Studies have shown that when teachers learn and inquire together, they become more effective and their students also perform better.
As early as the 1980s, researchers have been asking questions of how workplace settings affect employees’ performance.
Rosenholtz (1989, cited in Hord, 1997), in an early research study on the co-relation between the work environment and teachers’ performance, found that teachers who felt supported in their learning and classroom practice were more effective than those who did not.
Since then, several other researchers have found that performance can be improved through the practice of what has come to be known as professional learning communities (PLCs).
The concept of PLCs was highlighted by the Education Minister at the recent MOE Work Plan Seminar. Dr Ng Eng Hen spoke of the “need to build capacity for teachers themselves to take the lead in professional upgrading” (Ng, 2009).
What are PLCs and how can they be implemented in our schools?
What Are PLCs?
The term “professional learning communities” is used to describe schools where the school administrators and teachers are committed to working as a team to enhance their effectiveness as professionals for their students’ benefit. Together, they continually seek and share knowledge.
Creating a PLC in Your School
It goes without saying that such a community cannot be cultivated overnight. Building a PLC in school requires a huge amount of dedication and commitment.
In fact, some teachers and school leaders might find the process difficult, even radical, because it requires them to rethink their roles and duties. It will necessitate a change in mindset and in practice.
The Singapore Experience
In 2006, Assistant Professor Fang Yanping and her colleagues at the National Institute of Education introduced a similar concept in a Singapore primary school – through what is known as “lesson study”.
Lesson study is a professional development process where teachers systemically examine the way they teach with the help and support of their peers. Their overall goal is to become more effective teachers. (Lesson Study Research Group, n.d.)
Teachers involved in the project met with their peers for 2 hours each week for 5-7 weeks. During their weekly meetings, they would come together to plan their lessons. They also observed video-taped lessons and discussed ways to improve their teaching.
After 2 years of working in close consultation with their peers, the teachers saw an improvement in their practice. They were more attuned to what works and what does not work in the classrooms. (Fang, Lee, & Haron, 2009)
Although done on a small scale, the results of this project have been encouraging. If nothing else, it hints at the rich possibilities of what could be achieved if the entire school gets involved in a process of continued and communal learning.
Building Successful and Sustainable Communities
The journey towards implementing a PLC may be fraught with difficulties but research has shown that schools which have successfully built a PLC have much to celebrate.
- [The teachers] engaged students in high intellectual learning tasks, and students achieved greater academic gains in math, science, history and reading than students in traditionally organized schools. In addition, the achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds were smaller in these schools, students learned more, and, in the smaller high schools, learning was distributed more equitably. (Lee, Smith, & Croninger, 1995, as cited in Hord, 1997)
This process is just beginning to take root in Singapore, as we begin to understand the importance and benefits of building PLCs.
For starters, the Ministry of Education is setting up a Teacher Development Centre to create a space for teachers to come together and “share and exchange ideas on learning and teaching, engage in research or simply meet up with colleagues who share common interests” (Ng, 2009).
But while the Ministry is looking at providing adequate resources to schools so teachers can spend more time on their professional development, its success really depends on the commitment of its stakeholders – the teachers and leaders in the respective schools.
Building a successful and sustainable PLC will require all teachers to personally take charge of building knowledge and working together to improve their practices.
Fang, Y., Lee C. K.-E., & Haron, S. T. S. (2009, June). Implementation of lesson study in a primary school in Singapore. Paper presented at the Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference, Singapore. Retrieved October 7, 2009, from http://conference.nie.edu.sg/2009/search/frame.php?id=SYM032b&isexitpaper=1
Hord, S. M. (1997). Professional learning communities: Communities of continuous inquiry and improvement. Retrieved October 7, 2009, from http://www.sedl.org/pubs/change34
Lesson Study Research Group. (n.d.). What is lesson study? Retrieved October 14, 2009, from http://www.tc.edu/lessonstudy/index.html
Ng, E. H. (2009, September 17). Teachers – the heart of quality education. [Speech by Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, at the MOE Work Plan Seminar 2009.] Retrieved October 1, 2009, from http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/speeches/2009/09/17/work-plan-seminar.php