01 SES 01 B, Researching Professional Learning
This study explores the following research questions: (1) How did a teachers’ Professional Learning Community (PLC) develop as a community over time? (2) How did the facilitating teacher’s understanding of the PLC model and her role within it develop over time? (3) What were the learning outcomes of this PLC? (4) What contextual conditions and internal qualities contributed to or hindered participants’ professional development?
The purpose of the study was to trace the development of a school-based teachers’ PLC over three years. This objective is significant in view of the paucity of longitudinal studies that closely examine PLCs and findings that show that PLCs experience periods of learning and development, as well as setbacks and struggles (Brody & Hadar, 2018; Engeström & Sannino 2010). These need to be explored and better understood in order to plan and monitor effective teachers’ PLCs and better prepare PLC facilitators to their role.
Teachers’ PLCs consist of teachers who meet frequently and regularly aiming to improve participants’ professional knowledge and practice. In PLCs, teachers engage in an open, reflective and critical discourse through which their conceptualizations, practices and students’ outcomes are reviewed, and new ideas and understandings are developed. This form of active learning is in sharp contrast to other forms of professional development in which participants study “best practices” produced elsewhere and then try to implement them (Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace & Thomas, 2006). Over time, mutual consultation and support build trusting relationships that enable participants to share their concerns with each other and give them the confidence to expose their practices to critical scrutiny (Stoll at al., 2006). PLCs produce a unique repertoire of resources and products, such as conceptualizations, vocabulary, documents and practices. Interactions with non-members in the immediate school environment and beyond, provide the community important feedback about the quality of their repertoire and work (Wenger-Trayner, Fenton-O’Creevy, Hutchison, Kubiak & Wenger-Trayner, 2015).
Studies that examined the effects of teachers’ PLCs have found that they help teachers overcome their professional isolation and strengthen teamwork and members' sense of professional affiliation (DuFour, DuFour & Eaker, 2008). They contribute to teachers' knowledge and professional skills, and increase their sense of professional self-efficacy (Andrews & Lewis, 2007). PLCs encourage teachers’ adaptability and willingness to change (Huffman & Jacobson, 2003). Studies have also shown that PLCs are associated with improved student achievements (Akiba & Liang, 2016; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006).
In view of these findings, teachers’ PLCs became the “golden standard” of teachers’ professional development (DuFour, DuFour & Eaker, 2008). Teachers’ PLCs are consistent with the European Commission’s guiding principles (2018) that acknowledge teachers’ expertise and their contribution to developing the education system, and encourage professional working and learning cultures that motivate teachers and support their autonomy, reflection, and inquisitive stance. Nonetheless, PLCs’ success is far from being guaranteed. It is dependent to great extent on the role that leadership plays within it (Lieberman & Mace, 2009). Specifically, PLC facilitators’ leadership “builds collegial and collaborative relations […] promotes teacher learning and development […] [and] enables change in teachers’ teaching practices” (Hairon, Goh & Chua, 2015, 176).
Effective facilitators strike a balance between their own leadership and following participants’ initiatives and addressing their needs (Sjoer & Meirink, 2016). The current paper focuses on a single PLC’s developmental trajectory, examines the reciprocal relationships between the PLC and its facilitator’s professional growth, reviews the repertoire the PLC produced, and attempts to identify characteristics and contextual conditions that influenced them.
This is a longitudinal case study (Flyvbjerg 2011) following a single school-based PLC and its facilitator for three years. It started as a self-study (Vanassche & Kelchtermans, 2015) conducted by the facilitator, who is the third author that then evolved into a collaborative study. Participants: The participants are language teachers (all women) working in a special education school serving deaf students in Israel. The PLC was established as part of a nationwide initiative to allow school teachers participate in PLCs instead of in traditional professional development activities. The teachers chose to join the PLC voluntarily. There were 12 participants in the first year, 7 in the second and 5 in the third. The first two authors interviewed the 5 participants of the third year. They were asked why they decided to join the PLC, how they worked, what they have learned, significant events they remembered, their relationships with the facilitator and other participants, and their overall satisfaction with the PLC. The facilitator is an experienced language teacher from the same school. During the three years of the study, she participated in a facilitators’ PLC with other school-based PLC facilitators from the same city. She was also mentored one-on-one during the first two years. Documents: We used documentations made by the PLC facilitator throughout the three years of work: plans that she made before meetings, documented lessons and students’ work brought to meetings by participating teachers, facilitators’ documentations of meetings and reflections, participants’ documentations of their work in the community, and documents the PLC produced. Data analysis: Data was analyzed chronologically, one meeting after the other. For each meeting, we identified the topics that were discussed, and the documents that were used and produced. The facilitators’ documentations were the most detailed. We compared between these and other participants’ documentations and reflections in order to find out what questions and goals they had, and what they learnt and developed. In the next step, we identified turning points – critical incidents that changed the PLC’s activities as well as phases of incremental growth and continued work (Sikes, Measor & Woods, 1985). These enabled us to delineate the PLC’s professional development over time as well as that of the facilitator, and discover potentially influencing conditions. The documents the PLC produced for the use of others were considered as its repertoire. Finally, we triangulated our document- based findings with those of the interviews.
Both the facilitator and PLC changed over time. During the first year, the facilitator used a traditional approach, yet she was eager to transform her community into a fully-fledged PLC. At the beginning of the second year, she asked the participants what and how they needed to learn, thus changing the community’s modus operandi. The participants suggested studying their own practices by documenting and collaboratively analyzing them. They also wished to use their shared knowledge to create a database of lesson plans, because the existing ones were not suitable for deaf children. The facilitator realized the PLC needed to acquire documentation tools and frameworks for reflective analysis. However, soon after they started to document their work, two participants resisted. They suggested conducting interviews with deaf staff members and applying their insights while teaching. The facilitator agreed, but the initiative was dropped after three meetings, and the community continued examining documented practices. The resisting participants did not engage in any of these activities and left at the end of that year. From the end of the second year, the PLC produced an increasing number of documents: lesson plans, documentations and reflections, and developed its own conceptualizations and vocabulary. Some of the lesson plans are accessible for other teachers’ use. The professional development trajectories of the facilitator and PLC members were interconnected. In the beginning, only the facilitator documented her work, and planned future meetings based on her reflections on previous ones. Over time, other participants followed her example in documenting and reflecting on their work, produced larger parts of the PLC’s documents and shared PLC facilitation. The participants’ mutual trust and commitment contributed to the teachers’ professional development as well as teaching similar contents to similar groups of pupils. Internal resistance and lack of principal’s involvement hindered the PLC’s work.
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