Professional Learning Communities: Old Wine in New Bottles?

One of VVOB’s key areas for support in South Africa is supporting ministries at various levels to introduce Professional Learning Communities in schools. This gives implementation to Activity 3.3 in the national Integrated Strategic Framework for Teacher Development (ISPFTED), but above all VVOB supports this because it’s a cheap and effective way of professional development, something .

The first reaction from people when giving an introduction on PLCs is usually something like: we have seen this before, this is the same as the PWGs [Professional Working Groups, a previous and now defunct] etc. This is logical.  When asked to describe PLCs in one sentence, one could reasonably say: teachers regularly meeting to discuss issues relevant to their practice.  The purpose of this 2 hour introduction is to try to convey some of the finer print of PLCs:

  • PLCs start from a vision of teachers as professional, endowed with agency
  • PLCs consider teaching as a social profession, where collaboration is crucial
  • PLCs assume a collective responsibility for making sure that all learners can learn and reach intended outcomes
  • PLCs start from a data-driven, research-focused approach to teaching, with teachers continuously collecting, interpreting and acting upon classroom data to improve teaching and learning.

The main caveat for PLCs lies in the hurricane metaphor that Larry Cuban introduced so aptly.  Policy reforms usually create huge waves at the surface, but at the bottom of the sea, the storm is hardly noticeable.  Similarly, PLCs risk remaining policy on paper, or worse, becoming a compliance or tick-box issue. PLCs need time for trust to be developed among members, develop group dynamics and leadership and evolve from sharing to real collaboration.  In contrast, officials are usually and understandably impatient to ‘do something’ for the quality of teaching and learning.

With its partners, the Department of Basic Education, the South African Council for Educators and the Free State Department of Education, VVOB plans following support for PLCs:

  • Help DBE give the recently approved national guidelines nation-wide attention, such as by a National Colloquium.
  • Organize information events in every province for education officials
  • Organize 3-day workshops and follow-up activities for a groups of mid-level educators in every province, based on a pilot in Free State province
  • Help DBE design and implement an annual monitoring instrument for PLCs
  • Help SACE to promote PLCs as a tool for effective teacher development with education providers
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Why Gauteng’s Plan for Introducing Smartboards in Every Classroom Is Not a Good Idea

monkeysLast week the MEC for Education in Gauteng announced plans for replacing all blackboards by whiteboards.  This comes after earlier plans to distribute tablets and connect schools to the internet.

There is hardly any evidence for a positive relation between the amount of ICT in a classroom and learning outcomes. In some cases, this might be due to a mismatch with traditional assessment practices and curricula.  Some highly performing education systems are famously ICT-absent such as Finland.  Large-scale projects such as One-Laptop-per-Child didn’t find such a positive relationship (see also my blog post on IDB study of OLPC Peru) and are now largely discredited.  At the very least, learners should get a personal device and teachers should be extensively trained and guided during implementation.  They should get time to explore and make mistakes. As Michael Trucano writes: personal laptops does not yet make personalized learning.  Systems with a few tablets or computers per class have a dismal track record. Apart from that, tablets are arguably the worst possible choice of device, as they’re designed for consuming content, much more than for creating content. Finally, curricula and assessment practices are often not adapted to the different kind of education that ICT enables, so that teachers will rather fit computers into their traditional ways of teaching and learning.

South Africa spends 6,2% of its GDP on education (2013 data), about the same as Belgium. However, about 90% are personnel costs, leaving schools with little space for investing in infrastructure. ICT infrastructure is expensive, in particular when the Total Cost of Operation (TOC) is taken into account (which is rarely done), which includes costs for bandwidth, electricity, insurance, security and maintenance.  Often the TOC is 10 times the initial purchase cost of the equipment.  It’s hard to see how South African schools are going to finance this.

The lack of research evidence stands in stark contrast with the discourse of policy makers.  This is easy to understand.  ICT holds the promise of ‘fixing’ a ‘broken’ education system. Policy makers are seen to take ‘decisive action’ and to be ‘modern’, ‘innovative’, finding ’21st century solutions’ for current-day ‘digital natives’.  This optimism is based on the potential of ICT in education, rather than its actual track record.  What often happens is that policy makers, assisted’ by vendors, have sought to simply transfer ICT-related models and practices from classrooms in industrialized countries to less developed education systems in other parts of the world, assuming reliable electricity and connectivity, well-trained teachers, sufficient available time-on-task, highly literate students, space to implement student-centric pedagogies, relevant content, etc. that do not correspond with local realities.

South Africa consistently ranks near the bottom of international rankings of learning outcomes such as those from SACMEQ, TIMMS and WEF. Massive investments in ICT hardly seems like the most urgent priority in a system with massive challenges in teacher competence, basic infrastructure such as sanitation.  Rolling back-outs, called load shedding in South Africa, raise the question how all these computers will be charged.

Additionally, dotted with one of the most unequal countries in the world, it’s hard to see how investing in ICT will bridge the digital divide in education.  Despite rhetoric that argues the contrary, introduction of ICT in schools often exacerbate various entrenched inequities in education systems (urban-rural, rich-poor, boy-girl, linguistic and cultural divides, special needs students ). Mitigating these inequities is possible, but requires explicit attention

So, is there no role for ICT at all in South African education?  The following areas seem more promising to me than equipping each learner with a tablet and each teacher with a smartboard:

  1. ICT’s main added value initially lies in school and class management. Helping educators to keep electronic learner records, lesson plans, test results etc. can greatly improve efficiency and monitoring quality.
  2. Helping teachers to become information literate, including basic online search skills, collaborative editing and knowledge management greatly improves their access to knowledge and resources such as OERs.
  3. Simulations and animations have proven to be helpful in science lessons, where many processes are too slow (geological processes), too fast (falling objects), too big (planetary movements) or too small (atom interactions) to demonstrate.