Professional Learning Communities for School Transformation

The role of the teacher is slowly but surely changing and with this come new challenges. Change becomes inevitable and processes for managing this and capitalising on the opportunities it brings becomes paramount within organisations. It is perhaps not surprising that educational institutions may evolve to become what are termed ‘Learning Organisations’ or ‘Professional Learning Communities’ within which there is a focus on the application of the principles of learning to manage change and explore new opportunities. The formation of 'Professional Learning Communities’ what they look like, how they function and the purposes that the best serve was the focus of the Hawker Brownlow conference in Melbourne.

The traditional model of a teacher in a classroom expertly meeting the needs of their students through a combination of personal passion and pedagogical craft is increasingly outdated and yet oddly persistent. It is a model that closes the individual off from the collaborative potential offered by a ‘Professional Learning Community’ (PLC). This isolationist view of education when faced with the rate of change presently resulting from technological evolution, societal change and a scientifically informed understanding of how we learn that emerges from improved brain science, leaves educators facing unassailable obstacles. A new model is required that allows the collective strength of the school to be brought to bear on the task of finding the most desirable solutions.

What a PLC offers is a way of understanding an organisation and an approach to problem solving within it. It identifies all of the individuals as learners and as such removes hierarchies of leadership structures. The goal within a PLC will be to learn together and in doing so solve the problems or maximise the opportunities that are found to exist. This brings about a new leadership model in which a vision is articulated but the specifics of how that vision is realised are allowed to be constructed through the learning journey of the PLC. Such a model brings a number of key advantages. It is highly motivational, giving individuals autonomy, purpose and opportunities to achieve mastery through learning and collaboration that traditional top down management strategies do not. (See Daniel Pink) It allows solutions to be built from the collective expertise of the organisation overcoming a reliance on the knowledge and wisdom of the senior leadership to solve the ‘Complex’ problems that organisations are increasingly likely to confront. It is a strategy that fits nicely with design thinking and encourages active engagement in a process of identifying problems or opportunities, imagining solutions, testing options and evaluating the results.

Through the conference I was struck by how the concept of a PLC fits with other ideas and models. Daniel Wilson’s research and suggestions for how organisations confront ‘Complex’ problems as opposed to the more regular day to day complicated problems particularly seemed to connect with the ideas presented across a number of sessions. Wilson describes three roles for leadership within organisations confronting ‘Complex’ problems, those where the very nature of the problem and its solution are unclear:

  1. Creating Vision - when dealing with complicated problems this involves defining and communicating the vision but when dealing with complex problems requires co-creation and for leadership to act as a change agent. Within a PLC this would be shaping the culture of the organisation so that the focus was on collaborative learning and problem finding/solving
  2. Developing People - when dealing with complicated problems this involves skill building and evaluation but when dealing with complex problems will require stimulating people towards growth and a culture that encourages experimentation. With this culture of experimentation must come a tolerance of failure. The PLC with its focus on learning would provide an ideal structure to support the development of people for the solution of 'Complex’ problems.
  3. Designing structures - when dealing with complicated problems involves establishing conditions for cooperative progress but when dealing with complex problems requires collaborative innovation. The PLC can be seen as ideal structure as it is focused on a learning process with known phases and elements. To this end a PLC could provide the sort of structure that according to Ewan Macintosh is offered by Design Thinking. In both ‘Design Thinking and PLC the ‘Complex’ problem with its inherent uncertainty and lack of definition is attacked by a structured approach which supports creativity. The idea is that the more uncertainty in the problem and as its solution demands ever greater levels of creativity the more structure is required to solve it.

The PLC model should fit effectively with organisational drives to become innovative and with that to experiment with new untested ideas. In the tech world of Facebook and Google innovation drives success and the willingness to ‘move fast and break things’ allows new ideas to be tried and just as quickly abandoned. It is a process of making mistakes and learning from those mistakes what works and what does not. Schools are less willing to engage in this process and in many respects are risk adverse. Despite this failure is unavoidable and organisations need to be able to learn from their failures. According to Cannon and Edmondson 'Most organizations do a poor job of learning from failures, whether large or small. In our research, we found that even companies that had invested significant money and effort into becoming ‘learning organizations’ (with the ability to learn from failure) struggled when it came to the day-to-day mindset and activities of learning from failure.’ (Cannon & Edmondson. 2005 p301) A culture that embodies a PLC should also embrace the notion of learning from failure and seek to address the three processes identified in 'Failing to Learn and Learning to Fail’ of 'identifying failure, analyzing failure, and deliberate experimentation.’ (Cannon & Edmondson. 2005 p300) That such an ideal fits so closely with the trend towards developing ‘Growth Mindsets’ within schools should speed its uptake.

