A case study of teachers' professional learning: Becoming a community of professional learning or not?
Carmel Maloney and Deslea Konza
Edith Cowan University
This paper describes a school's participation in a project designed to support critical reflection of teachers' beliefs about best practice in early childhood education, and how these beliefs and practices intersected with shifting policies and trends in the broader early childhood field. The "Professional Learning" Project (PL project), was conducted in collaboration with a local university. As the project unfolded, multiple influences were found to affect its ultimate outcomes, including the tensions associated with day-to-day classroom commitments and varying levels of willingness to engage in what were at times confronting and challenging discussions. As a result, engagement, collaboration and participation ebbed and flowed.
The aim of the PLP was to facilitate Kindergarten to Year 3 teachers' exploration of their perceptions, knowledge and understanding of early childhood pedagogy; the extent to which these matched national policies and agendas; and the development of a shared view amongst staff of effective early childhood practice. The outcome for the school was to be a process that facilitated professional development for staff, and a policy statement outlining principles of practice and guidelines for implementation at various ages and stages from Kindergarten to Year 3. The university researchers facilitated the professional learning experiences and acted as participant observers in the project. In this paper, we provide background and contextual information, a description of the methodology, and a discussion of key findings of the collaborative project.
Collaboration is widely promoted as critical to the development of schools as professional learning communities (Leonard & Leonard, 2003). Whereas the phenomenon of professional learning communities has been endorsed extensively in the educational research literature on school improvement (Reynolds & Teddlie, 2000; Preedy, 2003) and accountability (Evers & Walberg, 2002), opportunities for teachers to interact either within or outside school have been mostly sporadic and random. Dadds (1998) suggests that the need for practitioners to work together becomes stronger when they strive to guard against conflicting government views of professional work. In planning the professional development sessions, the school executive supported the idea of like-minded colleagues joining forces. The executive saw this as a way of supporting practitioners to find the resolve to engage with and question change and to be proactive when confronting difficulties and dilemmas, both within themselves and with the system.
The development of professional learning communities relies on teachers having the desire to participate in practitioner research in order to extend their knowledge and skills, and to improve their practice. Practitioner research has gained growing support for its potential to generate teacher knowledge and to reconceptualise teachers as producers and mediators of educational knowledge (Richardson, 1994a, cited in Zeichner & Noffke, 2001). It assumes that there is significant value in establishing communities that draw on the intellectual resources of the participants in order to promote shared thinking and communication (Wood & Bennett, 2000). It requires systematic and critical inquiry in the workplace in the pursuit of professional knowledge (Macpherson, Brooker, Aspland & Cuskelly, 2004; Dadds, 1998). According to Allwright (2005), such research is undertaken within a context of participation and interaction that in turn supports collaboration and inquiry, and can be a worthy form of teacher professional development that is targeted, empowering and reflective.
Practitioner research, as mentioned above, is not as straightforward as it sounds. Zeichner and Noffke (2001) report several major criticisms of teachers involved in researching their own practice. They suggest that typically teachers are not properly trained to conduct research at an acceptable standard and that the research is therefore of questionable value; furthermore, the demands of teachers' work make it difficult for them to do research while maintaining a focus on educating students, and that teachers tend to use their research merely to justify their current practices. These criticisms imply a lack of objectivity and critical thinking when teachers investigate their own practice.
According to Dadds (1998), practitioner research requires a level of personal investment and thoughtful intellectual consideration of the context and of colleagues' perceptions and experiences, in order to bring about positive and democratic outcomes. Moreover, what on the surface seems like collaborative inquiry may in fact be fraught with personal agendas and micro politics. Participants need to have highly developed communication and interpersonal skills in order to understand others, negotiate multiple perspectives, and maintain relationships.
Teachers have traditionally worked within the confines of their own classrooms, with little time to engage in collegial or structured conversations about practice. Kwakman (2003, p. 167), reports that the amount of teacher participation in professional learning activities is rather disappointing, considering the high value that is attached to it. Collaborative practitioner research is not very common in school organisations and teachers rarely reflect in ways that make use of explicit feedback from their colleagues.
