Teacher Learning Communities to Enhance Continuing Professional Development:Exploring the Experience of TLCs in Souss Massa Daraa Academy

Lahcen Tighoula, ELT supervisor, Morocco

Abstract

This article summarizes a part of my research paper on the role of teacher learning communities in enhancing teachers’ continuing professional development, conducted to obtain my ELT supervisor credential, 2012/2014. I begin the article with a general background to TLCs, and then provide an overview of the experience of establishing TLCs in Souss Massa Daraa academy. I conclude with ways of improving TLCs and recommendations for various parties.

Background for TLCs:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Alvin Toffler, author and futurist

Teacher learning:

Central to TLCs is the concept of teacher learning. Research shows that for teachers to be effective and cater for the job, they should themselves believe in the process of change (Greene.M.L, 1992). In other words, teacher effectiveness is dependent on teacher beliefs and attitudes. We cannot possibly expect to change the beliefs and practices of teachers if they haven’t taken the decision to learn (Ibid).Two important questions that follow are: What is the nature of teacher learning? How can teachers learn effectively?

Dana and Yendol-Hoppey (2008) identify three types of teacher learning:

knowledge for practice knowledge in practice knowledge of practice
In-service days, “sit-and-get workshops: teachers learn a new pedagogy by an outside expert and are expected to implement it in their classroom (which is not always easy). The expertise of the teachers is generally not rec- ognized or shared. Knowledge gained as a result of testing out the knowledge for practice. Teachers learn from reflecting on their practices and experiences, from collaboration with colleagues, peer-coaching and mentoring. Gained by systematic inquiry into one’s practices and knowledge, as well as those of others. By collabora- tively problematizing teaching and learning, teachers broaden their knowledge of their classes and ana- lyze the wider context to identify fac- tors that inhibit learning (eg. Socio- cultural or political factors).

 

The traditional conception of teacher training tends to content itself with the first level of knowledge (knowledge for practice). Wald and Castleberry (2000: 7) call this the “training food chain”: the institution decides on the content of the training and hires an expert, the teacher implements it in class and then students are tested to see how much they absorb. Such a model hasn’t proven to assist teachers in meeting the increasingly challenging nature of today’s complex classes. (Wald and Castleberry, 2000: 8).

The current trend is that in order to achieve effective professional development, all the three types of teacher knowledge need to be developed (Dana and Yendol-Hoppey, 2008). In other words, teachers at times need to be updated with skills and knowledge (first level), but should be allowed to test out what they learn and consider the reality of their classes (second level). Most importantly, opportunities should be created for them to collaborate and engage in action research (third level).

One framework that has recently been advocated for effective teacher learning is the establishment of teacher learning communities:

“Professional learning  communities serve  to  connect and  network groups  of professionals to do just what their name entails – learn from practice. They meet on a regular basis and their time together is often structured by the use of protocols to ensure focused, deliberate conversation and dialogue by teachers about student work and student learning.” Dana and Yendol-Hoppey (2008)

“Ongoing teams that meet on a regular basis, preferably several times a week, for the purposes of learning, joint lesson planning, and problem solving” NSDC, 2009b: 01, cited in Hunzicker, (2010: 07) From the above quotes, we deduce three main roles of TLCs:

  • They facilitate structured professional networking;
  • They enable mutual learning among teachers;
  • They generate focused conversation about learning and instruction.

In the literature produced in North America and Canada, a TLC is also called a professional learning community (PLC) (see Hargreaves et al, 2010; Hunzicker, 2010; Tarnoczi, 2006; Wald and Castleberry, 2000). The only difference is that a professional learning community is a general term meaning a community of professionals learning collaboratively. A TLC, as the term suggests,  is  restricted to teachers.  In  this  article,  TLCs  and  PLCs  will  be  used interchangeably.

TLC-related concepts:

The available literature relates the origins of teacher learning communities to four main concepts: enquiry, reflection, collaborative professional development, and the school as a social system.

