Tag Archives: Professional Learning Community

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.

A Conversation about School Improvement Networks and Collaborative Inquiry in Chile

This week, Mauricio Pino-Yancovic and Alvaro González talk with IEN about their new book on the Chilean Ministry of Education’s recent improvement strategy relying on school networks. Written with Luis Ahumada and Chris ChapmanSchool Improvement Networks and Collaborative Inquiry: Fostering Systematic Change in Challenging Contexts describes the processes and challenges of implementing collaborative practices between schools.

Why this book, why now?

The School Improvement Strategy was put in place at a moment when the Chilean school system was going through a period of significant structural reforms to improve the quality and equity of public education. A basic principle of this reform effort was to produce a cultural change from competition to collaboration as a way to produce the necessary conditions for systemic improvement. The School Improvement Networks (SINs) were instrumental to making that change. The Networks were mandated by the Chilean Ministry of Education to bring together between 5 and 15 schools, each represented by their principal and curriculum coordinator, a representative of the municipal department of education, and one or two Ministry supervisors. Through LIDERES EDUCATIVOS, a Center at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, we were commissioned by the Ministry to produce a yearly monitoring report of networks across the country based on questionnaire data. In addition, in 2016 we did a qualitative study of 15 networks in different regions to deeply understand how networks had been formed and were initially developing.

This book was born out of the necessity to open a dialogue with scholars around the world investigating networking and collaboration. We have learned very much from US and Canadian as well as European scholars. In fact, the opportunity to publish our manuscript came from an invitation by Chris Brown at the University of Durham and Cindy Poortman at the University of Twente to write for a series on Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) they edit with Emerald. Also, we have collaborated in this book with Chris Chapman from the University of Glasgow who has been a key supporter and friend in our projects. Finally, we were driven by the conviction that we had something meaningful to contribute from the Global South regarding collaboration and networking. Although the book is focused in Chile, we are aware that the challenge of developing a culture of collaboration in a context of privatization, competition and isolation, resonates with many countries.

What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?

From our experience studying and working with networks, we realized that it is much more powerful to think about the challenge of improvement from a systemic perspective rather than an individual one. Networks facilitate developing such a systemic approach, but we were first hand witnesses of how difficult it was to enact such change in practice, especially in a competitive environment such as the Chilean one.

By pulling together the evidence from several studies about networking, we produced a clearer picture of what networking among schools looks like in practice. This picture shows us that there are three key elements that need to be in place to ensure the sustainability of networks:

  • Building professional capital among network actors which would allow them to increase their capacity for collective change and improvement
  • Developing network leadership capacities for leading upwards, leading laterally, and leading downwards, which mobilizes influence and power relations within and outside networks, which is crucial in a challenging context
  • Establishing an appropriate system infrastructure to support and legitimize changing cultural patterns beyond the remit of networks themselves.

What’s happened in these contexts since you wrote the book?

In October 2019, Chileans took to the streets demanding social reforms aimed at tackling inequality and changes to a constitution that dates back to the 1980s, during the dictatorship of general Augusto Pinochet. It has been four months of massive protests and harsh police repression, which have mobilized the country to hold political actors to account on several topics. Education has been a central issue in these past months, as social and economic inequality is reproduced and reinforced in our neoliberal-inspired school system. Teachers and school leaders have had to deal with the consequences of this social discontent in schools and, in some cases, networks have been a key support in helping them to decide how to approach the situation. School networks seems to be an appropriate path to continue supporting a cultural change.

Unfortunately, the current government had decided earlier in 2019 to partially withdraw support to the School Improvement Networks strategy, although they have not phased it out altogether. Ministry supervisors were redeployed to focus on providing support and intervention directly to underperforming schools. Nonetheless, in most cases, networks have continued their work as school leaders value the opportunities to share and exchange experiences among schools in the same geographical area. In addition, we have been invited to support several school networks project at district levels. The findings described in this book are also being used by those who are pushing forward strategies based on meaningful collaboration for school improvement.

What’s next — what are you working on or what do you hope will happen in these contexts?

