Learning Communities in Schools – What Hinders and Why

“I think a summary of what worked in BC schools along with what didn’t and why would help others build from these experiences” was a part of a comment to my July 2013 blog post.  Last week I gave a brief response to the first part of that and will attempt this week to give a brief response to the second part…..

What doesn’t work in BC and Why doesn’t it work….

As in my last post, my response comes in part from the stories told to me by practicing BC educators (mostly teachers) while researching  (see dissertation here for a more fulsome story if desired http://summit.sfu.ca/item/11268 – teachers stories are in chapters 4 and 5) and in part from my own personal experiences.

There are a number of conditions that are helpful for creating and sustaining learning communities.  If these conditions are not present, it is possible that the learning community will falter.  The following is a taste of some, but not all of these conditions.

  • capacity – If there is not enough capacity to nourish the development of a positive learning community within the system  it can be like “traveling into a headwind” (Robinson).  Also, capacity at differing levels can have an impact on success – individual educator, school community, as well as district community, and provincial community.
    • some teachers I interviewed spoke of former staffs they had belonged to that had too many members that were entrenched and not willing to consider change.  Furthermore, while researching, I found that this phenomenon was not specific to any one school system, and was not effectively addressed by the school systems in which schools were embedded generally.  A positive cultural change was noted only when enough “entrenched” people left/retired.
      • teachers I interviewed overwhelmingly did not feel that their union was helpful when a staff wanted to develop a learning community.  (They did find their union helpful for other reasons.)  Teachers reported that being a fairly apolitical staff (more open minded in nature) was more likely what allowed them to be part of developing a life enhancing learning community.
    • A former (recently retired) school superintendent offered this comment after hearing me speak on the topic….”I would move people if I knew that was happening, but I probably would not know about it because people would be too afraid to say anything”.
  • A balance between autonomy and professional obligation – can be a delicate thing.  There are many differing interpretations of what autonomy is, and sometimes this gets in the way of developing learning communities.
    • there were teachers I interviewed who spoke of colleagues who would not work with others, who tenaciously hung on to the notion of “teacher as solitary practitioner”, for a variety of reasons.  This was most unhelpful for developing a learning community, especially if there was a large core group with this orientation on the staff.
    • I like the notion of autonomy being bound to professional obligation.  In other words, teachers must act autonomously because they are the ones working most closely with students and therefore know them best, but there is an obligation to work with others and to keep abreast of new research and promising new practices. Research has clearly shown (Marzano) that collaborative practices amongst educators have a strong positive effect on student learning, and I would say on adult/educator learning as well.
  • Structured time – can be seen as positive or negative.  For example, time to meet that had a structure (i.e. would you like 45 minutes to meet with your colleague about X), but was not prescriptive ( i.e. you will meet every Wednesday afternoon with X and your meeting will cover this..), was more appreciated.  Time that is too prescriptive is seen by some as an infringement on autonomy.

Overall, there is no correct or incorrect “recipe” to follow that will take into account the capacity and readiness of the individual/school/district to help…. This is why a living systems lens is most helpful…..as it is likely that things outside your control may have impact upon your ability to move forwards.  You may need to “zig or zag” in order to move, and then again you may be in a stuck system that does not have the understanding or the capacity to move forwards yet.

So how do you build the capacity needed?….and how quickly do you need to move forwards?…. and do you have any support within your smaller and broader community?… are questions to ask yourself.

I hope the above is helpful and makes sense.  Hopefully it resonates with you.  It is not meant to be a fulsome description, but rather a taste of some of the highlights.  Perhaps it has generated more questions for you…If so…please let me know if there is something else you would like to explore…

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Learning Communities – What works and Why

“I think a summary of what worked in BC schools along with what didn’t and why would help others build from these experiences” was a partial comment to my last blog entry, and here is a brief response to the first part of that…..

What works in BC and Why does it work….

On a side note, I prefer to use the term Learning Community rather than Professional Learning Community, as the latter gives the impression that the community is meant for the professionals in the community only.

My response comes in part from the stories told to me by practicing BC educators (mostly teachers) while researching  (see dissertation here for a more fulsome story if desired http://summit.sfu.ca/item/11268) and in part from my own personal experiences.

