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

Debunking Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Theory

A recommended education blog is that of Donald Clark.  In various blog posts, he debunks some popular educational theories, such as learning stylesKirkpatrick 4-levels of evaluation, left-right brain people and hot air-selling educational gurus such as Ken Livingstone and Sugata Mitra.  James Atherton formulates it perfectly:

So often in education, shallow unsubstantiated TED talks replace the real work of researchers and those who take a more rigorous view of evidence. Sir Ken Robinson, is, I suspect, the prime example of this romantic theorising, Sugata Mitra the second. Darlings of the conference circuit, they make millions from talks but do untold damage when it comes to the real word and the education of our children.’

Like in management, popular but unsubstantiated theories seem to be a predicament of education, where research struggles to find its way to the classroom and where consultants make a nice buck selling these theories to a captive teacher professional development public.


First, Maslow himself updated his model in 1970, but this updated model hardly found its way into the professional development circuit. Second, the model doesn’t stand the test of basic scientific scrutiny:

Although hugely influential, his work was never tested experimentally at the time and when it was, from the 70s onwards, was found wanting. Empirical evidence showed no real evidence in terms of a strict hierarchy, not the categories, as defined by Maslow.

The self-actualisation theory is now regarded as having no real value as it is wholly subjective. The problem is his slapdash use of evidence. Self-actualised people are selected by him then used as evidence for self-actualisation.

An even weaker aspect of the theory is its strict hierarchy. It is clear that the higher needs can be fulfilled before the lower needs are satisfied. There are many counter-examples and indeed, creativity can atrophy and die on the back of success. Maslow himself, felt that the lines were not that clear. In short, subsequent research has shown that his hierarchy is crude, as needs are pursued non-hierarchically, often in parallel. A different set of people could be chosen to prove that self-actualisation was the result of, say, trauma or poverty (Van Gogh etc.).

Most sets of indicators for the well being of children are more complex, sophisticated and do not fall into a simple hierarchy. There are many such schemas at international (UNICEF) and national levels. They rarely bear much resemblance to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Indeed, research in economic development in developing countries shows that people frequently prefer investing in things like cellphones, local traditions such as marriages and funeral ceremonies and education, before their basic needs are met.

Extensive research on needs’ fulfillment and social well-being (Tay and Diener, 2011) shows little support for Maslow’s hypothesis:

Our analyses reveal that as hypothesized by Maslow, people tend to achieve basic and safety needs before other needs. However, fulfilling the various needs has relatively independent effects on SWB (Societal Well Being). For example, a person can gain wellbeing by meeting psychosocial needs regardless of whether his or her basic needs are fully met.

Another implication of our findings is that need fulfillment needs to be achieved at the societal level, not simply at the individual level. Although Maslow focused on individuals, we found that there are societal effects as well. It helps one’s SWB if others in one’s nation have their needs fulfilled.

More rigour in teacher professional development is certainly needed.  Frustratingly, in our first workshop in South Africa, university (!) lecturers came in with their materials on left-right brains and learning styles. On the positive side, it helps to weed out the lazy or incompetent providers from the quality ones.

What It Means to Have a High Quality of Learning

Quality Measuring the quality of learning is a notably tricky endeavour.  Before engaging in a course, you make a decision based on available information and alleged proxies for its quality.  Things like the reputation of the institution, the fame of the instructors, the garishness of the conference hall and the size of the sports centre. When pressed, many of us will agree that these don’t necessarily say much about the amount of learning that takes place, but what else have we got?

Test results are often used to measure amounts of learning taking place.  Standardized tests would be needed though to compare the quality across institutions. Even then, local contexts differ and students’ socio-economic status and initial knowledge should be controlled for.  Is a school that selects for strong learners and, as a result, produces stellar pass rates, a better school than a school that accepts and works with all learners, but achieving a lower pass rate?  Tests also risk reducing what we see as quality to what can be easily measured.  Good primary schools in South Africa are those with good ANA results in maths and literacy. Nothing about other subjects such as science, let alone hard to measure skills such as motivation, curiosity and working together.  Motivation, passion in and a desire for lifelong learning is not captured in traditional tests, but are often better predictors of good achievement in the future workplace. Learning may not be suitable to be expressed in amounts.

With the South African Council for Educators (SACE) we have been working on a framework to measure quality in teacher professional development. One way is to let the free market play.  The reasoning is that, in time, teachers will automatically gravitate towards those courses that offer good value for money. Information and recommendation systems like used in Uber and other systems, can speed up the proces.  SACE has chosen to take a more centralist approach, requiring every provider and course to be respectively approved and endorsed by evaluators. Information submitted by course providers on the relevance, learning materials, credentials of the facilitators, attention for equity, assessment etc. arguably offers some kind of clue to distinguish good from bad programmes.  But is it a good-enough way to measure quality?  Some recent reflections in the blogosphere offer excellent ideas:

Dave Cormier writes that learning’s first principle should be getting learners to care, because they’re interested in what they learn.

Learners who care can be taught almost anything.  Learners that only have acquired knowledge to pass the test will have forgotten 95% of it after a few months.  Moreover, It turns out that learning a passion to learn is more important for your practical success than learning any particular facts or skills.  Our job, as educators, is to convince students who don’t care to start caring, and to encourage those who currently care, to continue caring.

Cormier detects a tension between education and learning in this.  Education is an institutionalized form of learning, requiring standardized curricula, assessment and accreditation. When learning becomes education, accountability takes control to the expense of learner engagement.  Education systems are not designed to get people engaged. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing’, which not necessarily equals getting them engaged with it.  Education is much harder to change than learning. Learning can be done anywhere and anytime.  Reforming education requires a whole range of stakeholders to agree.  A problem arises when there is a total disconnect between education and learning.  When education equals ‘covering’ the curriculum. When a degree is a way of signalling that you passed a strong selection mechanism rather than a proof of learning, as The Economist argued is the case in some prestigious American universities.

