Professional Learning Communities
The purpose of this paper is to discuss professional development for K-12 teachers. The narrative will discuss professional learning communities and highlight their potential benefit for teacher growth and improving student achievement. Professional learning communities may help teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms.
Teachers are often central targets for educational reform efforts. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) created federal pressure on schools to improve student achievement. Watson (2006, p. 155) states that “using technology effectively in the classroom is also a major thrust of the NCLB.” Teacher’s technological competency varies for various reasons including the quality of the technology classes in their university education programs. The literature reveals that technology training will improve teacher skills and enable them to use computer technologies in their classes. Unfortunately, weak or nonexistent professional training hinders integration of technology into daily instruction (Watson, 2006).
School based professional development programs have been characterized as disjointed and ineffective (Schlager & Fusco, 2003).The programs are not able to connect with teacher practices because of weak and misaligned pedagogical content. Limited school resources (e.g. not enough staff) can make it difficult to support technology training (Fullan, 2007). The lack of coordination of efforts and inconsistent planning among staff development providers can create gaps and redundancies in training (Schlager & Fusco, 2003).
Teachers can be ambivalent toward using computers in their classes. Internet oriented lessons represent potential ethical issues such as student plagiarism. Working with youth, colleagues and administrators who are more technology literate can make teachers uncomfortable being around others with more expertise (McGrail, 2005). Those who desire to acquire new technological skills and knowledge can become frustrated with local school staff development programs that fail to meet their needs (Schlager & Fusco, 2003). The organizational culture of schools reveals major barriers to implementing changes and providing effective professional growth opportunities. School cultures can be resistant to change. It is difficult to foster professional relationships when there is a lack of trust. Teachers are hesitant to critique their colleagues’ practices. In fact, some teachers struggle at times reflecting on their own educational philosophy and methods. Schlager & Fusco (2003) attribute the reluctance to reflect on teaching practices due to three issues: a close connection to their personal identity, culture built on privacy and missing reflective skills.
McGrail’s (2005) highlights how teacher attitudes toward instructional technologies can be an important factor that influences whether technologies will be used in classrooms. Levin & Wadmany (2008) identifies an assortment of teacher attitudes that impact technology adoption plans: positive or negative experiences with technologies, general attitudes toward making school changes and the level of openness to change their teaching methods and philosophy of education. Hopefully, teachers who have had negative technological experiences will consider participating in learning communities which can offer support and encouragement. Professional learning communities can promote technology skills and develop innovative teaching methods and practices that improve student learning. Reform advocates and professional organizations
The absence of trust between K-12 educators and their administrators can make it difficult to establish professional learning communities in schools. Schools who are experiencing major problems with professional trust will struggle to make significant changes necessary for development and implementation of vibrant learning communities. Teachers need the support of their administrators to start and sustain learning communities. Fullan (2005) recommends creating learning communities that can address serious issues. Educators must have a sense of security when exploring practices that have an assortment of academic and ethical implications. Principals should show empathy when relating to teachers who are working under difficult environments while affirming high instructional and ethical standards. “Schools that promote trust in this way are more likely to motivate people all around, and in turn more likely to do better” (Fullan, 2005, p. 50). Professional relationships should be characterized by dignity, trust and respect. This requires having principals and teachers working together with a shared vision and striving to build trust within their schools.
Professional learning communities provide a support system that can encourage teachers to create individual technology improvement plans. Individual plans should be based on need assessment surveys that help establish the priority of learning needs. The surveys help individuals have a clear picture of their current use of technology applications. School leaders can use the surveys to identify faculty needs. Common obstacles to using instructional technology involve the lack of computer software and hardware, limited understanding of the technologies and inadequate computer training (Levin & Wadmany, 2008).
Besnoy (2007) recommends that individual technology improvement plans should include measurable competency objectives, short and long term goals and foster collaboration. The actual goals could involve learning basic software programs (e.g. Power Point) and creating technology based lesson plans. Teachers will have training constraints based on the available technology resources within their schools. Those who invest time sharing and working with their colleagues will be able to enhance their abilities to implement technology based learning experiences.
