How Teachers Learn: Moving Beyond Talk

-Educational Leadership; February, 2009

*Article featured in NCTAF’s Weekly News Digest

Professional learning communities are a growing forum for teacher learning. The opportunity to share ideas and reflect on teaching practice makes learning communities attractive. But it’s easy for learning communities to become stalled at the stage of collegial discussions about improving teaching practice. What spurs communities to progress beyond talk to collective action that brings change to schools? We observed the creation of teacher learning communities that stimulated action in three urban New Jersey school districts, through a five-year project supported by the Philanthropic Initiative on behalf of the international Alcatel-Lucent Foundation. Coaches from the National School Reform Faculty trained internal facilitators in these schools, who in turn launched collaborative learning communities (CLCs) among their peers. (We use the term collaborative to stress the expectation that participants would do more than engage in discussions.) These practices of the New Jersey Collaborative Learning Communities Initiative laid a good foundation; our observations indicate that many of the collaborative and innovative practices the project inspired are still embedded in many of the schools, although 2007–08 was the last year of formal funding.

The initiative was committed to documenting how the teachers’ learning evolved over five years. As third-party external documenters, we watched the initiative unfold. We attended planning meetings, observed professional development, worked with districts to train and support local leaders, listened in as CLC groups gathered in individual schools, and interviewed and surveyed participants.  Through summer retreats, school-year seminars, and school-based meetings, we saw participants acquire the confidence and ability to nurture self-sustaining communities. These collaborative learning communities took many shapes. Some subject-area supervisors turned their monthly meetings into a functioning CLC, a superintendent organized cabinet meetings around the process, and many schools nurtured grade-level or subject-area groups. A common feature of success, as the following two snapshots make clear, was that teachers in these groups pushed one another to progress from talk to action.

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