By Dr Vicki Hargraves
Our webinar with Sue Cherrington, Kate Thornton, and Rachel Denee explored the role of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) for teacher professional learning and collaboration in ECE, and described the effective features of PLCs as identified in research. Sue, Kate, and Rachel also offered many practical tips for early childhood teams to establish and sustain PLCs in their settings.
The key insights include:
PLCs involve teachers coming together in collective and purposeful work for strengthening teaching and enhancing the learning of all children. They engage teachers in professional learning and reflection on their own practice as a means of improving teaching to enhance outcomes for children. PLCs specifically and deliberately engage participants in activities for teacher learning and improvement. They are not simply about teachers doing everyday things in a team or group.
PLCs provide a stimulating, energising, and effective form of professional growth activity, and can also be linked to assessment, planning, and internal evaluation activities. In other words, the work of a PLC can be fully integrated into the daily tasks of teaching, and can become a way of working together that becomes enduring, rather than a one-off practice. The most important enabling factor for PLCs is a focus on time for professional dialogue and reflection. Early childhood settings might need to review the way they organise time in order to prioritise professional dialogue, and develop a shared vision to ensure a clear purpose and deliberate nature to the activities of a PLC.
PLCs are oriented towards action, experimentation, and continuous improvement. PLCs engage in creative learning and thinking, and employ inquiry processes to find out how well things are working and experiment with changes to practice. As each focus for exploration and improvement is sustained for an extended period of time, teachers have multiple opportunities to try things out, see what works, and make adaptations to ideas and practices within cycles of action and reflection which are initiated by and planned for in PLC meetings. Critical friends or external facilitators can be a resource for ideas about content or processes.
PLCs involve teachers in sharing their personal practice. A PLC is a space in which teachers can examine their practice quite closely, and collectively. Video can be useful here, although all sorts of methods are possible. This must be planned for, as it is not something that occurs naturally and spontaneously in ECE centres, where teachers are often too busy and focused on children to be able to observe each other properly and reflectively. Teachers retain agency and autonomy in setting their own goals for practice. Setting personal goals also motivates teachers to make changes to their practice and gather information through observing or videoing practice, or through analysing existing assessments. Teachers also choose the focus of peer observation and feedback, which supports them to feel safe being observed and sharing practice. The PLC then provides an opportunity for reflection and provokes plans for changes to practice as well as for further inquiry and data collection.
A network model of a PLC involves teachers from a range of educational settings learning together. This can have an impact on the pedagogy for a wider group of children, as the teachers that attend a networked PLC influence teachers in their home centres too. PLCs within a single centre may need to be careful not to be insular in their perspectives, while a networked PLC is more likely to enable a real diversity of perspectives. Research has found that teachers working in the networked PLCs value the professional dialogue and perspectives of teachers from other settings and contexts, and find this motivating and energising. A networked PLC will require careful organisation and a clear focus and vision for the groups’ work together, and will often have a facilitator or leader.
Teachers require support from their positional leaders to enable focused and deep learning and to encourage them to try out ideas and reflect on practice. Leaders can promote the particular culture that is required for PLCs to work well. For example, groups need to have high levels of relational trust so that teachers are happy and comfortable to share their practice, ask questions, and receive critical feedback, particularly when they may feel that things are not going well. Teams also need to be confident to engage in debate, critical reflection, and problem-solving. Building a culture of critique takes time, so it can be important to start with a very small focus, and, as trust is built and people become more open, extending this to more significant areas of practice. Time for professional dialogue needs to be prioritised, with other more administration-based discussion being limited or restricted to other occasions or means of communication. Leaders can support teachers in how to give effective and critical feedback that really promotes learning and reflection. A model for effective feedback might include inviting teachers’ self-reflection before offering one positive comment and one constructive comment (without using the word ‘but’!). Finally, leaders might support practices of distributed leadership where all team members are given opportunities to develop and demonstrate leadership qualities. For example, teachers that are participating in networked PLCs may be supported to lead the development of a particular area of teaching in their respective centres.
A facilitator may be required in the early stages of forming a PLC. Facilitators may come from the management teams of larger groups of centres, kindergarten association leadership, or local universities, or PLCs might use SILO funding for facilitation. It is also possible for groups to lead a PLC independently with sufficient thought and care.