The ability to implement and sustain professional learning communities in schools faces several major challenges. Fullan (2005, p. 10) notes that “…a growing problem in large-scale reform; namely, the terms travel well, but the underlying conceptualization and thinking do not.” Schools can claim having professional learning communities but fail to sustain a culture where knowledge sharing is a reality. Administrators and teachers have busy and demanding daily schedules will be challenged by any professional growth initiative. Professional learning communities could clash with school cultures that are resistant to making changes. Educators must be willing to make learning communities and technology integration higher priorities in their work schedules. (DeFour, Eaker & DuFour, 2005).
Professional learning communities can play a major role in addressing the standards and accountability concerns found in the No Child Left Behind Act. Educators want autonomy in their daily work but it has often undermined collaboration and fosters a solitary instructional approach. In contrast, educators working together on school improvement projects can affirm the values of autonomy, collaboration and mutual accountability. This approach enables teachers to develop a set of standards that are relevant, focused and integrated with effective classroom assessment. The excessive attention on testing has missed a major problem that students are actually being “under-assessed” (Reeves, 2005 p. 46). Students are not being effectively evaluated which creates flaws in the design and delivery of educational programs.
Popham (2001) wants teachers to examine their assessment procedures and practices. The student-centered model of learning encourages teachers to view their students as academic partners who work together to produce meaningful learning experiences. Boud (1995) related “they will need to become researchers of student perceptions, designers of multifaceted assessment strategies, managers of assessment processes and consultants assisting students in the interpretation of rich information about their learning” (p. 42). Learning communities can help develop assessment methods that involve using Internet search engines to cultivate critical thinking and problem solving skills. Dykstra (2008) offers insights into using case studies that require research to develop written student reports. This is an example of how computer technologies can be integrated into daily instructional activities.
Professional learning communities offer a format that gives educators the opportunity to share with their colleagues what are the most important skills and knowledge that students need for being successful in their next grade. Teachers can design relevant lesson plans and wisely devote their time to what are considered curriculum priorities. An excellent assessment exercise is to retrieve one student assignment involving technology work from each teacher in a grade level and delete the grades and comments from the assignments. Then, the faculty evaluates each assignment and assigns a letter grade. The faculty can compare their grades with the original ones to see if their grading practices are consistent (Reeves, 2005).
The assessment scenario is an illustration of how teachers can collaborate throughout the school year. DuFour (2005) describes a group of elementary language art teachers in Franklin County, Virginia who are using learning communities. Teachers began their project by becoming familiar with curriculum standards at the district, state and national levels. The joint study enabled the teachers to understand the student achievement standards. Teachers created design teams who formulated a series of assessment activities that were based on standards and district goals. Team members established evaluation criteria which help promote grading consistency and personal ownership of the process. Teachers meet throughout the year which provides opportunities to analyze student achievement and consider ways to refine their assessment procedures. The constant knowledge sharing helps foster a school culture built around collaboration and removed barriers to implementing the curriculum. Teacher morale improves when teachers themselves are trusted to shape instructional plans. The school climate evolves into a place that energies teachers and improves the quality of education (Fullan, 2005).
Schlager & Fusco (2003) argue for aligning professional development programs with teachers who develop social networks. The learning communities meet for a specific purpose and time duration. Well designed activities encourage collegial relationships, mentoring and professional growth. Teachers become change agents because their participation in team projects can provide them insights and positive experiences to start individual professional projects. Learning communities have the potential to generate educational changes within schools. Roger’s (2003) model of innovative-decision process that involved five major stages: “knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation and confirmation” (p. 169). The model reflects a realization that genuine educational changes must evolve over time and requires having leaders who understand how to advocate and guide the change process. Learning communities can cultivate leadership and technological expertise that are essential for changing organizational cultures. Teachers can work with the professional development staff to design technology training for workshops, small group meetings and individual mentoring (Leh, 2005). The diversity of training formats helps meet a diversity of technological needs. The goal should be to creatively develop plans that enable teachers to have the most effective training (DuFour, 2005).