  • Inquiry: as early as 1929, John Dewy argued that “educational practices provide the data, the subject  matter,  which  form  the  problems  of  ”  Dewy  called  for  a democratic approach towards educational research, by arguing that educational practitioners and all the educational community have to address the common challenges.
  • Reflection: We can say that a teacher is reflective when s/he analyses his/her own actions and their effects on the others, and therefore move gradually from novice to expert (Thomas and Montgomery, 1998).
  • Collaborative professional development:  defined  by  Johnston  as  “any  sustained  and systematic investigation into teaching and learning in which a teacher voluntarily collaborates with others involved in the teaching process, and in which professional development is a prime purpose”.
  • The school as a social learning system: learning comes out of an interaction between what an individual knows and what the community has established as common knowledge (Vickers, 1987; Wenger, 2000). For example, when a teacher joins a school, s/he brings some experience, but also has to learn from the knowledge base of the school community: how they deal with problems, approach students, or manage resources. This way, the school becomes a social system where learning is an interactive engagement that fosters belonging.

Therefore,  any  community  of  professionals  which  embraces  and  fosters  the  above concepts can be called a learning community.

 

The diverse approaches to TLCs in three delegations of SMD academy:

To  explore  the  experiences  of  establishing  TLCs  in  Souss  Massa  Daraa  region,  I interviewed three supervisors in Agadir, Taroudant, and Tiznit. They generally hold common beliefs about TLCs and, at the same time, quite different views about their implementation.

The supervisor in Agadir, Mr Abdellatif Zoubair, adopts TLCs as the main framework for teacher professional development. All pedagogical meetings are organized in the form of a TLC. All teachers of English are considered members of a TLC. In my interview with the supervisor, he stated that, throughout his 25 years experience in educational supervision, he has realized that the most effective tool to real professional development is engagement in a reflective and collaborative practice. His evaluation of supervision showed that the training sessions led by the supervisor are generally ineffective. In his view, recommending a certain teaching strategy, demonstrating it does not mean that teachers will automatically implement it. This means that transforming teaching practices must necessarily go through changing attitudes and convictions; and this cannot be done without an active engagement of teachers in their own professional development.

The TLC meetings in this delegation are run in a democratic and participatory manner, which is a positive aspect. Also, there is a good level of professionalism as far as organization is concerned. The venue is appropriate and comfortable for holding TLC meetings. Timing  is  handled very well, and attendance  is  normal. Also, teachers exchange ideas, reflect on their practices and discuss practical teaching techniques.

The ELT supervisor in Tiznit, Mr Tayeb Idihya, opted for a different approach. He did not adopt TLCs as the main framework for professional development. He considers that it must be voluntary and completely autonomous. That’s why he didn’t use to attend the TLC meetings regularly. He left it to the TLC members to decide on the venue and time of holding the meetings. TLC leaders give brief accounts of their work to other teachers during pedagogical meetings.

The  ELT  supervisor  in  Taroudant,  Mr  Mohammed  Hassim,  has  recently  adopted  a modified version of the TLC model in his supervisory area. Rather than turn all pedagogical   meetings   into   TLC   meetings,   he   made   membership   in   learning communities optional, but strongly recommended it and provided all the support for TLCs. For him, a TLC is a team that has a specific project and follows an action plan to complete it. He set up the project teams on a voluntary basis and provided a set of projects based on the needs of teachers. For example, one team has been working on testing and assessment, which, for the supervisor, is a real problem in the area. Each team                is   composed   of   less   than   ten   teachers,   and   a   coordinator   manages communication and makes sure the agenda is being followed and the end product is presented on time. The product in the case of the testing and assessment team is a booklet that contains tests, quizzes for all levels, and which respect the standards and criteria.  The team coordinator presents  an  update  report  in  each  pedagogical meeting. When all teams finish their work, usually at the end of the academic year, the teams present the end products to the other colleagues.

 

What we have here are three approaches to the implementation of TLCs:

  • a systematic adoption of the model as the main official professional development framework, in the case of Agadir delegation;
  • 2- limited experimentation of the model as a marginal self-development framework for teachers in the case of Tiznit, and;
  • 3- a pragmatic adaptation of the model to serve the supervisor’s educational project in his area, the case of Taroudant.

Agadir delegation is relatively easier to manage, in comparison with Taroudant and Tiznit delegations, which are geographically scattered. The supervisor has managed to find a very suitable venue for TLC meetings, which is a spacious training center in the city centre. Also, the supervisor believes in the central role of reflective practice and thinks the TLC members can help each other cope with the technical aspects of classroom teaching. This encourages and motivates teachers to take the lead and assume responsibility for their own CPD. These factors actually facilitate holding TLCs and provide a favorable atmosphere for collegial work. Most importantly, the TLC members have a shared vision about what constitutes effective teaching.

