Academic journal article Science and Children

How to Create a Professional Learning Community: Make Your Experience Worthwhile with These Guidelines

Academic journal article Science and Children

How to Create a Professional Learning Community: Make Your Experience Worthwhile with These Guidelines

Article excerpt

Devoting time to a professional learning community (PLC) can be frustrating or rewarding. We have experienced both of these outcomes and can share processes that may help make your PLC one that enriches your professional growth and improves your students' learning. After five years of participating in a high school level PLC and studying science and mathematics PLCs in middle and high school, we appreciate the challenges presented when teachers are informed "this year we are all going to be in PLCs!" When we talk about our work at NSTA conferences, we hear from teachers and professional development providers across all grades who wonder what they are supposed to do in these hypothetically collaborative groups. Based on our experiences, we have identified three major aspects to making PLC work productive, effective, and professionally stimulating: (a) Use a collaborative inquiry cycle to guide the work, (b) learn how to have deep conversations, and (c) take an improving approach to looking at student work.

The Inquiry Cycle

The inquiry cycle is a process of investigating a problem of practice or a teaching challenge that needs attention and improvement. It is an important part of making a PLC successful. A key element of this inquiry cycle is looking at student work to better understand student thinking and change instruction accordingly. There are three main phases to the inquiry cycle we use in our collaborative work: focus, implement, and analyze (Figure 1, p. 38). Following this inquiry cycle keeps us moving forward in our work, so it is important not to leave out any of the phases. Conducting the inquiry cycle is neither a one-way nor a sequential process. For example, while teachers talk about goals and values at the beginning of the cycle, a common vision becomes clearer during the analysis phase. Also, once a focus is determined, the implementation and analysis phases can happen in small cycles throughout one school year or across multiple years. Although the inquiry cycle might look sequential, there are times when teachers will want to loop back in the cycle to revisit ideas or re-implement an instructional activity in a modified form.

Focus the Inquiry

Collaborative inquiry involves identifying and agreeing on one problem or area of student need. Finding this focus can be challenging and groups often get stuck. There are so many classroom issues to address that it can be difficult to focus on just one. Also, people have different opinions on what is most pressing and might worry that the selected focus will be a waste of time. Using a process that allows each person to explain what she or he is most interested in and why can help (see Choosing a Question protocol, Internet Resources). We know groups that have successfully used a modified "final word" protocol to make their decision on an area of focus. Their modification began with two to three minutes to think and record as much detail as possible about the focus each would like to pursue. Then, each person in turn took two minutes to present her or his idea, and every group member had one minute to question the speaker's idea or build on it. The original speaker then had one minute to make a final statement. After all presented, each person advocated for one of the ideas presented (her own or another's), and the group used a "fist of five" voting method (using fingers to indicate a level of support from "will sabotage" through "can live with" to "fully support") to identify which idea had the most support.

Before trying to agree on a focus, it helps to first examine students' successes and failures on previous assessments, look carefully at the big ideas or standards, and draw on past experiences with specific concepts. These conversations provide opportunities for people to express and explore their values about the most important experiences for students and their expectations about student learning. After identifying an area of focus, doing a curriculum topic study (Keeley 2005) together is one way to build a common understanding about a unifying concept, determine the range of expectations for student understanding at different grade levels, and explore students' misconceptions common to that concept. …

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