A recent white paper, published by Research Partnership for Professional Learning, “Building Better Professional Learning: How to Strengthen Teacher Learning” reinforced the importance of effective professional learning communities. In the overview of their findings, they begin with these two statements:
- effective professional learning supports teachers’ day-to-day practice
- effective professional learning involves accountability for change and improvement.
In other words, professional learning should impact what teachers do in classrooms and contain follow-up from other educators, a kind of social accountability.
The paper recommends professional learning be targeted, subject-specific instructional practices versus content knowledge alone and that it be supported with instructional materials.
What Is Curriculum-Based Professional Learning?
“Curriculum-based professional learning invites teachers to participate in the same sort of rich, inquiry-based learning that new academic standards require. Such learning places the focus squarely on curriculum. It is rooted in ongoing, active experiences that prompt teachers to change their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs. This stands in contrast to traditional teacher training, which typically relays a static mass of information that teachers selectively apply to existing practice.”
One study that was cited compared two groups of elementary teachers. One received training in science content focused on increasing teachers’ understanding of scientific ideas with the goal that that understanding would impact their instruction and student learning. The second group, through a study of videotaped science lessons, analyzed the instructional strategies that were being used. Although the teachers spent the same amount of time in both learning experiences, students of the teachers in the lesson analysis group outperformed students of the teachers in the content deepening group by 20 percentile points on a researcher’s developed assessment.
What’s being drawn from this research is that while the teacher’s understanding of content is important and critical, it needs to be combined with teacher’s understanding of how learning occurs on the student’s part. This explores how students learn and how teachers design, connected to subject matter content. Subject-specific instructional practices assisted teachers in understanding how to engage students in thinking, reasoning about data and applying their understanding.
The paper highlights that there is growing evidence that well-structured collaboration, formal or informal, can support ongoing development of teachers’ instructional skills.
“There is widespread and rigorous evidence that teachers can and do learn from each other, that teachers improve their practice more in schools that are more collaborative workplaces and that interventions designed to promote teacher collaboration around instructional practices can improve teacher practice and, real critical here, student outcomes. However, evidence also suggests that collaboration as a simple structural reform does not necessarily have payoff. Building teacher team time into the school day is only valuable if that time is well used. In other words, how collaborative approaches are designed and implemented matters a great deal.”
This reinforces for me the value of PLCs engaging in goal setting. Setting goals for increased student learning outcomes that drive teachers in the PLCs to be asking the critical question, “What do our students need us to learn?”
What do we as teachers need to learn in order to generate the learning production behaviors that students need to progress from where they are to the desired goals that the PLC has set? I’m a strong believer that it is essential for student work to frequently be on the table at PLC meetings. Teachers need to be studying student work. It’s also why PLC peers should be observing student learning in each other’s classrooms. They need to be studying students engaged in the learning process to figure out how we as professionals generate the needed learning production behaviors.
In addition, collaborative structures provide a form of social accountability that encourages teachers to try new practices and persist through a learning dip. If the PLC is planning to compare findings regarding an instructional strategy the following week, there is an added incentive for the teacher to test out the practice.
Collaboration for continuous improvement is a promising approach to support the ongoing learning and development of teachers.
When collective participation is prioritized, teachers from the same grade or department plan, practice, and reflect on lessons together. In these professional learning communities, they examine data, including examples of student work; set goals; and compare their experience using the new instructional materials in the classroom. Over time, they build a body of knowledge that enables them to drive improvement across a school or district. Research supports this approach, with many studies suggesting that teacher collaboration is essential to professional learning that influences classroom practice and improves student outcomes.