The supervisor in Tiznit delegation holds very positive attitude towards TLCs and their importance in enhancing professional practice and nurturing educational leadership. His style is based on providing moral support for TLCs but granting them autonomy from the official work of the supervisor. This way, TLCs work outside the pedagogical meetings and are not necessarily in line with the supervisor’s agenda and project.

The approach of the supervisor in Taroudant draws from an evaluation of his previous experience of implementing TLCs in Zagora, which is relatively smaller and less vast than Taroudant. The objective of the supervisor has been to keep the spirit of TLCs as teams of teachers who work collaboratively to achieve common goals, and ensure that they serve the supervisory project, which is based on evaluation of teachers’ needs. Thus, TLCs work in parallel with the supervisor within a non-directive participatory leadership style. In this approach, although membership in a TLC is not mandatory, the supervisor adopts a motivational approach by constantly giving the floor to team leaders to update the other teachers during the pedagogical meetings about the progress of the TLC. The sense of achievement which is reflected in the project-based TLC work, the supervisor hopes, would encourage more and more teachers to join the teams later. The approach here is relevant, motivational and pragmatic.

Teachers’ perspectives explored:

To have an overall evaluation of the TLCs experience in SMD academy, a questionnaire was sent to Agadir TLC members (81 teachers) and a sample of TLC participants was interviewed. I held semi-structured conversations with the following teachers: Mr Abeljalil Elhariri, Mr Hamid Elouardi, Mrs Widad Tazi Chibi, Mr Salaheddine Belaassal, and Mrs Soumaya Amgoune. These teachers hold very positive attitudes about TLCs and are aware of their role in enhancing teacher collaborative professional development and promoting reflective practice. The interviews revealed a few elements that need improvement,  especially  the  need  for  more  peer-observation,  more  analysis  of learning artifacts, and more care for the needs of middle school teachers.

How to Improve TLCs:

In  their  evaluation  of  building  a  learning  community  for  pre-service  and  in-service teachers, Watson and Steele (2006) concluded that while learning communities have benefits, they face a major problem: rigid attitudes of some teachers who hold views that are not consistent with the objectives of a community. They concluded that building a successful learning community needs time.

Tarnoczi (2006) warns TLC leaders against a mechanical view of teacher education, by embracing “unifying rituals” and standardizing the teaching practice in a way that excludes individual differences. Wood and Whitford (2010) also contend that professional learning communities should avoid turning teachers into technicians and, on the contrary, should promote teachers as professionals who develop knowledge and share it. In order to improve TLCs, they suggest some changes. Teachers’ work should be more open to critique and easily monitored. Also, they have noticed that TLCs need to train teachers to grasp the goals and priorities of the educational system, so that they can respond to the changing student needs. Most importantly, learning communities need to cultivate a culture of accountability for student results. In order to do this, TLC members should collect student data and continuously scrutinize it so that they can deal with learners’ difficulties and needs.

A more useful proposition for improving professional learning communities is Easton’s (2009) recommendation to use protocols in a more systematic manner. These are guidelines for professional conversation, based on norms that the PLC members agree upon in order to make communication effective. Easton elaborated on four types of protocols:

protocols for examining student work: protocols for examining professional practice: Protocols for addressing issues and problems: Protocols for effective discussions:

Dana and Yendol-Hoppey (2008: 45-47) argue that it is essential for TLCs to study student data, since the aim is to improve learning. They think that TLC leaders can do this by “insisting that student data is a regular artifact of the regular group meetings. Data includes, but is not limited to, standardized test data, formative assessment, summative assessment, authentic assessment, performance-based assessment, student work, and attitude/surveys.” They insist that teachers should be encouraged to bring both good and bad data, and share it with colleagues for scrutiny. This, they suggest,can be done in the work of a workshop.

