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School improvement and a strong professional learning community

School leaders and teachers are improving the quality of teaching and student outcomes by strengthening their school as a professional learning community. Lawrence Ingvarson explains how.

Strong professional learning communities are improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools, but what is a professional learning community? A professional community is a way of life, not an add-on program in a school. In a professional learning community, teachers work together in different ways.

Top-down models of bureaucratic accountability are replaced by horizontal forms of professional accountability and shared responsibility for student learning and wellbeing. Teaching as a practice maintained in isolation is replaced by collaboration.

Members of professional communities habitually review their practice, individually and collectively, in the light of their professional values and standards for best practice.

Professional communities are characterised by a distinctive set of values, challenges, working relationships and practices. They are strongly linked in to wider professional networks and associations, from which their members also learn.

Peer review, rather than individualism, is a defining norm among members of professional communities. Professional communities build in time and opportunities for peer review based on evidence about teaching practices, opportunities for students to learn and learning outcomes.

Essentially, what defines a professional community is a shared commitment to work together to create an effective learning environment.

How do schools build a professional learning community?

In order to help schools to build a professional learning community, ACER has developed a Professional Learning Community Framework, based on a synthesis of rigorous research about the characteristics of professional communities that lead to improved student outcomes. The Professional Learning Community Framework is aligned with the Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework and provides a useful complement to ACER’s National School Improvement Tool.

The Professional Learning Community Framework describes the key characteristics of effective professional communities in five domains: professional culture, leadership, focus on students, focus on professional learning and performance and development. Each domain is further described in terms of key elements, indicators and rubrics for each domain.

  • A professional culture: Schools with a strong professional culture have shared norms and values, collaborative approaches to work, reflective inquiry into teaching practices and a readiness to share practice.
  • Leadership that fosters and supports a professional culture: Leadership is essential in establishing conditions that support a vibrant and productive professional learning community. School leaders establish a shared vision for their school as an accountable professional learning community and a strategic plan for managing its implementation.
  • A focus on student engagement, learning and wellbeing: Professional communities place high priority on gathering evidence about student outcomes that enables them to evaluate their performance, discuss its implications and plan more effectively. They make intelligent use of evidence to pinpoint areas needing intervention to enhance learning outcomes for all students.
  • A focus on improving professional knowledge and practice: Professional communities are learning communities that are constantly building their capacity to teach well. They have a shared understanding of effective teaching and quality learning. They draw on ideas and research about better ways to teach, and create opportunities to discuss and evaluate them. They know the characteristics of effective methods for professional learning and create opportunities to engage in them.
  • Teachers that think systematically about their practice and learn from experience: Individual members of a professional learning community review their performance in the light of standards for accomplished teaching and feedback about its impact. These reviews enable teachers to identify goals for further development, seek opportunities for suitable professional learning and provide evidence that those goals have been achieved.  

Taking a snapshot

School leaders can obtain a snapshot of where their school stands in relation to the characteristics of a professional learning community using the Professional Learning Community Questionnaire. Available from ACER by commission, school staff complete the confidential Professional Learning Community Questionnaire online survey. ACER then supplies a customised report that gauges the strength of their school as a professional learning community and identifies aspects that may need to be strengthened.

The report provides:

  • school leaders and teachers with clear evidence on which to base discussion of the key characteristics of their school as a professional learning community
  • school leaders with a means of measuring the strengthening of their school as a professional learning community over time
  • school leaders seeking professional certification with a valid means of demonstrating the impact of their leadership over time
  • employing authorities with a valid means of measuring school improvement over time in order to encourage, recognise or accredit schools as strong professional learning communities.

The report, supplied within two weeks of staff completing the online survey, provides details where the school stands on each domain and each item in the survey.

A professional learning community that leads to continuous improvement in teaching practices and student outcomes does not just happen. It depends on a strong professional culture characterised by shared norms and values, a focus on student learning, collaborative approaches to work and reflective inquiry into teaching practices, as well as leadership that fosters and supports that professional culture. ■

Further information

For more information about the Professional Learning Community Framework and Questionnaire, visit www.acer.edu.au/school-improvement/improvement-services/professional-learning-community-framework

RD

About the author

Dr Lawrence Ingvarson is a Principal Research Fellow in ACER's Teaching and Learning research program.

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View selected works of Lawrence Ingvarson

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