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Professional Learning Communities that Reach Outside the School

Posted Jan 07 2009 6:27pm


Over on Dangerously Irrelevant Scott links to the latest version of the National Staff Development Council Standards or Staff Development   which notes, effective staff development:


  • has small groups of educators working together over time in professional learning communities;
  • is based on principles of effective adult learning; and
  • deepens educators’ content knowledge.

According to the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory,

The term professional learning community describes a collegial group of administrators and school staff who are united in their commitment to student   learning. They share a vision, work and learn collaboratively, visit and review   other classrooms, and participate in decision making (Hord, 1997b). The benefits   to the staff and students include a reduced isolation of teachers, better informed   and committed teachers, and academic gains for students. Hord (1997b) notes,   "As an organizational arrangement, the professional learning community is seen as a powerful staff-development approach and a potent strategy for school change and improvement.

Diversity_2Human Capital and Creativity

The demands of the 21st Century has created a need for schools to become learning organizations that focus on developing human capital and creativity in their teachers to prepare them for changing the educational landscape. Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline describes a learning organization as a place "where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together" (Senge,1990,p. 3). Unfortunately, most schools simply aren't there.

Wisdom of the Teacher
Roland Barth dares to discuss "the elephant in the room" a  recent Educational Leadership article (March 2006)  by which he means the various ways educators compete with and isolate themselves from one another. "Relationships among educators within a school range from vigorously healthy to dangerously competitive. Strengthen those relationships, and you improve professional practice."  One way to strengthen relationships is through meaningful collaboration around a common task or shared vision.

School culture is such that it often under utilizes and underestimates the wisdom of teachers in terms of school improvement and school reform. Rather than create professional development experiences that tap what teachers know and help them to develop their professional voice, teachers are often removed from the decision making process that directly affects classroom practice and professional growth opportunities.

Images However, through networks—both physical and virtual— teachers are beginning to draw on external communities that promote divergent thinking. Some of these virtual networks develop into powerful learning communities that connect the ideas of educators from around the world as they explore together and push traditional education boundaries.

Relationships are Key to Change
Collegiality builds relationships. I personally belong to several of these external virtual learning communities and value the relationships I have cultivated there. For example, as Steve Dembo demonstrates within the twitter community there is a great deal for educators to learn from each other. Often, someone will throw out a need, only to have it met within minutes by several different members of the community. Though twitter we laugh together and sometimes offer prayer and words of encouragement- all part of the trust building that occurs in a community of practice. I also am a part of several Ning communities, Tapped In communities, Flickr groups, listservs, and the edublogospshere. All having their own flavor of community and each helping me to grow in my knowledge and further refine my online voice.

ChainSomething Seems to Be Missing
What is lacking though is the link from my external community to the  professional learning communities in schools. Teachers need to experience the same kind of collegiality within PLCs made up of their on site colleagues as they do out on the Web. Virtual learning communities can work just as well as a tool that connects colleagues who are together under the same roof as it does to bring educators together from around the world.

PD providers in a school or district should consider using virtual learning communities as a way to allow for anytime, anyplace development of personal learning networks. Teams of teachers within a school could collaborate and learn together with other diverse thinking educators from around the world. This type of professional learning community would allow for job embedded professional development that was shaped from a global perspective. In this setting, teachers could develop a change agent perspective and a voice in educational reform.

Change vs Control
This of course is very scary stuff for traditional education, steeped in the formal structures of the past. If teachers know how to lead, how to be effective in evoking change, then that creates problems. Teachers start asking questions. Things get messy. We awaken the sleeping giant and change is no longer incremental and controllable.

I use to say, "Change takes time." Well look around you, change no longer takes time, in fact change is happening at exponential rates. The challenge is to adapt to the rapid pace of change before as an institution we find ourselves irrelevant in the lives of the students we seek to help.

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