ARTICLEProfessional learning communities andsystem improvementAlma HarrisInstitute of Education, London, UKMichelle JonesTwynrhodyn Primary School, Wales, UKAbstractThis article outlines the progress and impact of professional learning communities within,between and across schools, as part of the implementation of whole system reform in Wales.It describes the way in which professional learning communities are being developed to supportimprovement and change across the education system in Wales. The article focuses ona group of schools that piloted a model of professional learning communities that subsequentlyhave become a key part of the reform process in Wales and it highlights some of thechallenges faced by the schools in establishing and sustaining professional learning communities.The article concludes by suggesting that professional learning communities offer oneway of generating changed professional practice that can positively contribute to systemwideimprovement.Keywords: distributed leadership, professional learning communities, schooleffectiveness, school improvement, school reform, system improvementIntroductionIn Wales a major reform effort is underway to secure success for each student in everysetting and to transform an entire education system. System-wide reform is taking placeat school, local authority and government level in order to secure higher education performanceand improved learner outcomes. Substantial effort is being put into buildingthe capacity for large-scale reform in a deliberate and purposeful way. This basis for thisreform is set out in two strategic documents: The Learning Country and The LearningCountry: Vision into Action (Welsh Assembly Government, 2006). Both documentsmake a commitment to using the school effectiveness and improvement research evidenceto secure improved learning and teaching outcomes. Consequently, in 2006/07the Welsh Assembly Government introduced a National ‘School EffectivenessFramework’ (SEF) as a way of achieving system-level reform and improved studentoutcomes for all students. The School Effectiveness Framework 1 is based on robustImproving Schools © AuthorsVolume 13 Number 2 July 2010 172–181ISSN 1365-4802 DOI: 10.1177/1365480210376487
Harris and Jones: Professional learning communities 173research evidence and is the key policy document that will drive reform and systemlevelimprovement in Wales over the next few years.To contribute to the implementation process, professional learning communities(PLCs) within, between and across schools are being established in schools in Walesto build the necessary capacity for change. The PLC model is a way of ensuring thatthere is the opportunity for professionals to learn new practices and to generate newknowledge. As Resnick (2010) highlights, collaborative routines among teachers arean important component in securing improved student learning outcomes. These collaborativeroutines have been described in various ways but are best described as ‘networkedlearning communities’ or ‘professional learning communities’ (Stoll et al.,2007).In this article we define professional learning communities (PLCs) as they are characterizedand understood within the school effectiveness and school improvement literature.These fields view the professional learning community as a powerful staff developmentapproach and a potent strategy for school and system improvement (Harris andChrispeels, 2008; Hopkins, 2007; Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007). The idea of a professionallearning community is grounded in the knowledge and experience that hasbeen gained over many years from encouraging teachers to work together more collaboratively(Darling Hammond, 1996; Guskey, 1986; Louis and Kruse, 1995). It has beeninformed by the literature about effective organizations which shows how they access,circulate and distribute knowledge as a way to achieve continuous improvement(Leithwood et al., 1997; Sergiovanni, 1994).Foundational work by Rosenholtz (1989) showed that professional support throughteacher networks, professional collaboration and expanded professional roles improvedteacher efficacy and enhanced teacher effectiveness. Research has also shown that teacherswith a high sense of their own efficacy are more likely to adopt new classroombehaviours and are also more likely to stay in the profession. Little (1982) found thatwhen teachers had the opportunity for collaborative inquiry and the learning related toit, they were able to develop and share a body of wisdom gleaned from their experience.More recently, distributed leadership and shared decision-making have beenassociated with positive changes in teaching performance (Harris, 2008, 2009; Stolland Seashore Louis, 2007).The professional learning community model in Wales is one that reinforces professionalnetworking and collaboration as a main lever for change (Egan and Hopkins, 2009;Egan et al., 2009; Hopkins, 2007). It reinforces that PLCs can stimulate and spreadinnovation about learning and teaching practices, as well as to raise collective and individualprofessional performance (Hopkins, 2006). A professional learning communityis a group of connected and engaged professionals who are responsible for drivingchange and improvement within, between and across schools that will directly benefitlearners. The basic argument is that by cultivating professional learning communities itis possible for schools to improve student achievement through changing teaching andclassroom practices. The idea of professional learning communities is underpinned bythe concept of distributed leadership (Harris, 2008). Distributed leadership is primarilyconcerned with the reciprocal interdependencies that shape leadership practice. A distributedperspective on leadership recognizes that leadership involves multiple individuals
