Introduction to the concepts of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and Student-Professional Learning Communities (S-PLCs)
International research shows that educational reforms depend on teachers’ and leaders’ individual and collective capacity and the school’s overall efforts to improve students’ learning. Building capacity is therefore a critical factor in the work of improving the quality of the school’s teaching. Developing professional learning communities (PLC) gives individuals, groups, the whole school and the school system the opportunity to be involved and influence learning over time (Aas & Vennebo, 2020).
There seems to be broad international agreement that the term PLC includes “a group of people sharing and critically interrogating their practice in an ongoing, reflective, collaborative, inclusive, learning oriented, growth promoting way, operating as a collective enterprise” (Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace, & Thomas, p. 223). There is also widespread agreement that effective PLCs have the capacity to promote and maintain professional learning in schools with the common intention of improving student learning (Bolam et al., 2005). A PLC can be made up of teachers, school principals or other people who want to engage in collaborative learning at school. It is crucial that they share practice by reporting about their challenges in their daily teaching, leading or, as it is the case with the TePinTeach project, studying. PLCs can be self-run, have an internal leading person or an external facilitator (Kansteiner et al., 2019). In any case, great care has to be paid to a good understanding of each step they take and how the quality of the structure and processes can be raised to improve outcomes and participants’ satisfaction.
Wahlstrom and Louis (2008) identified four key interconnected dimensions in the concept of PLC – namely “reflective dialogue”, “deprivatised practice”, “collective responsibility”, and “shared values and vision”. First, reflective dialogue focuses on the extent to which participants in a PLC engage in in-depth conversations and professional dialogues about relevant educational issues; this requires a disposition to raising one’s awareness and revising one’s own practice, questioning taken-for-granted assumptions, drawing on others’ experiences, and collectively searching for options to enhance student learning. Second, deprivatized practice; teachers participating in PLCs make their teaching public and classrooms are open for colleagues to step in, exchange experiences and expertise and provide each other with feedback through strategies such as peer observation, team teaching and peer coaching. Third, the focus on student learning refers to the collaborative culture and collective commitment of teachers for improved student achievement. Finally, the development of a strong common vision based on shared community values is a further characteristic of a PLC; this shared vision emerges over time and it is a participatory, ongoing process that entails exposing and confronting conceptions of schooling, learning and teaching. According to our own expertise accrued from the participation in the HeadsUP and the TePinTeach Erasmus+ projects, we would furthermore expect PLCs drawing on external research and resources, too (Kansteiner et al., 2019).
Evidence has been found that involvement in PLCs or particular dimensions of PLCs are associated, for example, to self-efficacy (Lee et al., 2011; Zheng et al., 2020) and teacher commitment to students (Zheng et al., 2020), perceived changes in practice (Vanblaere & Devos, 2016), improved instruction (Dogan et al., 2016), and student learning (Burns et al., 2018; Crippen et al., 2010).
To become a PLC takes time and work. Engaging in collaboration is not always enough to develop a professional learning culture that defines a PLC. PLC represents an ongoing process in which people work together in repeated cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better outcomes for their students (DuFour & Marzano, 2011).
While PLCs of teachers are widely established and scientifically explored and PLCs of head teachers recently came to the fore of scientists (Theurl & Kansteiner, 2020), there is no experience about PLCs of students. Therefore the Erasmus+ project TePinTeach focusses on this issue and implements Student-PLCs into university education in order to make students familiar with this way of cooperative learning, to improve their academic performance and their professional development.
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