls for collaboration and cooperation among school staff. Depending on the school, the entire school community may be involved in professional learning, while in others, it may just be a team of teachers, or perhaps a mixture of teachers and administrators. These groups of professionals gather together for the purpose of learning and exploring together in order to ensure that students are in fact learning what is being taught. In order to be optimally effective, it is probably best that the whole faculty is included. Having the entire staff involved in a professional learning community is especially best when the school has to make school-wide changes, because it will be difficult to change organizational routines without changing the individuals within the organization, and that happens only when the school community comes together.

Just a fad?

Despite the obvious benefits that the professional learning community offer at the school level, there are certain groups of naysayers who are proposing that the PLC is a just a fad; some fancy newfangled idea that DuFour (rest in peace), a snake oil salesman, no doubt, has pedaled off to us. It takes no rocket science to figure out that the people who rail against the PLC model the most are the ones who have the most to lose by schools choosing the PLC model. That would be professional development organizations or even programs at local colleges and universities who all make their money from teachers who are mandated to acquire a particular amount of professional development hours in order to maintain their teaching certifications. These organizations don’t care if teachers really implement the techniques and strategies presented in the workshop. They don’t care if the students are actually learning. They aren’t invested in the teacher, or the students, or the school. They are invested in making their money.

Anyone who believes that the PLC model is a passing fad probably has not properly implemented it. At it’s core the professional learning community is reflection on teaching and learning. It is inquiry about data and best practices. According to John Dewey, reflection is the kind of thinking that consists of turning a topic over and over in the mind and giving it serious and ongoing consideration.  This is the kind of thinking that occurs in a properly facilitated professional learning community.

The professional learning community cannot just happen. The school that has a successful professional learning community must have a culture and climate that is open to inquiry, reflections, lifelong learning, and shared leadership. The leaders and administrators of the school must create a culture where the entire school participates in analyzing data and figuring out the implications for meaningful classroom instruction. Additionally, the school culture must be one of collaboration and cooperation. A school where teachers don’t hide behind closed doors, but instead invite in colleagues for feedback and suggestions. When teachers, experienced and novice alike, have opportunities for collaborative inquiry, reflection and the subsequent learning, the result is a body of wisdom about teaching and learning that could be widely shared.

Questions to consider

If the PLC is just a fad, then what would the alternative be? Would educators be forced to return to the traditional workshop model where some outside expert comes to espouse their wisdom? And if this is the case, can it really be considered professional development? Development is about growth and change. It’s about improvement. The professional learning community model of professional development allows for these. Through self-initiated, self-facilitated, and self-directed inquiry, research, and reflection, educators grow, change, and improve. Their classroom practices grow, change, and improve. And the atmosphere of the school, it’s culture and climate, grows, changes, and improves. Which traditional model of professional development can say they can do this on an individual, classroom, and school-wide level?


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