Harris and Jones: Professional learning communities 175is based on the simple but powerful idea that if schools are to meet learner needs, theymust provide opportunities for teachers to innovate, develop and learn together (Harrisand Jones, 2009). The evidence supporting professional learning communities suggeststhey have the potential to improve achievement and raise performance (Goldenberg,2004; Saunders and Goldberg, 2005; Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007; Verscio et al.,2008; Whitehurst, 2002). They are a powerful vehicle for changing teachers’ behaviourand improving student learning outcomes (DuFour and Eaker, 1998; Little, 1982).Effective PLCs tend to be characterized by shared values; a focus on student learning;reflective dialogue and action enquiry (Hord, 1997; Mason, 2003; Mitchell andSackney, 2000; Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007).Where professional learning communities work best, there is evidence of more satisfaction,higher morale, and lower rates of absenteeism among teachers. Teachers whoare part of a professional learning community tend to be more effective in the classroomand achieve better student outcomes (Huffman and Jacobson, 2003; Lewis andAndrews, 2004). Finally, there is evidence of teachers having a greater commitment tomaking significant and lasting changes in their classroom and beyond that can contributeto systemic change.It is recognized that professional learning communities offer only one lever for systemlevelchange; there are clearly others. The model of professional learning communitiesin Wales is one that embraces networking and collaboration and has the potential tosecure significant change and improvement (Egan and Hopkins, 2009; Egan et al.,2009; Harris and Jones, 2009; Hopkins, 2007). It reinforces that networks of schools canstimulate and spread innovation as well as collaborate to raise collective and individualperformance (Hopkins, 2006). The model aligns with the ‘Pedagogy Strategy’ and theCPD Review in Wales that endorses a move from individual professionalism, tocollective professionalism – where it is the norm for practitioners to work inter-dependentlyrather than independently. Only through such mutual dependence and collectve workingwill the capacity to deliver large-scale reform be generated. The approach to PLCs inWales is also system-wide as it engages schools, local authorities and national policymakersin supporting and maintaining the system change.The current work around PLCs is premised upon a number of key principles. First, thatsystem-wide change is only possible through entire system collaboration and networking.Second, there is a central and non-negotiable focus on pedagogical improvementand improving learner outcomes. Third, the model uses action enquiry approaches, as adriver for change in classroom practice. Theoretically, the model also draws heavilyupon the theory of change implicit in Wenger’s (2000) notion of communities of practice.Within such communities, practice is developed and refined through the collaborationof ‘groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion abouta topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoingbasis’ (Wenger, 2002: 4).As highlighted earlier, the literature is clear about the way in which successful professionallearning communities function (Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007). Learning in thecontext of professional learning communities involves working together towards acommon understanding of concepts and practices. The focus is not just on individualteachers’ learning but on professional learning within the context of a cohesive group
176 Improving Schools 13(2)that focuses on collective knowledge and occurs with a context of mutual trust andlearning. But the reality is rarely as neat or straightforward as the literature would suggest,inevitably there are some challenges and some potential pitfalls.The pilot phaseDuring a pilot phase of the implementation of the ‘School Effectiveness Framework’ inWales, associates were appointed to work regionally with clusters of schools to generateinnovation and activity in line with the policy framework. Different approaches andmodels of implementation emerged in various parts of the country. Within one region, anapproach to building professional learning communities was piloted as a way of generatinglocal improvement capacity aligned to the priorities within the ‘School EffectivenessFramework’. The project involved six schools, two secondary, two primary and twospecial schools. Each school was committed to participating in a project over an academicyear that was aimed at securing change and improvement through the developmentof professional learning communities within, between and across schools. The‘Leading Learning for School Effectiveness’ (LLSE) project, as it became known,involved a partnership between academics, 2 SEF associates, the Welsh AssemblyGovernment and schools.As highlighted earlier, there are many different definitions of professional learningcommunities and indeed many different ways to construct them. The model adopted inthe pilot project was based on an action enquiry approach that has been utilized successfullyby many school improvement programmes including ‘Improving the Qualityof Education for All’ (Hopkins et al., 1997). The core idea is that school-based actionenquiry becomes the driver for change and innovation within, between and acrossschools. The prime purpose of the professional learning community therefore is for professionalsto enquire and innovate in order to improve learning outcomes.The pilot PLC project was premised upon a number of key principles. First, it subscribedto a view that school improvement works best when it is internally generatedand externally supported. Second, at the heart of the PLC activity was the central andnon-negotiable focus of pedagogical improvement as a route to reducing within schoolvariation and improving learning outcomes. Third, the PLC model utilized actionenquiry approaches, as a driver for change that allowed teachers to focus on developmentalissues in depth but also to work across schools and sectors. The main rationalefor the LLSE model was one of generating within school, between school and acrossschool collaboration and improvement that would directly benefit learners.The design features of the pilot PLC programme were as follows:• a PLC group comprising teachers, from different levels within the school and withdifferent expertise, experience and perspectives;• the collegial and facilitative participation of the head but not necessarily as theleader of the PLC group;• an action enquiry orientation – in order to identify a development to benefit learnersand linked to the SEF framework;• a 100 percent focus on improving learner outcomes and maximizing the impact ofthe change or development to positively affect student learning.
