Sauce for the goslings too?

30th January 2009 at 00:00

We learn through conversations - with ourselves, inside our heads and with each other. But the more I read about the thinking that lies behind professional learning communities, the more I believe that our culture tends to underestimate the importance of the conversations we have with other people.

All of you who have been convinced about the paramount importance of learning as social participation need to forgive me for being slow to catch up. My excuse is that I'm an introvert, and we prefer to talk to ourselves first before conversing with others.

One of the people who has been patient with me over the years is Colin Weatherley, the unsung hero responsible for bringing critical skills to the UK. He has always been convinced that when schools focus on learning and learning together, the impact on achievement is particularly marked. And he has research to prove it. The most recent was by Barbara Crossouard in Jersey, where schools which have focused on formative assessment and critical skills have made consistently greater gains in achievement than those which only focused on formative assessment.

It is widely recognised that social relationships are an important vehicle for the growth and nourishment of intellectual ideas. Indeed, this is the rationale behind the increasingly popular idea of setting up professional learning communities in schools. A PLC can be described as a group of professionals who come together to study, to put into practice what they are learning and to share the results. The emphasis is not only on doing things differently but talking about what works and what does not.

Much has been written about PLCs over the past decade, particularly in the United States. I endorse the concept, but have concerns about how difficult it can be to make them work. My worry is that much of the advice suggests that the main emphasis should be on learning, rather than learning together.

It appears to me that these communities can operate on all or one of three levels. They can focus on quick fixes to get results (level one). They can focus on improving pupils' learning by making formative assessment work in the classroom (level two). Or they can focus more deeply on how teachers and pupils work and learn together by embedding critical skills, for example, into their practice (level three).

There is huge pressure on schools on both sides of the Atlantic to focus on level one, that is, getting results, despite the fact that research shows that any gains are unlikely to be sustained. This is why the advice in the USA suggests that schools should operate at level two and put the focus firmly on improving learning first and achievement second.

My problem is that there is much less emphasis in the guidance on how to operate at the third and deepest level - helping students to learn together. This should include, in particular, how teachers manage classrooms to foster social relationships in the classroom, between them and their pupils and between the pupils themselves.

For me, this means that PLCs must focus on how to deal with issues of motivation and behaviour by turning classrooms into learning communities. And they must encourage teachers to look at how they come to teaching, and to open their hearts as well as their minds to new ways of working together.

This is by no means easy and PLCs will need a lot of support if they decide to go down this route. They cannot gloss over issues about relationships and power.

The bottom line must be that if learning communities are good for adults, they must be good for young people too. An old-fashioned proverb comes to mind, slightly amended: what's sauce for the goose and the gander must be sauce for the goslings too.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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