This fits very well with Colin Sloper’s discussion of ‘Transformative Leadership in a PLC’. Colin calls for a relentless focus on developing the capacity of educators within schools as an essential goal for leadership. This focus on learning goes beyond the provision of traditional professional development experiences. Within a PLC the goal is to use a learning model to identify and collaboratively solve the problems confronting individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole. Traditional professional development models assume the solution is known and that it is possible to transfer the method of solving the problem from one person to another. In a PLC an action research model is much more likely to be employed as the way towards capacity building. Learners actively engage with the process and with agency and ownership collaborative learning is empowered. Professional Development within a PLC is anchored in the daily practice of the school, is likely to be peer led and will be personally relevant to the environment it is targeted at and developed within.

Tonia Flanagan addressed the fine art to leading teacher learning in her session on Day Three. She outlined the seven qualities of high reliability leadership and it can be seen how this fits into a PLC model. High reliability leadership is defined as:

  • Having a purpose bigger than the individual leader
  • Possessing and articulating core beliefs
  • Engaging in critical conversations - provocative conversations
  • Remaining centred in crisis
  • Possesses the courage to act - to avoid decision paralysis when decisions bring unavoidable and challenging consequences
  • Developing a succession plan to ensure the organisation can continue to thrive after your time of leadership
  • Embodying the power of positivity

If a PLC is to genuinely thrive it requires high reliability leadership as these attributes are essential to creating a culture of collaborative learning within an organisation. It is a leadership style that establishes the broad vision for the organisation as one that desires to learn and that does so within a set of guiding beliefs. The manner in which leadership acts to establish the purpose and vision for the organisation is in itself a ‘Complex’ task as while it must be clear what the core purposes of the organisation are it must also be possible for elements of the organisations purpose to be influenced and constructed as a result of the actions of the members of its PLC.

In parallel to this story of evolving Professional Learning Communities was a story of evolving technology and with that new challenges and opportunities for learning. Eric Sheninger shared how schools he has led utilised the affordance of evolving technology to facilitate change. Sheninger showed how the effective use of technology can shift the focus away from the teacher as the locus of control within education onto the student. What becomes clear is that the learner of today has at their disposal a diverse set of tools that enable, empower, connect and extend their learning capacity. This immense and growing diversity of options presents challenges to teachers who persist with traditional models of classroom management and pedagogy. The challenge seems to require a desire to become aware of the opportunities available and the capacity to evaluate the benefits of each while maintaining a focus on the essential learning that the students require. The message is clear that technology should not take control of education but should allow us to achieve our goals with greater efficiency. To this end a Professional Learning Community offers real advantages as it distributes the learning across many and allows the best tools to be discovered and shared. This is a collaborative endeavor that technology can itself empower as we become connected educators. Where technology will challenge teachers more so than other domains is that it is highly likely our students will possess high level of knowledge. When we understand that our Professional Learning Community encompasses our students the knowledge base of our students in all areas and particularly around the use of technology becomes and asset. Some of the tools shared by Eric are presented in this post - Tools for sharing thinking

It is interesting to note that while much of the language used with PLCs is highly relevant to a school environment it is an idea with broad applicability. As we shift towards an innovation economy in which nations measure their success against their capacity to innovate on and benefit from the affordances of new technology learning should become a national priority. Learning to learn from our mistakes and our failures is essential for growth but it is also a necessary condition for innovation that we experiment with ideas even without assurances of success. Deliberate experimentation that goes hand-in-hand with learning is an approach that should make sense across industries and education’s prior-knowledge and experience with the process should make teachers prized assets to any organisation or economy.

By Nigel Coutts