Harris and Jones: Professional learning communities 177The pilot PLC work commenced with six schools early in 2009 with a launch event andan introduction to collaborative ways of working. Schools identified an issue forenquiry and worked as a team in their schools to collect data and to prepare informationfor presentation to other schools. Following the sharing of progress, each schooldecided upon a development or an innovation and subsequently spent the next sixmonths working to implement this innovation with the support of other schools in thegroup. The foci for change included such topics as thinking skills, the integrated curriculumand pupil engagement. In September 2009, schools shared their progress to datewith their various enquiries and highlighted their next steps. While rates of progress varied,all schools had established new ways of working and had clear plans to extend thePLC work further.As highlighted earlier, the PLC model being implemented in Wales draws upon the theoryof change implicit in Wenger’s (2000) notion of communities of practice. Withinsuch communities, practice is developed and refined through the collaboration of‘groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic,and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis’(Wenger, 2002: 4). In communities of practice, learning is viewed as a social activitythat occurs as new collaborations form and the group moves collectively toward greaterexpertise (Lave, 1991). New members of the group gain access to the community’s professionalknowledge in authentic contexts through encounters with people, tools, tasksand social norms. New professional behaviours are adopted by the community of practicethrough the evolution of practice over time. Thus, the collaborative group can helpprofessionals gain access to ideas, methods, content, and experiences that can shift andrefine practice (Argyris, 1992).All the pilot schools demonstrated early evidence of changed professional practice.For example, one secondary school focused upon the learning experience ofyoung people in Year 7 and found that many of the teaching activities were notengaging students. Consequently, the teachers introduced greater use of IT andpractical activities into year 7 lessons. Another group of teachers wanted todevelop greater pupil voice within the school and investigated how greater co-constructionand pupil involvement in decision-making could be achieved. The schooldeveloped materials for teachers and pupils to use to support their learning conversations.It was clear that teachers had dominated many learning conversationswith pupils and therefore a different approach was required. The pilot phase ofPLCs allowed the school to develop pupil voice in a meaningful way and hasengaged teachers in changing the style, content and nature of their interactionswith pupils.Within the pilot phase, the PLC work was seen by schools as a catalyst for changingteaching and learning practices within and across schools. The evidence for this hasbeen collected in both a quantitative and qualitative way by the schools who participatedin the pilot. Some outcomes from the pilot PLC work include:• the introduction of Learning Walks involving staff, pupils and governors to gatherevidence for each school to use as a baseline for their enquiry;• the introduction of personalized learning journals for all pupils in the PLC;• an increased number of assessment for learning strategies;
Harris and Jones: Professional learning communities 179will enhance the professional skills of the teachers within them but at worse, will havelittle impact and will lose momentum quickly. The discourse around professional learningcommunities, in such cases, can become quickly associated with failure and there is aloss of faith in this way of working.Third, the external environment presents a constant challenge as schools face manyexternal pressures from inspection, new initiatives and other strategies. Competingdemands and priorities were a major challenge to the schools in the pilot and, for some,this pressure proved to be too much and the work of the PLC group drifted. In otherschools, there was a clearer alignment between the work of the PLC group and developmentplanning, so energy and effort were doubled and the resulting impact wasclearly evident. The central point here is that professional learning communities cannotjust be an extra activity – they need to be carefully positioned within the school so thatthey link with other developments in an integral and coordinated way. If professionallearning communities are to support changing teachers’ practice, they need to be anintegral part of routine school development.Experience with the pilot phase of PLCs also highlights a number of important considerationswhen initiating and sustaining professional learning communities. One of thefirst characteristics cited by Louis and Kruse (1995) of a productive learning communityis a willingness to accept feedback and to work toward improvement. In the pilotphase there was dedicated time for sharing progress