The agreement between the Ministry of Education and the LIDERES EDUCATIVOS Center ended in December 2019 but a renewal application was submitted, and we are awaiting a response. In the meantime, everyone in our team has gone to work elsewhere although still linked to the issue of networking and collaboration for school improvement. For instance, Mauricio is now a researcher of the Center for Advanced Research in Education (CIAE), Institute of Education at Universidad de Chile, working on projects to develop and support school networks using Collaborative Inquiry, and working closely with districts on the systemic improvement of the territory. Álvaro has gone to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Universidad de O’Higgins and he is starting a three-year study about the support provided to underperforming schools in Chile, where interorganizational collaboration and learning play a key role. Luis Ahumada has returned to his position as Professor at the School of Psychology at PUCV, still involved in educational leadership. Also, we hope to continue our collaboration with Chris Chapman, Chris Brown, Cindy Poortman and many other scholars that we had the chance to know through the ICSEI PLN network and elsewhere.

What do you hope those working in other parts of the world will take away from your experiences?

Many educational systems have opted for the strategy of networking to support improvement not only for schools in difficulty but also entire systems. This movement builds on the empirical evidence showing how difficult it is for a school to improve on its own. Our book shows that in marketized school systems, such as the Chilean one, it is possible to overcome the logic of individual accountability, promoting collaboration and co-responsibility between all levels of the system. We hope that our book will inspire decision- and policy-makers to promote networking at different levels of the system and to create spaces where collective support and democratization allow for the development of a different bond among schools and the communities they serve.

Interview with Louise Stoll


Dr. Louise Stoll

Dr. Louise Stoll

Louise Stoll is Professor of Education at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the Institute of Education, University of London, as well as a freelance researcher and an international consultant. Her research and development activity focuses on how schools, districts and national systems create capacity for learning and improvement, focusing especially on leadership, learning communities and learning networks. This interviewwhich is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently, Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

Global Perspectives on Professional Learning Communities

Dr. Jane B. Huffman

Dr. Jane B. Huffman

At the 27th annual International Conference for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held in Yagyakarta, Indonesia, early this January, Dr. Jane B. Huffman presented a paper, “Professional Learning Community Development in High Schools: Conceptualizing the PLC Process through a Global Perspective,” in which she shared her research on the PLC process within multiple Asian cultural contexts. In a recent conversation with IEN Contributing Editor Paul Chua, Huffman defines professional learning communities (PLCs) as “professional educators working collectively and purposefully to create and sustain a culture of learning for all students and adults.” She described PLCs as a multi-dimensional process, including shared and supportive leadership; shared values and vision; collective learning and application; shared personal practice and supportive conditions. Through her research in the U.S. context over the past two years, she has found that successful implementation of PLCs district-wide depends on a coordinated vision of leadership working together towards a common goal, strong interpersonal relationships, and carefully targeted professional learning.

While the PLC process has been practiced and studied in Anglo-American cultures for twenty years, Huffman’s work with the Global PLC Network extends this work to non-Anglo countries including China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Huffman and four research colleagues – one each from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and the U. S. – began the network in 2009 by studying schools in Taiwan and Singapore that were using the PLC model. From those conversations, they began to construct the essential structures of what came to be called the “Global PLC Model.” Their research on the global construct has five facets for development: structures, policy and procedures; leadership; professionalism; learning capacity and a sense of community.

A Dr. Huffman explained, a brief history of the five educational systems show that external and internal differences in educational systems make it impossible to create a ‘boilerplate’ improvement effort that will fit all contexts and meet all teacher and student needs. In Taiwan, the Ministry of Education (MOE) PLC policy began in 2009 and encouraged K-12 teachers to build school-based PLC teams for teacher professional development. Some government programs, such as a high school improvement project (School Actualization Program) and science education (High Scope Program), continue to motivate teachers to establish subject-based or interdisciplinary PLCs for curriculum innovation or professional development. In Singapore, PLCs started in 2000 with the establishment of Teachers Network, and Learning Circles, a teacher collaborative learning model of action research. In China, although the term PLC is seldom used, schools have a long history of enhancing teachers’ professional competency and instructional skills through collaboration and collective inquiry. In Hong Kong, early steps have been initiated to establish policies related to PLCs.

For more on the topic of Professional Learning Communities and how they are being put to use in various countries around the world, readers can look back to Dr. Huffman’s earlier publications and earlier conversation with ICSEI President Dr. Alma Harris, who shared that some of the debates about professional collaboration range from discussions about the best models to follow, about the time and resources available to support these activities, and the issue of impact. In addition, in a recent conversation with IEN, Dr. Philip Hallinger, described the some of the issues related “policy borrowing,” in which countries attempt to utilize policies that have been successful in different contexts.