From the Head of Learning Plus and Education Support

Professional Learning Communities

This year, I was fortunate to engage in a new professional development opportunity, leading to my participation in a Professional Learning Team (PLT). PLTs allow teachers an opportunity to participate actively with one another and target their current student or classroom concerns. Teachers work collaboratively to find practical interventions for their students’ learning development. This type of professional development for teachers is fast becoming an international phenomenon and the research tells us it is beginning to transform teaching practice and student achievement (Mullen and Hutinger, 2008), (Peacock, 2013), (Marzano & Toth 2014), (Griffin 2017).

PLTs provided time for teachers to collaborate, reflect on practice, discuss student work, review research, make changes to their practice and ‘unfreeze assumptions’ about their teaching (Vanblare & Devos, 2017). Most importantly, it builds a learning community where knowledge and expertise is shared and recognised, building ‘collective responsibility’ in supporting students’ learning development and achievements across curricula.

So, why do Professional Learning Teams make such a difference?

Perhaps I can explain it by articulating what transpires when you gather together dedicated, passionate teachers to explore, reflect, and apply the most current evidence-based research their practice.

Early this year, I joined a very passionate group of St Catherine’s teachers under the leadership of Miss Kristy Forrest, a teacher taking postgraduate studies at Melbourne Graduate School. The breadth of experience and expertise in the team brought new and accomplished teachers together as one. We came from diverse departments across the Senior School, but we came together with a joint purpose. Improving our practice in order to improve student achievement. Miss Forrest provided the scaffold for our professional learning journey. We examined John Hattie’s research (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017), on Visible Learning. We examined the strategies that he found had the most impact on students’ achievement. Our approach was rigorous and scientific as recommended by educational researchers (Dunlosky, Rawson et al. 2013), (Ko and Sammons 2013), (Marzano and Toth 2014), (Muijs, Kyriakides et al. 2014), (Creemers and Kyriakides 2015), enuel 2014) (Riley 2016). The implementation of our nominated strategy was designed, from start to finish, prior to its implementation in our respective classes.

Discussion with colleagues assisted in navigating the latest research and then choosing the research strategy that best matched an identified need in our classes. What we recognised was that as we often taught the same students, hence all the strategies held relevance across our subjects. We shared our expertise and our experience, and we felt comfortable in sharing our practice within a supportive environment.

I chose to focus on student self-efficacy. Given some of my students present with very low self-esteem, my aim was to empower my students to recognise that there were things that they could do to improve their overall achievement. Five steps were devised, each step was broken into smaller steps. Once our teaching designs were completed, the PLT met to discuss, refine and tailor our respective strategies.

Back in the classroom, I used a pre-test as the basis for comparing students’ self-efficacy before the intervention. My greatest fear was realised. Most of the students I tested indicated very low self-esteem and a feeling of disempowerment. Starting the learning journey for my students, I introduced Carol Dwek’s “Fixed and Growth Mind-sets”. Carol’s research indicated that if we open our minds to change (Growth Mindset) then we are making changes in how we think and what we do, can positively impact learning. If we blame others for our situation such as, teachers, parents, friends, rather than accept responsibility for learning, we have a ‘Fixed Mindset’.

My teaching was both experiential and explicit. I shared my students’ reaction to watching Carol Dwek’s YouTube video with the team. A normally animated group of students were transfixed and engaged. This was not a common occurrence, but it was revealing. All students paid heed to the core message ‘all students can learn’. We discussed this concept at length, driven by my students’ questions. Next came another YouTube clip, Famous Failures , the punch line “if you have never failed then you have never tried anything new”, pushed the envelope for my students. They were beginning to recognise that the most valuable learning takes place after a failure.

Hattie (2017) emphasises the importance of “making learning visible”. With the help of input from my colleagues, I created a rubric that identified the key skill sets that were required for maximum effort in order to achieve.  We discussed and I modelled the rubric criteria. What followed was more discussion. The students then were required to measure their effort in their chosen classes over a period of a term. A post-test revealed that all girls’ perceptions about themselves had changed. They recognised there was something they could do to change their achievement levels.

At the beginning of this Term, the PLT met to share the outcome of their strategies. It was exciting to hear how other colleagues in the team fared and they shared my reflections as well.

The support within the team, the sharing of expertise and the collaboration was in essence helping to change practice. According to Lieberman and Pointer-Mace (2009), teachers need to be inspired and learn from accomplished teachers. You see despite decades of teaching, I still value the ability to learn, develop and reflect as a teacher whilst in the company of my colleagues, who participate in dynamic classrooms, need practical strategies to put theory into practice in their classrooms and make it work for their individual students.

Working with a high level of team-work, a climate of democracy, mutual respect, and professional safety, (Edmunds, Mulford et al. 2008), ensured that each member of the PLT gained insights into their practice. All who reported their work indicated they wished to include their teaching strategies for a more prolonged amount of time to test the longevity of their strategies.

With a growing body of evidence, emerging from the literature on the benefits of Professional Learning Teams in building a Learning Community, it is clear that given the right conditions teacher development and student learning, will increase. All that is required is the culture, structure and conditions in place.

In the coming years I look forward to working with my colleagues working in PLTs across key areas such as Gifted Education and Education Support.

Mrs Elka Gaensler, Head of Learning Plus and Education Support