The first thing to consider is whether or not there is enough capacity to move forward (amongst staff  and within the system in which the community is to be embedded as well).

Getting the structure right is also important.  In other jurisdictions, a top down, mandated structure might work well.  Knowledge and experience tells me that top down will most likely not work well in BC.  This does not mean that developing an LC should be a free for all.  It means that the principal provides the structure and is available to drop in or to help if desired/needed.  The initiative/meat of the meeting comes from the staff.  In a nutshell, LC meeting time is staff driven and principal facilitated (by the way, facilitation is multifaceted).  In a fortunate district, there will be senior level staff who are supportive of the messiness that must happen in order to work through the process.

  • In much of the learning communities literature, the schedule for teacher meetings and the meetings themselves are highly structured and quite compliance driven.  Some teachers I interviewed found this to be highly stressful and not necessarily very helpful.  I think that in some schools/districts, this has caused “PLCs” to become highly politicized, which is not unexpected given the tensions around education in BC generally.  I have found that providing teachers time to work on areas of passion, that tie directly to improving learning for students, is more helpful.  This is more “inquiry” in style and allows for the messiness required for true adult learning to take place.
  • Meeting time is given to those in the community who want to work on something that will help students.  Time is not meant to be equally divided (although as educators see the benefit to students and to fellow staff members, it is more likely to become more evenly distributed).  Some teams may meet only once, others may meet weekly for a month, some may meet periodically over a year or two or …
  • There is an overall school vision that the staff has played a large part in developing.  This is the lens to use in order to determine what the LC meeting time should be used for.
  • The principal is the “facilitator” of the LC meeting time schedule so that they can be effective in their role as “leader of leaders”.

I hope the above is helpful.  Hopefully it makes sense or resonates with you.  It is not meant to be a fulsome description, but rather a taste of some of the highlights.  Perhaps it has generated more questions for you…If so….please let me know if there is something else you would like to explore…

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Challenges with Learning Communities

Recently on twitter, I responded to a fellow tweeter (@ChrisWejr) when he asked if anyone had tried and been successful in creating a “Professional Learning Community” in BC.  (You see, BC has some interesting politics and furthermore, it is my experience that very little can simply be transplanted from one school (system) to another with success.) I responded yes to Chris’ tweeted question, and suggested he google my thesis title if he was interested.  To my surprise he took me up on my suggestion and suggested I had enough to write a book.  I laughingly said, yeah, when I have some spare time.

Developing Learning Communities through a living systems lens has been a focus of mine during the past few years, first as a researcher completing a doctorate degree (see dissertation here if desired http://summit.sfu.ca/item/11268 ), and then as a practitioner working within a public school system in British Columbia, Canada.

A living systems style of learning community in a nutshell is not managed “top down”, but allows and provides for the people within the system to work on what will help the learning for all (students first and adults as well).  It approaches all that is done in the schoolhouse from an inquiry stance that accepts the messiness required of both adult and student learning.

There has been much research done extolling the benefits of “Professional Learning Communities” and yet as recently as 2010 researchers such as Huffman & Hipp have stated that leading educators continue to struggle with creating and maintaining them.

Having had the opportunity to work in a variety of schools and districts, I think this is a universal challenge, and is not necessarily “because of” of any one individual, school, district or system.

However, I began to wonder if this might be a helpful topic to blog about, as not everyone has the time or the inclination to slog through a thesis as Chris did, and a blog is hopefully more responsive than a book, to what people need.

So here is the question, and I would love to hear back from you….Firstly, is this something that is of interest?  and secondly, Are there specific questions/topics you might like to be part of exploring?

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Student Engagement

Watch our students articulate their understanding of our school community’s forward movement! Student and staff inquiry, Self regulated learning, Social emotional learning, Assessment for Learning, and Learning in Depth are highlighted.

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Caring, Kindness, Firedrills and Volunteering

One of the bonuses (some might call it a side-effect) of working in a Learning Community that has a positive living systems framework (Lauman, 2011) is the spillage of kindness and caring.  We have an LC where staff works together because we know that as a community we can be greater than our own selves and we know that in supporting one another we can harness the positive thoughts and energies of all towards our goal of making our school a great place to learn and be. 