SACE’s system for teacher professional development wisely includes informal, individual learning like engaging with books or articles.  However, the system distrusts this kind of learning and has been conceived in such a way that also formal, third-party organized professional development in required. Perhaps justifiably so. Professional standards may be insufficient with many teachers to expect them to engage in professional development without external pressure. However, as Cormier writes:

The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hold learners accountable, but if we’re trying to encourage people to care about their work, about their world, is it practical to have it only work when someone is threatening them?

That is the Achilles’ heel of the whole professional development system. If people don’t care about professional development, about being good at what they’re doing, then no monitoring system or amount of pressure will help. It’s not possible.  People will comply and sit out whatever training is good value for points and dishes out beefy food, but they will not be in it for real.  It won’t have any effect at all:

We have not built an education system that encourages people to be engaged. The system is not designed to do it. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing.’ Knowing a thing, in the sense of being able to repeat it back or demonstrate it, has no direct relationship to ‘engagement’. There are certainly some teachers that create spaces where engagement occurs, but they are swimming upstream, constantly battling the dreaded assessment and the need to cover the curriculum.

What can be done?  Teacher professional development should be encouraged, but not as a top-down imposed tick-box exercise.  School-based communities of teachers working together can help, as long as they’re not hijacked by bureaucrats.  Accountability should be bottom-up, from learners and parents, rather than a top-down exercise.  More attention  in teacher training should go to instilling the love of learning and truly expanding one’s knowledge for the subject rather than acquiring knowledge (which is forgotten soon afterwards) and passing a hurdle.

There is actually some evidence about what elements in an education make people successful and happy later in life. Gallup, a large polling company, investigated relations between people’s education and their success and wellbeing a few years after graduation.  Martin Feldstein writes:

Again, the institution type didn’t matter. It really comes down to feeling connected to your school work and your teachers, which does not correlate well with the various traditional criteria people use for evaluating the quality of an educational institution. If you buy Gallup’s chain of argument and evidence this, in turn, suggests that being a hippy-dippy earthy-crunchy touchy-feely constructivy-connectivy commie pinko guide on the side will produce more productive workers and a more robust economy (not to mention healthier, happier human beings who get sick less and therefore keep healthcare costs lower) than being a hard-bitten Taylorite-Skinnerite practical this-is-the-real-world-kid type career coach.

Factors in people’s education that moved the needle in Gallup’s ‘Wellbeing Index’ were:

1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams”
1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning”
1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person”
1.5 times higher if “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom”
1.1 times higher if “I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete”
1.4 times higher if “I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College]”

The positive thing in all this, is, as Feldstein writes:

You don’t have to have every teacher make you feel excited about learning in order to have a better chance at a better life. You just need one.

Some Takeaways from TALIS 2013 for Flanders

The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) is a 5-yearly questionnaire with (primary education and lower secondary education) teachers and school leaders. It’s not a competency test, but more an investigation of their attitudes, satisfaction and engagement with professional development.  TALIS asks a representative sample of teachers and schools in each country about their working conditions and the learning environments.  It links results to various educational policies in the participating countries and regions.  Results can be downloaded from the OECD website.  A report with an interpretation of the results for Flanders can be found here.
Some personal takeaways (it’s interesting to see how everyone identifies different highlights in this extensive report):
  • the general education level of teachers in Flanders is low (many professional bachelors, few masters);
  • the high autonomy of schools in Flanders translates into responsibilities for pedagogical matters (but not in curriculum), human resources (but not in salaries) and financial policy.
Degree of autonomy in Flemish schools vs. comparable countries

Degree of autonomy in Flemish schools vs. comparable countries

  • Flemish school leaders indicate they compete actively with other schools to attract pupils (only in England the percentage is as high).  The free choice of school is obviously related to this.
  • Flemish teachers see little need to engage in professional development.  Notwithstanding many have engaged in some professional development during the last year (88%), only 10,5% sees a strong need for ICT training and only 5,3% recognizes a need to learn more about helping children with special needs.
CPD needs Flemish teachers compared with TALIS average

CPD needs Flemish teachers compared with TALIS average

  • Teaching in Flanders remains very much an individual activity. Most teachers stay within the safe confines of their classrooms.  75% never observes lessons from other teachers to give feedback.  Two thirds of teachers in lower secondary education never engage in team teaching.  Thirdly, joined professional development is not common.  31% of primary teachers and 45% of lower secondary teachers never do this (highest % in Flanders).
  • In South Africa, VVOB supports the establishment of professional learning communities in primary schools as an instrument for teacher professional development, as laid out in South African policy documents.  The TALIS results show that also in Flanders courses and workshops are still the preferred means for professional development.  Less than a third of teachers works in a school where networks, virtual networks or peer review are mentioned as a component of professional development.  Flemish school leaders engage more in professional networks.
Participation at professional development activities by Flemish teachers (during 12 months prior to survey)

Participation at professional development activities by Flemish teachers (during 12 months prior to survey)

  • Finally, perhaps a bit surprising, most (approx. 80%) teachers feel recognized by society and only a small minority considers leaving the profession (however most who want to leave profession do so within the first 3 years of their teaching career).

An extensive Slideshare presentation and video (both in English) on the TALIS 2013 results can be found here.  Another review, by Pedro De Bruykere, is available here.