The Power of Professional Learning Networks

What are professional learning networks? What do we know about them? This week, IEN features reflections from an international group of researchers on what they learned about Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) through their work on a special issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. Led by Special Issue Editors Cindy Poortman and Chris Brown, the post draws from the efforts of a network of researchers from the International Congress on School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) and describes key points from the special issue and how work on PLN’s might develop in the future.

IEN: Why this focus on professional learning networks, why now? 

Chris Brown/Cindy Poortman: The focus on the power of collaborative learning of educators has been growing for years: both within and across schools. We call the variety of groups who engage in collaborative learning with others outside of their everyday community of practice to improve educational outcomes, Professional Learning Networks (PLNs (e.g. see Networks for Learning)). PLNs are associated with effective professional development and ultimately improved outcomes for students. At the same time, their success depends heavily on the way in which PLN processes are guided: with research reporting both promising and disappointing results. Moreover, research into PLN effectiveness is methodologically challenging. Many have studied networks and communities before us, and we aim to build further on their important work, having ourselves been involved in projects about Research Learning Communities and -Networks, Data Teams, Teacher Design Teams and cross-school Professional Learning Communities. We notice that schools in many different countries are motivated to participate in networks more than ever, while there is still much to learn in this area. Having mapped out what we think are the main areas that need further investigation, we are excited to work together with schools, partner organizations, and other scholars to further discover how PLNs can be most beneficial for educators and their students.

PLNs are associated with effective professional development and ultimately improved outcomes for students. At the same time, their success depends heavily on the way in which PLN processes are guided

IEN: What did you learn in working on this special issue that you didn’t know before?

CB/CP: Many factors influence PLN processes including collaboration, shared focus on student learning, reflective dialogue, and leadership. Even if PLN participants successfully collaborate and learn together within their group, they still need to successfully share and refine the knowledge developed within the PLN with other colleagues in their ‘home’ schools (as well as other institutions). Only then, will they be able to achieve the ambitious goals of school and system improvement. What’s more, they need to do this in such a way that their colleagues can incorporate this knowledge into their educational practice as experts. We call the process of creating, sharing and applying knowledge, knowledge mobilization (KMb). In our experience with schools, we noticed that PLN members often find it hard to communicate with colleagues outside their PLN about approaches and outcomes. At the same time, school leaders sometimes report they should have done more to support networking between PLNs and their member schools. This is why we were very happy to work with our ICSEI PLN network colleagues on this special issue.

And we have learned a lot. For instance, the paper from Livia Jesacher-Roessler addresses how and whether PLN-participants see themselves as knowledge mobilizers, but also explores how individual and organizational knowledge mobilization is linked to institutional change. It shows that much more is needed from the school as a whole than simply the participation of individuals in a PLN, who are sometimes not even aware of their role in mobilizing knowledge. The paper by Leyton Schnellert and Deborah Butler shows how inviting co-teaching partners into a PLN to engage in collaborative inquiry and engaging in cycles of inquiry with a co-teaching partner is helpful in this respect. The paper by Miriam Mason & David Galloway shows how evidence of student improvement can support further development of PLNs, while also emphasizing the value of a contextual approach. The findings of Joelle Rodway and her colleagues show the importance of both direct and indirect interactions for understanding knowledge brokerage, as well as the importance of different types of relationships (e.g., including both sharing information and giving advice). Those with formal roles are not always the ones most effectively brokering knowledge.

…much more is needed from the school as a whole than simply the participation of individuals in a PLN, who are sometimes not even aware of their role in mobilizing knowledge

Particularly significant post-pandemic, Pierre Tulowitzki’s paper addresses levers and barriers to success of a PLN that takes the form of a blended learning program, showing the importance of both informal and professional communication in this context. The combination of in-person with online meetings was essential. Although some of the other papers emphasized the importance of context, this paper shows how participants transferred models or concepts from other countries to their local context, after careful considerations of required adaptations and experimentation. And with a specific type of PLN, namely Research-Practice Partnerships (RPPs) on the rise, Stephen MacGregor’s paper discusses co-production: shifting the research paradigm so that researchers and stakeholders co-lead research activities, and collectively apply their expertise, knowledge and skills within a team. Design, implementation and reporting on measurement tools for evaluating co-production would benefit from researchers engaging more openly and critically with psychometric and pragmatic considerations for a better understanding of the impact of co-production. Finally, Amanda Datnow’s commentary highlights a number of interesting areas for further development. For example, the extent to which PLNs contribute to achieving social justice goals, and the emotional aspects of PLNs.

IEN: What’s happened since you completed the special issue and what’s next? 

CB/CP: It’s been busy for all of us! To provide just a few examples, first, both of us were invited to sit on the New South Wales (NSW) Curriculum Reform Teacher Engagement Advisory Group. We are advising on NSW’s teacher engagement model for teacher expert networks. We are also contributing to (video)lectures for the related blended learning program. Despite the distance, we truly enjoy being involved in this exciting and important work. In March a project run by Livia Jesacher-Roessler funded by the province of Tyrol started to unpack many of the issues she discusses in her paper: in particular, how different institutional logics of different professions impact on both PLNs and knowledge mobilization. Along with Stephen MacGregor we will also be working with What Works in Children’s Social Care to run a Research Learning Communities intervention for Looked After Children in England. With this iteration of the RLC programme, the team will be working with Subject Leads and Designated Teachers from at least 120 schools. The focus will be specific areas related to maths and English that virtual school heads and designated teachers feel are beneficial to improving key primary school outcomes for this vulnerable group. As series editors of the Emerald PLN book series, we are also looking forward to forthcoming books in the series, including a volume by Mason and Galloway on PLNs in Sub-Saharan Africa.

IEN: What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope your work on professional learning networks will contribute to it? 

CB/CP: Since we started collaborating within the ICSEI PLN network, we have developed a research agenda for areas we think would benefit from further work, with input from network members and building further on their studies. In the book Networks for Learning, Alan Daly and Louise Stoll’s chapter helped us identify conceptual, methodological and impact challenges which were starting points for this research agenda. After several conceptual pieces, such as a  systematic review on reflective professional inquiry, we are eager to advance to more empirical studies, also applying more innovative methodologies (e.g. using text mining and machine learning for analysis purposes and/or using data from blended learning PLNs). At the same time, we are looking forward to sharing practical guidelines with educators  in a forthcoming handbook based on what is already known about effective PLN work so far. Of perhaps most importance, however, is that while learning outcomes are key, students’ wellbeing and issues of equity should be central to all of our PLN work (as Leyton Schnellert and Sara Florence Davidson describe in this blog post). So we are pleased to see both educators and scholars, such as our special issue discussant Amanda Datnow, advancing the field towards impact for children in this area.

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