13 Lessons to Take Away from the National Colloquium on PLCs

pic2On 18 and 19 September the Ministry of Basic Education organized a nation-wide colloquium on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The Integrated Strategic Framework for Teacher Professional Development (ISPFTED) foresees the nation-wide implementation of PLCs by 2017. This colloquium was a first step towards that implementation. During the first day a wide range of speakers from academia, government, unions and subject associations provided input on international and local research, local experiences and various initiatives on PLCs.  On the second day, participants were invited to provide feedback on two draft documents: a policy document on subject committees and PLCs and a practical guideline on implementing PLCs.

Here are 13 lessons from the two days:

  1. Hardly anyone doubted the useful role PLCs could play in the South African education system.  However, it became clear that more conceptual and practical work needs to be done before PLCs can be rolled out nationwide.
  2. Any guideline on PLCs should clearly describe the concept. The prominent place of PLCs in DBE’s Strategic Framework 2011-2025 (ISPFTED) and the excitement on the ‘new’ concept make that all types of professional development are dubbed PLCs.  A clear definition of what they are, is needed to avoid losing the power of the concept. Prof. Brodie stressed that PLCs are more than sharing resources over tea. They require intensive collaboration to develop resources and prepare and evaluate classroom practice together.
  3. We should be realistic in our expectations for PLCs, both in terms of numbers and outcomes and conceptual purity.  Much depends on what kind of PLCs we want.  Do we only count PLCs that are truly teacher-led, data-driven and collaborative in nature?  Or do we include all kinds of regular teaching meetings, in order to reach ambitious quantitative targets?  As such, stating (unrealistically) high targets might water down what are considered PLCs and reduce the process-oriented and collaborative character of PLCs.
  4. Implementation of PLCs should also take into account the existing education system and school culture. Can we expect PLCs to become beacons of a collaborative, data-driven and self-driven view on professional development, if the education system in which they operate is prescriptive and bureaucratic? Could we hope for PLCs to become a Trojan horse for change of the education system? How far should we be prepared to compromise? Criteria such as teacher-driven, school-based, continuous and collaborative surfaced as key criteria without which a PLC is not a PLC any more.
  5. PLCs are as much about changes in school culture as they are about individual teacher development.  A successful PLC manages to instil a culture of ‘us-ness’.  Teaching and learning become a collective responsibility for the school rather than an individual responsibility for the teacher. pic1
  6. PLCs are inherently connected to the concept of teacher agency. Implementing PLCs raises therefore wider questions. How do we see the role of the teachers, as implementers of policy and curriculum or as education professionals? This raises the question whether the current climate in South Africa is conducive to teacher agency?
  7. Imposing PLCs on teachers and schools will result in command and control, compliance and resistance, nipping any potential of PLCs in the bud. Participation in PLCs should be voluntary, based on teachers’ assessment of what constitutes valuable professional development for them.
  8. However, PLCs are unlikely to grow spontaneously. An important role for the Department of Basic Education lies in scaffolding and providing initial support to starting PLCs. Results from the Data-informed practice improvement project (DIPIP) Project indicated that this initial support may well be needed during several years. The challenge lies in finding a good balance between prescription and support.  An important role in providing this support lies with the provincial and district administrations.  Subject advisors should focus on their pedagogical rather than judgemental role and provide the necessary resources and capacity building.  Provinces should equip them with the skills to construct knowledge and be part of PLCs themselves.
  9. Time is most prominent on everyone’s list of challenges for PLCs. Arguments whether time should be provided to work in PLCs went both ways. Professional development and preparing lessons can be considered core parts of a teacher’s job description. PLCs intend to facilitate a shift from teaching as an isolated activity to a social approach to teaching. Secondly, if teachers find PLCs a valuable activity, they will invest time in it. However, if PLCs are to make headway beyond the very motivated, it was estimated that at least 2 consecutive hours per week should be dedicated to it. The 80 hours that are currently earmarked for professional development in teachers’ schedules could form the backbone of such a system.
  10. Conceptions of what constitutes valuable knowledge are changing. Rather than providing people with a bag of facts, it becomes more important to equip learners with 21st century skills such as information fluency, creativity fluency, collaborative skills and media fluency. New conceptions of knowledge also require new forms of CPD.
  11. We should be patient and be careful not to expect immediate effects of PLCs. Moreover, defining outcomes for successful PLCs is hard. PLCs are not going to change the ANA results in one year. First, PLCs are a slow and ongoing process, as much about the process of creating trust and developing a culture of systematic enquiry, as about tangible outputs. Reporting on the activities in PLCs and the products that come out of them is only a first step. More relevant outcomes of PLCs lie in bridging the gap between educational research and practice, promoting data-informed practice, instilling an attitude of lifelong learning and creating safe spaces for addressing practical issues. Most importantly however, but also hardest to measure, are the impact PLCs have on learning outcomes, equity, teacher identity and school culture.
  12. The distinction between PLCs and Subject Committees should be made very clear. Subject committees are structures at district, provincial and national level, organized per subject and aimed at providing advice on policy and curriculum issues. PLCs are primarily school-based structures to facilitate teaching and learning. However, this does not mean there is no learning, no professional development taking place in Subject Committees. There is also a clear link between PLCs and Subject Committees, as they feed each other with information and ideas. Moreover, PLCs that are supported by a broader network have turned out to be more successful. Ideally, PLCs engage in a process of moving out of the local and back in to access and bring in external expertise in PLCs.
  13. Principals play a crucial role in supporting PLCs. They should be more than enablers, providing time and space for PLCs. Their role extends to instructional leaders within PLCs, motivating teachers to engage in them, providing guidance to resources and facilitating conditions for a culture of collaboration across grades and subjects by for example promoting team teaching, lesson observations and seminars. Hence, DBE and PED’s support to PLC should for a big part lie in capacity development of school leaders, school management teams (SMTs) and Heads of Department (HoDs).

My keynote presentation is available on Slideshare.

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