Further to this, we know that learning is much more likely to take place in a community in which people’s social and emotional well-being are nurtured.  (Hymel, 2013)

We recently had a surprise fire-drill.  While this is not an unusual occurrence in a grade K to 7 school, there were a couple of circumstances that made it stand out in my mind.  Firstly, our grade 5s had gone to camp, so our grade 6/7 teacher (I’ll call her teacher A) had taken on some extra grade 6s (from the grade 5/6 class) so her colleague could go to camp.  Secondly, we had a teacher (I’ll call her teacher B) working at the food bank with a group of students, so teacher A had her grade 7 students working with teacher Bs grade 2/3 students down the hall on a reading project using ipads.  When the fire bell went off, teacher A headed down the hall to teacher Bs class.  When she arrived, the grade 7s said they were ready, and they were.  They had lined up the grade 2/3 group, closed the windows and doors, turned off the lights and had placed themselves at the front and back of the line in order to keep the grade 2/3s safe.  How do I know this?…because teacher A shared this story with me, obviously touched by what her grade 7s had done. 

It has been a tradition for the past 30 years or so at the school for grade 5s to attend camp in the spring.  This year we had two male teachers teaching grade 5 and we needed two females to attend as well (for nightly cabin groups).  One mom volunteered and one of our female learning support teachers also volunteered to go, even though she knew it would make more work for her and would have her working with students not usually assigned to her case load.  When visiting with the grade 5s it was evident that they were having a great time, and that they would talk about this experience for years to come.  This is in great part due to the gift of time given by our three teachers and one parent.

The common thread here is leadership that is enacted in order to help others.  It is part of the culture at our school to step up and help others, and it bodes well for the continued positive development of both the adults and the children in the community.


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The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink (2009), although not new anymore, was a book I enjoyed reading through over the past few days, with the lens of continuing to develop strong and positive school learning communities.

I found that Pink’s thinking supports the notion of creating organic learning communities that do not rely on purely top down strategies (carrots and sticks he calls them).  This aligns very well with my own perspective (and doctoral work) around learning communities in schools that have learning at the center of every decision-making activity (Mitchell & Sackney, 2009).

Some interesting ideas Pink writes about are:

  • Humans have a strong drive for intrinsic motivation and there is evidence to back up this assertion (Harlow & Deci).
  • There is research to support the notion that extrinsic motivation (carrots and sticks) have the propensity to “crush creativity, crowd out good behaviour, and extinguish intrinsic motivation” (p. 220).  This does not mean that there is not a place for extrinsic motivation, especially if the task is more rule-bound in nature.
  • Extrinsic motivation can furthermore encourage unethical behaviour, create addictions (or more entitled behaviors) and foster short term thinking.
  • The three elements necessary for tapping into people’s intrinsic motivation are: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  It is important to note that within autonomy it is assumed that there are specific goals to reach and furthermore, that autonomy does not necessarily mean “independence”. 
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Innovation, Collaboration and a Growth Mindset

I have the privilege of being the official leader in a school in which all the adults are leaders who continue to seek new and better ways of practicing.  What I mean by this is that all adults work tirelessly together in order to make the learning experience the best for each child.  Now this may seem like a trite statement, but having worked in many schools in more than one school district, I can say that this is not what happens in many schools, which makes our school a little different than many.

As I write this post, all primary children are involved in Reading groups.  This means that all primary children are receiving instruction close to their zone of proximal development for a full half hour.  This will happen every day this week and every week, and represents only a portion of the reading instruction that children will receive.  Classroom teachers, education assistants and learning support teachers are all involved with leading groups.  Later today, our intermediate children will have the same opportunities for both math and reading instruction.  Educators conference regularly about students and students are moved between groups as soon as they show readiness to move.  All adults in the building feel responsible for all children in the building.

This morning all of our intermediate students were involved in Learning in Depth (LiD), which is new for us this year.  The idea for this kind of learning comes from Keiran Egan’s work (a professor at SFU).  Students are given a topic that they will explore for a number of years, working with educators and the home as needed in order to further their exploration.  It is exciting to watch the students’ excitement.  The logistics of having all intermediate students work together at the same time also gave us the opportunity to explore “bring your own device” for Thursday mornings, which is working well.

This is my third year at this school, and each year I notice that the creative and organic way in which we structure our collaborative time, positively impacts our learning community.  I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of the year brings!

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