From a leadership perspective, Fullan (2008) called for extending professional learning communities to the whole school staff, by using the capacity of the members of these communities to build others’ capacities. In other words, they should not contend themselves only with what happens in meeting rooms, but involve the members of the school community in embracing the shared vision and working together to implement it. Such “collective leadership” (Fullan, 2003), has been confirmed by research. For example, in a study of 90 schools in 45 districts, Leithwood and Mascall (2008) found a significant proportion of variation between collective leadership and student performance. A similar study done by Printy (2008) confirmed the same results. This tells us that TLCs, as frameworks for collaboration, can be improved by strengthening shared leadership and extending this mechanism to the whole school community.

Practical Implications and recommendations: Implications for Teachers

Joining a teacher learning community has many invaluable benefits. Teachers who are members of TLCs build trust within the group and share their successful practices as well as their problems and grievances with the current school system. Members also develop a sense of camaraderie that leads to more socialization. TLC members also develop effective leadership. By taking turns to lead TLC sessions and facilitate dialogue, teachers gradually improve inter-personal communication skills and learn how to solve problems in a collegial manner. This increases self-confidence and helps teacher leaders to qualify for further leadership tasks beyond TLCs. Teachers should seize the opportunity of being a TLC member to bring their teaching problems to the table and get help from colleagues. They should open to criticism. An important recommendation for teachers is to focus on student learning while planning for TLC meetings. This can be done using multiple techniques. First, teachers working in the same school should carry out peer-observation in order to identify, explore and analyze their teaching practices and identify strengths and weaknesses. Peer- observation should be done within an action research scheme, so that theory is brought at the service of practice. Second, teachers should keep a teaching journal or a professional portfolio to document and reflect on their action research projects and peer-observation activities. Setting up a resource centre is also important as a platform to provide learning opportunities for students and also for teachers in the same school to build a learning community. The resource centre can have the double function of supporting learning and holding meetings of the school-based TLC.

Implications for supervisors:

Supervisors can benefit from establishing TLCs by having their teachers develop levels of trust in sharing their practice and enhancing their teaching practice to improve the students’ learning. Supervisors may not be ideal facilitators or TLC leaders themselves, as their presence may limit open discussions. By sharing the leadership in TLCs, supervisors can delegate more work to senior teachers who may coach other teachers in TLCs and in the schools. Eventually, teachers may become more self-directed in their professional  learning.  For  novice  supervisors  or  those  who  are  new  to  their supervisory areas, it is not advisable to start TLCs right away. They should take some time to know the teachers very well and evaluate the context to determine whether or not a TLC has the necessary conditions to succeed. As for the supervisors who know teachers well and have a positive evaluation of the context, setting up a TLC is highly recommended for the benefits already stated. Starting with a pilot group is helpful to ensure the first experience is successful and motivating for other teachers. The pilot group should be made of volunteers who are highly motivated.

In parallel with teacher learning communities, it is recommended that supervisors help teachers and schools set up resource centers, as they focus mainly on student learning and help incorporate formative assessment and learner-centered activities as tools for improving instruction. When resource centers are well-established, they can become the backbone of TLCs, as spaces for teacher collaboration that focuses on improving learning.

Another recommendation for supervisors is providing incentives for TLC members in the form  of  end-of-year  certificates  of  participation,  mentioning  TLC  members  and leadres’ contribution in their official appraisal reports.

Implications for Schools:

Schools may be positively influenced by the improvement in both teaching and learning.

Students may benefit from the various teaching techniques learned by the teachers and from the fact that teachers work together for their benefit. Especially when TLCs adopt a project-based approach which focuses directly on learning and produces concrete outcomes, students could benefit from improved teaching materials, and innovative learning contexts, such as English clubs, resource centers and ICT platforms. Schools, therefore, should support TLCs when they are established, by providing logistical and administrative help. They should also facilitate setting up school-based TLCs when teachers decide to create them.

Implications for ministry training program unit:

A 21st century motto for education is that the quality of an educational system depends on the quality of its teachers. Up to now, unlike in other countries such as the UK, we do not have an official program for continuing professional development in Morocco. The ministry relies on providing in-service training which usually has a top-down nature. The content of the ministry’s in-service training programs is always pre-set, and the teachers’ needs are not carefully considered. The supervisors are supposed to help teachers develop professionally, but there aren’t clear mechanisms to do so, and the resources are not provided for teachers to pursue lifelong learning under an accountability system. It is high time we started empowering teachers and supervisors by  working  on  a  national  framework  for  continuing  professional  development. Teacher learning communities might be adopted in this regard.

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