Nevertheless, practitioner research has been carried out for various purposes. Studies by Zeichner & Noffke, (2001), McWilliam (2004), and Snow-Gerono (2005) revealed that teachers' motivation for engaging in this type of research included an interest in better understanding students, improving teaching practice, generating knowledge about teaching, and improving the contexts in which educational practice is embedded. What is also clear from the literature is the need for school leaders to support practitioners and create conditions that enable them to pursue research of this kind (Hord, 2004). Hence it is important to identify those factors that influence teachers' willingness and capacity to participate in professional learning communities.
According to Hord, successful professional learning communities exhibit the following characteristics:
Twelve teachers and eight educational assistants who worked across the 4-8 year age group (hitherto the PLP group) took part in the professional learning project. Data were collected through narrative recording by the participant observers, interviews of the participants, focus groups and a survey. The data were analysed using a direct interpretation method (McMillan, 2008) in order to obtain a description of the process undertaken by the participants and gain an understanding of their experiences.
In response to the NECD Strategy, the Berrivale school executive seized the opportunity to engage in professional discourse about their philosophical understandings and principles of practice. Specifically, the impetus for the PLP came from the deputy principal whose major objective was to facilitate the development of a cohesive approach to early childhood education at Berrivale. Her intention was to develop a whole-school approach to early childhood education and to articulate a shared vision in response to growing system pressure that challenged existing early childhood assumptions and practices. This outcome required negotiating a shared understanding amongst early childhood staff of the professional knowledge base that underpinned effective early childhood education.
The early childhood teachers at Berrivale Primary School had traditionally displayed a culture of collaboration, shared responsibility and a team approach to their work, an ethos that had been established over a number of years. This way of working had resulted from strong administrative leadership that had set the climate and direction for the school and from a commitment by staff to promoting student learning. Through our work as university colleagues at the school we had observed regular team meetings, targeted professional development and strong leadership from the deputy principal (coordinator of the early years section of the school) in the day-to-day activities of the school. Therefore, the early childhood team was essentially already operating as a learning community. By openly valuing and supporting participation, the executive provided a positive context for the community of learners. The existing situation at the school appeared to be consistent with Hord's first two characteristics of effective professional learning communities - (1) supportive and shared leadership and (2) shared values and vision - and led to the school executive and university researchers holding a degree of optimism that opportunities to further develop shared understandings about the teachers' core business would have a positive outcome. Yet, despite these positive aspects of professionalism the process proved to be more complex than anticipated.
The purpose of the initial session was to ensure that all participants contributed to the project as partners in the process, that the PLP group felt ownership of the potential outcomes and that the policy would reflect a shared view of effective early childhood practice. At the first session, the participants examined their own perceptions, knowledge and pedagogy and elements of effective early childhood education. They did this by responding to the following questions generated by the co-facilitators of the project as a way of beginning the discussion:
It was clear after the first session, that there was a wider divergence of beliefs about best practice in early childhood education than originally thought by the school executive. The early childhood staff held differing views on what constituted effective early childhood curriculum and pedagogy and initially, these were strenuously debated. As the project developed, this led to some continuing challenges, which are explored in a later section.
Some participants were reluctant to continue sharing beliefs that conflicted with those of the strongest voices in the group. A concern for some participants stemmed from differences in practice across the early childhood years from kindergarten to years 3. The deputy principal was keen for the policy to reflect pedagogical subtleties about children's level of development and stages of schooling. However, teachers at the various levels were often reluctant to advocate such views strongly. For example, the focus on play as a medium for learning was an area that warranted robust debate. For Kindergarten teachers this was a strongly held belief, but for the Year 3 teachers learning through play took a significantly minor role in their day-to-day teaching; yet the Year 3 teachers were reluctant to take a stance, put forward a view and advocate for their belief of what play in Year 3 might look like.
As a result, some teachers took an increasingly passive role or refrained from attending group meetings. For these teachers, collaborative learning may not have been a priority, or was not perceived as worthwhile. However, given that the school executive was focussed on a collegial approach, those teachers who did not attend all sessions continued to be included through distribution of materials and information for their consideration and feedback. Where collegial relationships are considered a pre-condition for professional learning communities (DuFour & Eaker, 1998), this kind of relationship may have been difficult for all participants.
