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Collective Learning Improves Teacher Practice

This post is taken from Stephanie Hirsh's column in our June issue of JSD, which focuses on learning communities.

Effective professional learning communities are based on the assumption that collective learning and problem solving are key to improving educator practice and student learning. Effective professional learning communities promote the spread of better practices from teacher to teacher and school to school, ensuring that more students experience instruction that leads to improved learning.

Effective professional learning communities are more likely than individualized learning options to ensure every student experiences great teaching every day. However, not all professional learning communities achieve this outcome. There is considerable variation in how professional learning communities operate, and, as a result, in the outcomes they are able to achieve.

Research in school improvement, reports of exemplary practice in the field, and expert observations provide insight into the characteristics of the most effective professional learning communities. The most successful pay attention to all three words in this concept.

Professional. Who will participate? Professional learning communities include the staff responsible and accountable for an effective instructional program, ensuring that students achieve high standards of learning. This means that professional learning communities include administrators, teachers, and instructional support staff such as counselors, librarians, and school psychologists.

Learning. What will be the work of the professional learning community? Combined ignorance will not lead to better outcomes. The needs of the professionals are paramount. Their learning must cover the content and activities to supply the knowledge and skills they identify as necessary to increase their effectiveness.

Community. How are educators organized to achieve the intended outcomes of the learning community? Productive communities operate according to structures and processes that facilitate learning and accelerate achievement.

Educators working in an effective professional learning community join the group with the assumption that the data they examine and the needs they identify will point toward the learning they will undertake to successfully address the challenges they face. Learning Forward's definition of professional development focuses on the cycle of continuous improvement, outlining the steps a community takes to achieve its intended outcomes.

Members of effective professional learning communities recognize that their learning will be the key to their students' learning. Learning is always intentional. It is not simply a byproduct of the many important tasks that groups undertake.

While many forms of professional learning may lead to improved knowledge and skills for adults, only the learning community offers a structure, process, and product that lead to systematic continuous improvement for both educators and students.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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