From exams to ongoing professional improvement in higher education
At the LUCA School of Arts, we evaluate students as a team of tutors. First, each explains the project he or she assigned to the students. Then every student individually presents his work. Afterwards, as a team we try to come to an evaluation mark. We not only talk about the difficulties the student experienced with the assignment, but also our teaching methods are a point of discussion. The colleagues offer each other their opinions and give advice if helpful. It all happens so naturally that it has become self-evident. However, it may not be underestimated that there is an enormous amount of information, a collective vision, a shared responsibility and a mutual support that are being put on the table during these exam sessions. Furthermore, this sharing of personal educational style and professional knowledge can sometimes feel uncomfortable and rather confronting. Yet, these moments seem to be the reason why I enjoy being a professor and why I push myself every day to improve my skills for the success of the college and our students.
Thinking about this, it became clear how we seem to act more as a community than an organization. We easily break away from the traditional idea that teaching is an isolated job. Reflecting upon this continuous and collaborative approach to professional improvement is what brought me to digging into the 'Professional Learning Community' concept. Even though the idea dates back to at least the early eighties, it sounds really contemporary because of all the social, online communities we have all become a part of today. But let us focus on the important foundations it lays out.
My three favorite words
If you are more familiar with learning communities for professionals, you might be wondering why a professor in higher education does not refer to the idea of the 'Faculty Learning Community' (FLC) instead. Even though a FLC is considered the higher education equivalent of a primary or secondary school's Professional Learning Community (PLC), the essential philosophy behind the two is very similar. That being said I really prefer the combination of those three words 'Professional', 'Learning' and 'Community'.
'Faculty' just seems too obvious and therefore poor in meaning. The term 'professional' suggests: specialization, focus on the client's need, a spirit of 'we-take-things-at-heart', quality assurance, etc. These connotations make of 'professional' the right word to set the tone explaining PLCs.
Adding the word 'learning' makes it even more interesting: it reminds the professionals that they are allowed to be learners too. Nobody is perfect and we are dealing with a lot of changes in education these days. Everybody needs some support to keep being motivated and grow further on a day-to-day basis. The only thing that is asked in return is that you use your own learning for the benefit of your students.
All in all, if you feel this puts a heavy weight on your shoulders, the third word 'community' will give some comfort. Being part of a 'community' means your colleagues are there to help. You all share a certain responsibility, but also values, advices, problems and a common vision. This word just reminds us that educating is a collective effort. Forget making one or two people responsible for quality assurance and for mentoring new teachers.
The three big ideas of Professional Learning Communities
According to Richard Dufour, the three words we have come to discuss contain three big ideas that represent the core thinking behind a PLC. The first idea is that the focus is on learning instead of on teaching. To ensure that students learn we should start by answering these questions (Dufour 2004):
- What do we want our students to learn?
- How will we know if they have learned what we wanted them to learn?
- What will we do if they experience difficulty? (What will we do if they find it too easy?)
The second is to promote a culture of collaboration. "Collaborative conversations call on team members to make public what has traditionally been private-goals, strategies, materials, pacing, questions, concerns, and results. These discussions give every teacher someone to turn to and talk to, and they are explicitly structured to improve the classroom practice of teachers-individually and collectively" (Dufour 2004)
The final idea is to focus on results. Working together to improve achievements of students has to become a routine. Teachers should regularly check if the collectively determined goals are achieved and which new goals could be set next. Regular tests are needed but always in comparison to the results obtained by students of colleagues. This way the members of a PLC detect the right problem and come up with the best solution together. That is how you help emerge a habit of continuous improvement within your school. (Dufour 2004)
Continuous improvement through continuous support and recognition
In the literature review by the Education and Training 2020 Thematic Working Group 'Professional Development of Teachers' of the European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture, a lot of stress is put on making professional development a continuous process. "Instead of promoting the traditional approach, sources claiming that professional learning should be dynamic, ongoing, continuous and set in teacher's daily lives - embedded in the classroom context and constructed through experience and practice, in sustained, iterative cycles of goal setting, planning, practicing and reflecting" (Caena 2011).
This continuous sharing and evaluation of goals, practical advice, knowledge, problems etc. embedded in the daily life of the classroom is what makes teachers feel part of a community and which prevents working in isolation. Young tutors feel more motivated, older staff can feel more appreciated and all this will drive the success of the school and its students.
So let us sustainably improve our schools and colleges through strong professional learning communities, for the success of our teachers, our schools and our learners. In a future article I will elaborate on what determines the strength of a PLC. Until then remember, Rome was not built in one day.
- R. Dufour, "What Is a Professional Learning Community?", in ASCD - Educational Leadership May 2014, Vol. 61, N° 8 : School as Learning Communities, p.6-11, 13 June 2014. (link)
- F. Caena, Literature Review Quality in Teachers' continuing professional development, Education and Training 2020 Thematic Working Group 'Professional Development of Teachers' of the European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture, June 2011, p.10. (link)