PLCs are the way forward

23rd October 2009 at 01:00

Up to now, there has been little debate about what kind of professional development is needed to help teachers achieve the goals of A Curriculum for Excellence on a daily basis in the classroom. Let's remind ourselves how ambitious these goals are and what they require from the teaching profession.

You don't get successful learners by teaching to the test or by discovery learning: pupils need help to think and learn for themselves.

You don't get responsible citizens by laying down the law or by letting pupils do what they like: young people need to experience being part of a democratic community where they are given autonomy and are held to account for how they use it.

You don't get confident individuals by putting pupils down or praising work that is not up to standard: pupils need teachers who believe in them and help them to believe that success is not simply about in-born ability, and that effort and technique count.

You don't get effective contributors when pupils are given no say in how classrooms or schools are run: they need a voice and the opportunity to take the initiative and the lead.

It is right that ACfE should be ambitious. But we don't seem to recognise that supporting teachers to achieve these ambitions will require nothing less than a transformation in our approach to professional development.

To help all pupils develop the four capacities, teachers need to "go deep". They need to go well beyond learning new techniques to look at how they come to the hard emotional job of teaching.

We need teachers to reflect on who they are as teachers, the beliefs that they hold about teaching and learning - and human nature. Crucially, we need them to reflect on how these beliefs impact on how they relate to young people, and how they handle their power in the classroom.

Continuing professional development for many teachers seems to move from one topic to another. Many think they have "done" assessment for learning and are ready to move on to something different. Now the big green folder is in schools, there is a danger that much development time will be devoted to the minutiae of curriculum content.

The growing emphasis in Scotland on professional learning communities is to be welcomed. A PLC can provide a place where teachers can be helped to go deep into their practice and where they can experience the key conditions that contribute to a person's growth - "an ingenious combination of challenge and support".

These are the kind of conditions teachers need to establish in a classroom if they are to develop the four capacities and contribute to young people's personal growth.

But they will not be effective if used to achieve a quick fix in underperforming schools, by training teachers to teach to the test more effectively. They cannot be high on challenge and low on support; neither can they simply provide teachers with support without challenge.

Genuine professional learning communities cannot be forced and we should resist pressurising teachers to join them. They need a particular kind of leadership at all levels. Heads need to establish the right conditions, choose the right people to lead them and trust the process and the people involved.

PLCs require time and effort to build a community, as well as focusing on what aspect of their practice they want to develop, and how. Most importantly, they need to find and ring-fence the time to do both when there are much more urgent, but less important, demands on their time.

The best news is that in these straitened times, PLCs need not cost a lot of money if schools can mobilise the talents of their best people to lead them.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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