and for gaining critical feedbackfrom other teachers in other schools. This process allowed a general sharing of theissues, challenges and successes that were being encountered across all schools. Thepilot phase also highlighted that in successful professional learning communities certainfeatures are needed to be effective including:• respect and trust among colleagues at the school and network level;• possession of an appropriate cognitive and skill base that enables effective pedagogyand leads to effective learning;• supportive leadership from those in key roles and shared leadership practices;• the norms of continuous critical inquiry and continuous improvement;• a widely shared vision or sense of purpose;• a norm of involvement in decision-making;• collegial relationships among teachers;• a focus upon impact and outcomes for learners.The pilot phase also highlighted that it can be difficult to build and sustain professionallearning communities. While organizing teachers into small collegial groups mayimprove school culture, it does not necessarily result in improved instruction and studentachievement. It is clear that professional learning communities require certainforms of leadership to be successful. Strong, supportive leadership is necessary to buildand sustain professional learning communities. Even though head teachers’ roles maychange as they redistribute and share leadership, their support is one of the keyresources necessary for schools to become professional learning communities. Headsneed to actively build a context for professional learning communities to work.Essentially their leadership role is one of establishing a high-trust environment where itis safe for teachers to change practice and to innovate.
180 Improving Schools 13(2)Final thoughtThe scale of the challenge in transforming an entire education system cannot be underestimated.There is no suggestion here that professional learning communities are a ‘silverbullet’ for successful system-level reform; they are certainly not a panacea. Thewhole point of a professional learning community is that the ‘sum is greater than theparts’ and that by distributing and sharing leadership more widely, the opportunities forreleasing interdependent learning capacity within schools and across the system is maximized(Harris, 2008). Harris (2010) talks about the importance of leadership that‘builds enduring greatness’ and highlights the importance of developing leadership atall levels in the system in order to be successful. System-level improvement in Wales isunlikely to happen without a critical mass of leaders at the school, local and governmentlevel with a shared belief that change is possible and adherence to the same model ofimplementation. System-level improvement can only be achieved by changing the waypeople connect, communicate and collaborate.As the School Effectiveness Framework moves to its next phase of implementation inWales, building strong professional communities within, between and across schoolswill be a central component of implementation and delivery (Egan et al., 2009). It isclear that ‘networks that support improvement and innovation by enabling schools tocollaborate well beyond individual school gates’ offer a powerful lever for system widereform (Hopkins, 2007: 2). Consequently, there is a basis for believing that well constructedprofessional learning communities can contribute to system-wide improvement.In Wales, as they are scaled up, time will tell whether they have the potential tosecure better outcomes for all young people in all settings.AcknowledgementsWe would like to thank the teachers and schools that participated in the pilot project; the Welsh AssemblyGovernment for funding the pilot PLC work; and particular thanks to Professor Mark Hadfield and Dr TraceyAllen who were part of the pilot project team.Notes1. Following initial development work undertaken in the summer of 2007, a pilot phase of the SEF was trialledin over 100 schools and many of the local authorities in Wales during 2008/09. Following the pilotphase, the SEF Framework was extended to all schools in Wales.2. Professor Alma Harris and Dr Tracey Allen (Institute of Education, London); Professor Mark Hadfield(University of Wolverhampton).The authors can be contacted via email at: A.Harris@ioe.ac.ukReferencesArgyris C (1992) On Organizational Learning. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.Darling-Hammond L (1996) The quiet revolution: Rethinking teacher development. Educational Leadership53(6): 4–10..Day C, Sammons P, Hopkins D, Harris A, Leithwood K, Gu Q, Mehta P and Kingston A (2007) Leadershipand Student Learning Outcomes, Interim Report. London: DCSF, RB018.DuFour R and Eaker R (1998) Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for EnhancingStudent Achievement. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Egan D and Hopkins D (2009) Developing System Leadership Capacity in the School EffectivenessFramework. Unpublished paper for Welsh Assembly Government.
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