The initiative to bring teachers together into Professional Learning Communities (PLC) is not new or abstract and a bigger push for these is welcome. Collegiate support is a viable way to help teachers improve and learn from one another. Being a relatively new teacher, I’ve seen the benefits of working with mentors to improve my teacher toolbox. Why should this just be a new teacher thing? We should all be part of professional teams that work together to improve student outcomes.
It is not just new teachers that need to learn from the experienced. Experienced teachers can also learn from new teachers, specifically the cutting-edge research they have just been taught in University. Young teachers are generally keen to experiment with new practices as they develop their teaching philosophy. Everyone has their own expertise and can contribute to the total pot. Without this sharing, we continually find the same solutions in isolation year after year. Idealistically, with a shared pool of resources and strategies, the teaching profession could benefit greatly from this approach. An approach where knowledge and expertise flow between networks and communities.
Note that I have used experience teacher and not an expert teacher. These are different concepts. One can be experienced but not be an expert. Expertise is about pushing the boundaries of your competencies. It is a state of being. Experience can be stagnant. One can try the same thing year after year and not necessarily grow professionally.
Let’s dive into why collaboration is important for our profession. Collaboration is defined by the Mitchell Institue Report (2015) as the sharing of effort, knowledge, and resources in the pursuit of shared goals. This isn’t just coaching. It is a network of teachers drawing from one another’s expertise, a many-to-many relationship. It helps to improve the common practice of teaching and helps teachers improve their daily practice. It also isn’t about sharing war stories. True PLCs have a common vision and goals that are attained through data drive practice and analysis. It is not enough to just bring people together. The main goal of PLCs should be to improve on practice, measure teacher impact and, to improve student outcomes. In Victoria, the PLC initiative is a key aspect of helping us establish and execute the Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (FISO).
John Hattie (2015) argues that teacher variability in effectiveness inside schools is an important hurdle that can be reduced through a change in professional practice. In the paper, ‘What Works Best in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise’, Hattie describes that variability within a school is greater than the variability between schools. He also highlights 8 tasks to help schools move towards collaborative practices, these are shown at the end of this blog post. It also highlights that PLCs are innately linked to culture. A school’s internal culture determines the willingness to work as a team. It also determines the willingness of individual teachers to break free from the old adage of ‘my classroom is unique, leave me alone’ mentality.
Authentic engagement about professional practice helps teachers grow and learn new ways of approaching teaching and learning. This professional sharing is a key piece to break away from siloed information about teaching. It also allows us to better support teachers with the skills and knowledge they may be lacking. Without a strong network, it would be very difficult to reach this many teachers and to differentiate support for these teachers.
In a connected world and a rapidly changing labour market, it is unlikely that the teaching profession can continue to be isolated from the practices of 21st-century society. Teamwork and collaboration are at the forefront of industries and businesses. Teams have become more dynamic and one’s abilities to adapt to the changing nature of the labour market is valuable. By creating a collaborative and positive culture, teams can be more productive than the individual, boosting up each other’s deficiencies. Collaboration is here to stay, it’s either we adapt or continue down the road of outdated professional practices.
Without practicing teamwork, we as teachers cannot teach students the best way to collaborate. It takes skill and practice to navigate different group dynamics. It is hard. Without practicing these skills, we cannot hope to pass on knowledge to our students about what good collaboration looks like. Even worse, we cannot spot good collaboration taking place in our own classrooms. Without experience these skills, we can’t inform. If someone tells you that they know how to work with a team but have not been able to show it, that should be a warning flag that they might not know what a good team really looks like.
Building Collaborative Expertise – A Task List (8)
- Shift the narrative to collaborative expertise and student progression. This is away from ‘fixing the teacher’.
- Agree on what a year’s progress looks like.
- Expect that students will reach a year’s worth of progress.
- Develop new assessment and evaluation tools to provide feedback for teachers.
- Measure and know the impact that teachers are having on student outcomes.
- Ensure teachers have expertise in diagnosis, intervention, and evaluation.
- Use collective knowledge to scale up success.
- Link autonomy to a year’s progress. Study teachers who can achieve and support those who can’t.
Hattie, John. What Works Best In Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise. 2015.
Bentley, Tom. Cazaly, Ciannon. The Shared Work of Learning: Liting Educational Achievement Through Colaboration. 2015. Mitchell Institute Research Report.
Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (FISO)