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Study Groups Strengthen the Learning Community
by Barbara Bray
February 2001 | vol 22 | No 2 OnCUE Newsletter (Professional Development
Learning Community: an environment where teachers, administrators,
students, and parents participate in collective inquiry and reflection
provides opportunities for all to solve problems, address student
needs, and learn from each other.
Staff developers have their
work cut out for them, because teachers have a wide range of experiences,
abilities and beliefs about technology. They have preconceived views
about how technology can be used within their curriculum.
Technology can play a large
role in developing the learning community through online discussion
groups, course, and resources, but teachers will not go online if they
do not have the time, support, and resources.
need a supportive environment that allows for time to network, share,
reflect, and learn. Yet, it is not a simple matter to change from
a traditional organization to a school where everyone has a say in
classroom practice. Shared decision making is a factor in curriculum
reform that will transform teaching in some schools. To have this
happen, time is provided for teachers to work together in planning
instruction, observing each others classroom, and sharing feedback.
Professional development traditionally is not part of the culture of
the school day. Most schools are designed so learning is directed to
students in isolated classrooms. Teachers
are finding creative ways to develop constructivist approaches to teaching
even within the traditional system. Separate inservices may provide
teachers skills or theories that they can then later transfer back to
their classroom. But, because of limited time, this may not happen.
Funding priorities tend to purchase things not time, so there is little
on-going follow-up on the initial inservice. This means that, only if
there is time and the teachers determination, in only a few cases
the new knowledge will be incorporated into the curriculum.
need time to reflect on their day, what worked, what didnt work,
The administration needs
to allow for risk-taking, because even the best ideas may fail. Every
class is different. Sometimes a teacher who feels isolated may try something
new and fail which can totally devastate them. Teachers join the profession
to make a difference. If they continue to fail and have no time to reflect
on what happened, they will stop trying new projects and may become
disenchanted with teaching. Even the best teacher can get a challenging
class with one or more problem students. Another factor may be that
the technology may not work just when you need it, so teachers always
have to have a backup plan for every lesson that includes technology.
Teachers need time to reflect on their day, what worked, what didnt
work, and why.
Coaching teams and study groups can be the foundation of your professional
development program (Joyce and Showers 1996) and built into the school
day. Peer coaching teams can support teachers after the initial inservice
with 2-3 teachers forming small study groups. Time needs to be built
into the weekly schedule for these teachers to develop shared language
and common understandings that are necessary for the study of new knowledge
and skills. Usually, we teach skills without the knowledge base to implement
the skills successfully. Larger study groups could develop to include
teachers from different schools where the focus of monthly meetings
is on similar interests or projects. This study group is more like a
user group with time to share projects, ideas, and invite experts to
answer questions. A smaller study group where a coach is available to
work one-on-one with the teacher will help them in the classroom. Through
modeling, observations, and on-going feedback, the teacher can get the
support that is necessary for real change. Each teacher can keep a portfolio
of work, ideas, and reflections that can be shared in study groups.
This type of collegial work provides an opportunity for growth not realized
when working in isolation in the classroom.
modeling, observations, and on-going feedback, the teacher can get
the support that is necessary for real change."
Study Groups beyond the Classroom
Ideas from study groups can also be shared through an on-line threaded
discussion area, a listserv, and a web site that archives discussions
and projects. Being able to share ideas face-to-face during the day
and on-line at anytime from anywhere creates a sustainable professional
learning community. Administrators can join the study groups on-line
discussions to ask for feedback on budget or purchasing issues. Parents
can post concerns and share ideas from the community. Students can be
part of a study group that includes the teacher and their parents, so
they can take an active role in what they best need to accomplish for
understanding. Students can form study groups with other students to
do action research projects. Experts can join in at any time to provide
advice or mentoring. The building of a learning community on-site and
on-line based on study groups help to ensure the necessary support teachers
need to try new ideas and for students to use inquiry so they can be
successful in any endeavor.
Opportunities for Success
The five aspects of successful professional learning communities compiled
by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL,
- supportive and shared
- collective creativity;
- shared values and vision;
- supportive conditions;
- shared teaching and learning
This online resource is a
collection of articles that state without a supportive environment,
teachers are not as committed to the schools improvement efforts.
A principal who has a collegial relationship with teachers and shares
decision-making with the staff will find teachers more willing to actively
participate in professional development. Teachers that have opportunities
to collaborate and contribute to a shared vision will own the vision
and want to see it become a reality. Schools were designed around structured
periods of time that leaves little time for informal discussions. Time
is one of the main concerns for teachers. Learning new teaching strategies
does not happen only after school in a one or two hour workshop. Learning
happens all day. An effective professional learning community is one
where there is time for sharing, teaming, coaching and learning from
each other and from their students at any time.
Technology adds another dimension to the learning community. Technology
use in schools is not going away. There are teachers that are reluctant
to use technology even for personal use but the majority wants to learn
and use technology. No other profession asks so much of their employees.
Teachers not only are supposed to be experts in a curricular subject
or grade level; they need to be technology experts. On top of that,
there are some teachers who find out every year they are teaching a
new subject or different grade level. Just imagine learning a new curriculum
and technology, learning how to teach it to your students, and then
creating a lesson that integrates technology. For some teachers, learning
the skill alone and out of context is overwhelming. Teachers have different
pre-conceived sets of belief on how technology can be used with their
curriculum that are based on prior experiences and knowledge. Staff
developers have their work cut out from them, because teachers have
a wide range of abilities and beliefs about technology. Technology can
play a large role in developing the learning community through on-line
discussion groups, courses, and resources. However, teachers will not
go on-line if they do not have the time, support, and resources.
- Darling-Hammond, L. (1996,
March). The quiet revolution: Rethinking teacher development. Educational
Leadership, 53(6), 4-10.
- Joyce, B. & Showers,
B. (1996). Staff development as a comprehensive
service organization. Journal of Staff Development, 17(1), 2-6. Resource
also provided through listserv by Mary Herrin (email@example.com)
Dec. 9, 2000.
- Professional Learning
Communities: What Are They And Why Are They Important? Southwest Educational
Development Laboratory: Issues about Change. Vol. 6. Number 1. http://www.sedl.org/change/issues/issues61.html
Online. Available. December 1, 2000.
Barbara Bray writes a monthly
column for the OnCUE newsletter on professional development. Please
write her with questions, comments, or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org
or join the listserv she moderates by emailing email@example.com.
to check out the online assessment for teachers.
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