Appearing in the Mail & Guardian 9 October 2015
The concept of professional learning communities (PLCs) has become key to the government’s national policy agenda for teachers’ development.
PLCs are groups of teachers working together in subject-based groups or focusing on a grade or phase to share experiences, knowledge, techniques and insights with the aim of improving teaching practices and pupils’ achievements.
PLCs are a vehicle for in-service professional development of teachers. Ways of making these both effective and sustainable are proposed in the Integrated Strategic Planning Framework for Teacher Education and Development in South Africa 2011-2025.
With this in mind, the recent Teachers Upfront seminar hosted six educators who discussed their experiences of establishing, facilitating or researching PLCs and communities of practice.
Anthea Cereseto, the principal of Parktown High School for Girls, described a group of subject-focused teacher networks from different schools.
She emphasised that a PLC’s focus must be defined by the group and not given by an external source, such as the principal or the district.
She stressed the need for a task-based, participative approach, so that the PLC provides results in areas such as lesson plans.
Razia Badasie, the principal of Brenthurst Primary School in Brakpan, said a PLC must be more than “just a talk shop”. It should be based on a “collaborative curriculum” addressing methodology, assessment and content knowledge.
John Gilmour, the founder of LEAP Science & Maths Schools and cofounder of Bridge and the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition, focused on changes he and others have experienced through the coalition’s community of practice: learning to share issues and experiences openly has moved individuals and schools toward collaboration instead of competition.
Pat Sullivan, a facilitator for several Bridge communities of practice, also emphasised change and growth that happen through principals’ community of practice. Principals take control of their own learning, and strengthen their leadership roles through mutual support.
The University of Johannesburg’s Geoffrey Lautenbach addressed technology’s role in supporting PLCs and took the audience through the literature, highlighting a surprising finding that online engagement promotes self-reflection.
Sustaining motivation over time is difficult, however, and he made the case for hybrid PLCs that meet face to face as well as online.
Linford Molaodi, a teacher at Mahlare Senior Secondary School in Seriteng, Limpopo, and curator of the online tutoring programme Edu-navigators, talked about how online spaces can bring experienced educators together with novice educators: both sides benefit, with older teachers sharing their classroom management skills while learning about new media-driven approaches that appeal to today’s pupils.
Some significant themes for understanding PLCs emerged. Various enabling factors need to be in place for PLCs to be successful.
Attitudes play an important role, as Cereseto noted: “People need to understand that you put something in, you are not there just to listen to other people’s tips and strategies.” The PLC needs to have a common purpose, driven by trust and respect.
Members agree to “rules of engagement” that include active participation. The facilitator’s role is vital in leading engagement without dominating, because PLCs should not be hierarchical. In the online space, an effective moderator is also required.
Although facilitators can be taught certain strategies — and can even form their own communities of practice — Gilmour said “facilitators are grown on the job, through a process of reflective practice in the group; we create ourselves as facilitators”.
There are also practical issues such as logistics regarding transport costs and regularity of meetings.
If PLCs are to become widespread and sustainable, these factors cannot be ignored. In the online space connectivity is a major factor.
PLCs and communities of practice must be based on a methodology so that action leads to results in the classroom.
Cereseto gave examples of an inquiry learning cycle as a prompt for collaborative work.
Gilmour stressed “planning for the process rather than the outcomes” as a methodology. Methodologies vary depending on the purpose and scope of a PLC or community of practice.
For principals, for example, working towards whole-school improvement targets is a long-term goal. For online communities, there needs to be a critical mass to move engagement forward.
Given these features of PLCs, questions were raised about large-scale implementation across all schools. Are they only effective where there is already a solid base of subject expertise? How can low-performing schools benefit when the enabling conditions may not be there? Can PLCs be teacher-driven, or do they need external resources, funding and support? If facilitators play such a vital role, are district officials and subject advisers equipped to perform the function? Will these become another form of imposed workshop that undermines some defining characteristics of professional learning communities?
These questions need to be explored. But there was little doubt at the seminar that PLCs have an important role to play in teachers’ development.
Whereas the difficulties of measuring effect in any quantitative sense were recognised, a number of positive outcomes have been reported. More varied and pupil-centred methods in the classroom have been observed, improvements in practical skills can be tracked and, in some cases, improved results have been attributed to learnings from PLCs. In the online space, geographic isolation can be countered and technology expertise improved.
There are also tangible benefits. Principals from the Bridge communities, for example, do collective fundraising and involve their teachers in “reteaching” each other in the context of a collaborative maths analysis project. Teachers can call on each other for what Badasie called “just-in-time assistance when they need it”.
Vitally, collaboration and sharing spreads good practice. The strongest common thread came through in a comment by Cereseto: “PLCs increase teachers’ confidence and morale — they feel they can take charge of their own learning and become agents for change, and this can change the culture in a school for the better.” Melissa King is a knowledge manager at Bridge.
The Teachers Upfront seminars are hosted by Bridge, Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, Wits University’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education