Depth Introduction: Professional Learning Communities

Don’t worry… there are more posts about my work on their way. In the meantime I’m going to continue to share what I’m writing for my final KAM (Knowledge Area Module) prior to my dissertation.

Each KAM has a breadth component, a depth component, and an application component. The demonstration for each is a paper of about thirty pages. I’ve been posting the various sections of the breadth component of my final KAM, and with this post I begin the depth portion. The breadth component investigated the organizational change theories of Senge, Evans, and Fullan. This depth portion focuses in on professional learning communities through the work of Richard and Rebecca DuFour, their colleagues, and others. Again, this is all discussed from the perspective of a change agent hoping to integrate new educational technologies such as video games and simulations.

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The breadth portion of this Knowledge Area Module (KAM) synthesized the work of Senge, Evans, and Fullan to produce a preliminary working theory of school change that can be used to guide the process of integrating video games and simulations as educational technologies in a constructivist learning environment. To further develop the preliminary working theory, this depth portion of the KAM will present a synthesis of prominent theories on professional learning communities (PLCs), learning organizations in which educators work collaboratively to “create a community of commitment” (DuFour and Eaker, 1998, p. 15) to ongoing positive school change. Prominent theorists who will be included in this examination are DuFour & DuFour (and their colleagues), Wald & Castlebury, Huffman & Hipp, Roberts & Pruit, Hord, and Stone & Cuper.

The work of the authors discussed in the breadth portion both laid the foundation for professional learning communities and was influenced by the literature on professional learning communities. Senge et al. (1994) were interested in “redefining organizations as communities” (p. 507), and later wrote about the importance of “informal networks and professional communities” (Senge et al., 1999, p. 49) and “communities of practice” (Senge et al., 1999, p. 477-480). For Senge et al, “communities of practice are not defined. They have no names, no formal memberships, and no status. But they move information” (p. 478). The professional learning communities discussed below are an attempt to formalize these communities of practice. By 2000, a reverse influence was apparent; the communities Senge et al. called for were beginning to sound a lot like the DuFours’ professional learning communities (Senge et al., 2000, p. 326-328 & 330-331). Evans alluded to the DuFours’ as early as 1996 when he wrote that “many experts insist on a distinction: mission refers to basic purpose, vision to future direction, and core values to underlying beliefs and guiding principles” (p. 207). Fullan then referred to professional learning communities explicitly and frequently from 1999 to 2006 (Fullan, 1999, p. 31 & 32; Fullan, 2001a, p. 64 ; Fullan, 2001b p. 91, 147, 149, 159, 165, 180, 259, 269, 270 , 272, ; Fullan, 2003, p. 9 ; Fullan 2006, p. 9, 93). In 2006, Fullan even mentioned Richard DuFour by name in his acknowledgements (p. xix).

In fact, DuFour and DuFour, and their frequent co-author, Eaker, might be considered the most influential authors in the field of professional learning communities. They also cited Senge and Fullan frequently and consistently (DuFour and Eaker, 1998, p. xiii, 9, 13, 24, 27, 29, 50, 63 105, 182, 235; DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Karhanek, 2004, p. xiv; DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005, p. 9). In response to decades of disappointing school reform efforts, DuFour and Eaker (1998) offered professional learning communities as a new model for school change. This model included building the foundation of a professional learning community, sustaining the school improvement process, and embedding change in the culture of a school and its surrounding community. Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour (2002) offered additional resources for those schools just beginning the process of establishing a professional learning community. In 2004, DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Karhanek focused their efforts on how professional learning communities respond when kids don’t learn. (Later, they would also focus on how to respond when students already know what teachers want them to learn. DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2006, p. 2). In 2005, DuFour, DuFour, and Eakers edited a volume of essays from written by colleagues whose experiences illustrated the power of professional learning communities.

In addition to the DuFours and their colleagues, there are many other authors contributing to this field. Wald and Castleburry (2000), who also cited Senge often, focused on educators as learners in their volume on creating a professional learning community in a school. Huffman and Hipp’s (2003) contribution on reculturing schools as professional learning communities discussed the challenges of developing PLCs from initiation to implementation and beyond, and included several case studies. This volume also cited DuFour and Eaker as well as Senge, Evans, and Fullan. In 2003, Roberts and Pruitt, who cite both Senge and DuFour, published a collection of collaborative activities and strategies for professional development in schools that function as professional learning communities. Like Roberts and Pruitt, Kaagan (2004), who cites Senge and Fullan, released a collection of thirty reflective staff development exercises for educators, which were also ideal for professional learning communities. Hord, another influential theorist in the field, edited a volume of essays in 2004 focused on changing schools through professional learning communities, and particularly through collaborative learning and leading. The contributing authors also cited Senge and the DuFours. Most recently, Stone and Cuper (2006) offered additional best practices for teacher leadership in their book exploring what award-winning teachers do for their professional learning communities.

Like Senge, Evans, and Fullan, each of these authors also explicitly or implicitly supported the development of constructivist learning environments and the development of 21st Century Learning Skills as the ends for their means of school change. Just as Fullan did, Wald and Castleberry (2000) cited Dewey often, as did Huffman and Hipp (2003). In keeping with Dewey’s philosophy, DuFour and Eaker (1998) believed that “engagement and experience are the best teachers” (p. 27). These authors also believed that a context for learning was important; for instance, Roberts and Pruitt (2003) were interested in “job-embedded professional development strategies” (p. 55). DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker (2006) were also explicit about their support of inquiry-based learning, or what they called “collective inquiry: the process of building shared knowledge by clarifying the questions that a group will explore together” (p. 21), and Wald and Casselberry (2000) believed that “inquiry into underlying assumptions deepens the learning process” (p. 9). The element of collaboration was also important; Huffman AND Hipp (2003) included collective learning (p. 9) as one of their “five dimensions characteristic of schools with successful professional learning communities in place” (p. 6), and Roberts and Pruitt (2003) noted that “collaboration is the vital factor in the development and maintenance of professional learning communities” (p. 137). Reflection, too was an element of constructivism well supported by these theorists; Kagaan’s (2004) contribution, for example, was focused on the power of reflective exercises, and DuFour and Eaker (1998) explained that “reflection and dialogue were… essential to the workings of the school” (p. 37). The sorts of twenty-first century skills often promoted by constructivist educators were also promoted by these authors. DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour (2005) believed that “everyone needs to graduate from high school with adequate skills for functioning in the 21st century workplace” (p. 103), and many of these authors supported a culture of risk taking, because “in an organization that prizes learning, risks cease to be threatening, and people can learn powerful lessons form success and failure” (Wald & Castleberry, 2000, p. 24).