Eason-Watkins (2005) discusses how monthly professional development meetings for principals can help increase leadership capacity for change. In Chicago Public Schools, principals would meet on a regular basis to share insights from research literature on teaching and leadership. The meetings focused on improving the principals’ knowledge of curriculum issues and promote innovative ways to support their teachers. Professional learning communities were used in the school district in the following ways (Eason-Watkins, 2005, p. 199):
The school leaders used computer software programs to help create more data driven decisions for administrators and teachers. The technology provides information on student achievement. Standardized test results were benchmarked against state and national standards. Educators used the information to modify their curriculum to make instructional adjustments. The entire process enabled teachers to improve their ability to meet student learning needs (Eason-Watkins, 2005).
There are practical ways to improve professional learning opportunities. Time can be built into the daily schedule for professional development. Teachers and principals can work together to develop learning communities that involve projects aimed at effectively using computers and other technologies (Wenglinsky, 2005). School tours can be another way to view learning from the student’s perspective and observe the areas that require professional training. Professional learning communities can use this information to create relevant short and long term action plans that address teacher and student needs. Principals can creatively use school tours to communicate with students, teachers and parents. For instance, one elementary principal conducted a school tour using a video recorder that kept a visual record of students and teachers working on various class projects. The principal created “...links to class resources, pictures, podcast interviews, information and reflection---to his blog on the district’s website” (Soule, 2008, p. 140). This example highlights how principals can use technology to communicate within their school, parents and local communities. Also, students and teachers appreciate the positive recognition which builds good will and trust within the school.
Larry Cuban relates that "US reformers have a tradition of overselling technology and under-using technological innovations" (Forum, 2008, p. 45). Cuban predicts technological changes will be incremental within schools due to teachers who view technology as a burden to their daily work. Professional learning communities can play an important role in helping integrate technology into their classrooms. Teachers can form teams involving teachers who have demonstrated creative instructional practices, mentor new faculty members and are willing to experiment with new technologies (e.g. innovators/early adopters, Rogers, 2003). Teachers can act in leadership roles that help reduce resistance toward technologies. For instance, teachers can develop a technology mentoring program that helps new teachers learn software programs such as electronic grade books. Principals can empower teachers by encouraging them to take on significant duties (Sergiovanni, 1987).
Face-to-face technology professional development activities can be supplemented with online community activities. The literature indicates that teachers appreciate the flexibility of sharing online and it can increase collaboration between teachers and between teachers and principals (Vavassaeur & MacGregor, 2008). The online setting enabled principals to have a social and cognitive presence with their teachers. The online format encouraged the discussion of technology issues related to sharing subject content with less emphasis on software. Teachers enjoyed the freedom to discuss different curriculum topics with others who were being challenged by similar technology issues. Vavassaeur & MacGregor’s (2008) research highlighted how principals used the online dialogs to listen to teachers and better understand their technological needs.
Online professional development is an innovative approach that requires further study. According to Sprague (2007, p. 147), there are four common learning theories that work in combination or singularly within online format:
Educators continue to investigate how the four learning theories will work when used in conjunction with different types of media arrangements such as interactive, synchronous or blended learning.
The subject of principals, learning communities and technology integration must involve a discussion of current leadership challenges. Principals are often considered by educational reformers as change agents but their job descriptions create constraints on this expectation (Fullan, 2007). However, principals play a vital role in providing the support for having successful learning communities which offer the potential to improve the quality of education. Sharing knowledge and practices enables teachers to devise authentic assessment techniques to meet curriculum standards, develop leadership skills, collaborate with principals and foster new online education networks. Professional learning communities represent an opportunity to integrate new technologies into schools and prepare students for working and learning in the Information Age.
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About the Author
Brent Muirhead has a BA in Social Work, Master's degrees in Religious Education, History, Administration and e-Learning, and Doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. & Ph.D.). Later this year, he will complete an MA degree in Computing in Education at The Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City.
Dr. Muirhead teaches a diversity of undergraduate and graduate level courses in Atlanta and online for the University of Phoenix. He trains new university faculty candidates and mentors doctoral students. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology and Society; Senior Online Editor of International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, and worked as a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland. He recently published A Reader in Online Education, a book that contains 37 of his journal articles on distance education.
Contact Dr. Muirhead at firstname.lastname@example.org
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