The Professional Learning Community

A short history of the research behind the kind of teacher collaboration that happens at Watkinson

by Head of School Teri Schrader

There can be no doubt that today’s students are not the students we were, or that we remember. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw advances into new territory in educational research; in response to the 1983 report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, Theodore Sizer, an educator who served as Head of Phillips Academy and Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, undertook a study of the American high school. This worked helped to link educational researchers at the major schools of education around the country (like Stanford and the University of Wisconsin); the research they undertook continues to evolve and be further borne out today, in no small part because it was built from the perspectives, experiences, and knowledge of actual teachers in the field.

One key study was conducted by Stanford researchers Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert, whose seminar work, Teaching Today’s Students, studied teachers and their varied responses to modern kids in the classroom. The study involved first-person interviews with high school teachers, centering on how teachers viewed and approached their students in the context of the beliefs and attitudes they held about young people and the way kids view and “do” school.

The first type of teacher approach: “back to basics”

Some teachers, the study found, believed that today’s students were undisciplined, distracted, and floundering; they needed a return to traditional structures and mechanisms in the classroom. These teachers believed in “going back to basics,” in the 3 “R”s; their instructional practices were traditional and relied on worksheets, objective tests with right/wrong answers, and tightly controlled teacher-directed work. Such particular academic discipline, these teachers believed, would be in kids’ best interest.

The result for students in this first type of program? The study found students to be bored and disengaged. They failed to achieve and also failed to really internalize or understand the material covered. In short, there was a lack of real learning.

The result for teachers in this first type of program? Even though these teachers believed in what they were doing, they — like their students — were bored, frustrated, and disengaged.

The second type of teacher approach: softening expectations

A second set of teachers professed an understanding of today’s students as burdened with pressures current adults never had to face when they were young. They cited the need for students to contribute to a family income, to assume tasks and responsibilities for family life and the care of younger siblings, particularly in families with absent or ill parents, etc. Students were working for a paycheck that would be used to support families, not to purchase teenage luxuries.

Therefore, this group of teachers developed an idea of school as sanctuary, a respite for young people from the real life pressures they faced. Pedagogically, this meant a softening of expectations: the movie version of a Shakespeare play as opposed to reading the text and studying the literary piece, and collaborative working groups with no real shared accountability for deep individual learning.

The result for students in this second type of program? Disengagement, boredom, frustration, no meaningful or discernable progress or achievement, the lowering of standards.

The result for teachers in this second type of program? Again, disengagement and frustration, ill-shaped lessons, no intellectual heft, discouragement.

The third type of teacher approach: responsive and wide-ranging

The third group of teachers approached their students believing that they, teachers, must adapt their practice in order to continually meet the changing needs of their kids. They acknowledged that life for today’s students is different, and that, in order for school to be meaningful and relevant, teachers had to work in different ways to know and support rigorous learning. Instructional practices, therefore, took myriad shape and form. Combining approaches, innovating and experimenting, using groups and individual forms of working, a wide range of practices was the goal.

The result for students in this third type of program? Student engagement increased; the study found demonstrably higher levels of achievement and learning that was observable and quantifiable.

The result for teachers in this third type of program? In fact, the study found two distinct results. The teachers of subgroup one reported feeling enervated, exhausted, and fatigued. The teachers of subgroup two, on the other hand, reported feeling more efficacious than ever before — engaged, excited, energized, and inspired to teach and be with their kids every day, continuing to explore and experiment, and observing a kind of learning they’d never before seen.

What makes the difference: teacher collaboration

Ted Sizer and members of his Coalition for Essential Schools team asked: What made for these two vastly disparate results for teachers?

Studying the responses of the teachers in subgroup two, researchers were able to define a single specific characteristic common to the group: Each teacher in that subgroup reported having at least one colleague with whom they could collaborate regularly. Collaboration, it was noted, was not merely the sharing of stories, but was defined by mutual effort on issues related to curriculum, instruction and assessment.

These findings in hand, the Coalition of Essential Schools founded and fostered the objective of a Professional Learning Community.

Watkinson School was one of the first schools to explore and establish these groups. I attended the first-ever institute on this work (revolutionary!) at Brown in 1995, and brought the concept back to Watkinson. We are among only a few schools with such a deep and longstanding history of the practices and principles associated with the Professional Learning Community. The Strategic Plan not only prioritizes this kind of collaborative work as an objective but was actually created using many of the same collaborative concepts, techniques, and processes.

 

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