Factors such as the time of day also impacted on teachers' willingness to attend and on their level of interaction and participation. As one teacher explained, "Sometimes it is hard to effectively articulate my thoughts due to tiredness (end of school day)". Some teachers did not see the activity as a key priority and therefore were not committed sufficiently to give up their time, while others found the small-group sessions personally rewarding. One teacher commented in the survey "Not everyone has the same interest, and negative attitudes towards the project can undermine the success".
When attendance was out of school hours and therefore optional, only small numbers of staff attended. This was helpful in that the discussion was focussed and reflective, but less helpful in that it "could limit the growth of understanding" (teacher observation in survey). A covert level of resistance from some staff was evident, both through reluctance to attend all sessions, and tensions in explicitly expressing their early childhood thinking and approach. The broader "shared values and vision" that led to such early confidence about the potential success of the project were not as strong or as widespread as originally believed. Those who did share a vision were able to move forward and develop this in more precise ways, but they were unable to take less enthusiastic colleagues with them along the journey. This would seem to confirm Hord's second principle of the need for "shared values and vision" for the most effective professional learning experiences. Without this shared vision, there were limits to what could be achieved.
With respect to the individual project, the school executive offered support in the form of classroom release time to spend with the university researchers to plan the project, and financial support for the purchase of classroom resources. This development was seen by the school executive as an important part of the staff's ongoing professional learning, and a step forward from operating as a "community of learners" to "teachers as researchers". Arguably, it also fulfils Hord's fifth condition - "supportive conditions for the maintenance of the learning community".
We, the participant observers, found that a range of factors affected the PLP group's willingness and capacity to be involved in a professional learning community and their enthusiasm for self examination and reflection on their current theoretical and practical knowledge. These factors are discussed below.
The discourse around professional learning communities strongly emphasises the benefits of collective inquiry and collaborative communities that have a shared common purpose for action and commitment to action (DuFour & Eaker, 1998). This was not always the case during the PL Project during which these same practices seemed to inhibit teacher's learning. At Berrivale, a collaborative community of learners was encouraged by the deputy principal and most staff chose to participate and contribute. Articulating personal views, however, takes courage and confidence in the face of potential debate and for some teachers this meant raising conflicting perceptions and practices. When consensus is perceived as a desired outcome, debating and contesting views and opinions may be regarded as a stressful activity rather than a co-construction of that knowledge. Whereas the actively participating teachers found the experience worthwhile and positive for stimulating an examination of their educational practices, others found the experience daunting and did not feel empowered to disagree with colleagues or school executive.
In this report we have identified various factors that may have influenced the teachers' level of engagement and contribution, and impacted on their capacity for self-examination and reflection. One factor is the personal and professional investment individual teachers are willing and able to make, based on their perceptions of the relevance of the professional learning task. Another factor is the value put on professional development both individually and in terms of the shared culture of the school. Finally there is the factor of egalitarianism. We have proposed that professional learning within a professional learning community has a better chance of succeeding if teachers contribute as equals to setting the agenda, bringing about change, and ultimately improving their own practice. We have only touched lightly on this important aspect of professional learning, but intend to explore this further in future research.
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|Authors: Associate Professor Carmel Maloney is an early childhood lecturer and researcher at Edith Cowan University. Her areas of interest include early childhood teacher education, young children's learning and curriculum development. More recently her research has centred on young children's social and emotional development, and teacher's professional learning.|
Deslea Konza is Associate Professor of Language and Literacy and Director of the Fogarty Learning Centre at Edith Cowan University. Her current research centres on the development of reading skills. She works in many projects with teachers as co-researchers and has a long-term interest in professional development in schools.
Please cite as: Maloney, C. & Konza, D. (2011). A case study of teachers' professional learning: Becoming a community of professional learning or not? Issues In Educational Research, 21(1), 75-87. http://www.iier.org.au/iier21/maloney.html