Professional Learning Groups (PLGs): Four Tips for Effective Learning

Ken Templeton | 08.21.2014

At Great Schools Partnership, one of our bedrock approaches is to support professional learning groups for educators. We know that the United States under-invests in effective professional learning, compared to many other countries, and we know that when teachers engage in collaborative learning there are benefits to students. Still, there is more to effective PLGs than creating time in the schedule. That is a big consideration but we have all had the experience of colleagues grumbling that their PLG is “just another meeting.” Here are some things to keep in mind when developing or refining professional learning time in your school.

1. Set goals together.

One of most common questions teachers ask of PLG facilitators is: “Why are we meeting in PLGs?” It is important to have a clear rationale for professional learning groups–but teachers should have a role in establishing learning outcomes. Too often, though, goals are either tightly controlled by people outside the learning group or are never stated at all–in groups based on curricula (ie: departments), goals are often overlooked as self-evident. Some schools achieve balance through interest-based PLGs (like inquiry groups in Tacoma, WA), allowing maximum teacher choice. Others set broad goals for school improvement, but ask PLG members to set group-specific learning goals. Goals need to be shared, clearly articulated, revisited and reflected upon regularly.

For example, look at these two graphs. This one shows the patterns of Bloom’s taxonomy when students are listening or viewing.

iWalkthrough_graph_Blooms_Student1_professional_learning_groups

This ones shows the Bloom’s pattern when students are discussing.

iWalkthrough_graph_Blooms_Student2_professional_learning_groups

We can see that students are more likely to analyze and evaluate when engaged in discussion than when listening/viewing (and that students are four times more likely to listen/view than discuss). These data can prompt clear learning goals for teachers about facilitating discussion, shifting class routines to include more discussion and other ways to help students think critically.

2. Zoom in, zoom out.

Professional learning groups are most effective when there are practical applications in the classroom that can be implemented and reflected upon. Therefore, it is critical to “zoom in” on practices through the examination of assessments, videos of instructional practice, or text-based reading about instruction. It is equally important to “zoom out” to the implications for teaching and learning beyond the specific practice. By trying specific strategies, we have concrete experiences; with reflection and thinking about teaching and learning more broadly, we can more easily impact students’ everyday experiences. This is one reason it can be helpful to observe teaching outside of your content area – some of the techniques a world language teacher uses for vocabulary development might provide a science teacher some strategies to help students access vocabulary too.

3. Regularly learn from success.

The School Reform Initiative suggests this protocol to analyze successes in the classroom. Note the difference: it’s not celebrating success or bragging about it, but understanding success. Some schools focus on success early in their PLG work to build trust and familiarity with protocols; others make sure to look at successes before a vacation. These are great ideas, and you can also build a brief success analysis into every PLG session. By taking 10-15 minutes to share recent successes, we build confidence in our ability to tackle the challenges that we haven’t figured out yet.

For example, we have helped schools quickly capture student feedback on instruction. Some teachers set goals for certain areas. In a PLG, a teacher might have been working on encouraging student persistence based on student feedback data because early feedback showed this was an area to work on. Taking suggestions from the PLG, he helped students set goals, reflect on progress, and work through difficulty. If his second round of feedback looks like the graph below, it is critical to reflect that success back to the group–not solely for his own benefit, but for the group’s sense of impact and efficacy.

iWalkthrough_StudentFeedback_Graph_professional_learning_groups

4. Use a process (with a purpose)

We all know those meetings where one person dominates the conversation, or those times when “natural” conversation leads us quite far away from the purpose of our PLG. Dan Ryder, an experienced teacher and design thinking facilitator, has said, “Most groups think they have a process, but they really have habits.” Protocols keep the group focused. They are invaluable tools to interrupt the “natural” ways of communication that often leave us frustrated. We should keep in mind that protocols are a means to an end, and running a perfect protocol isn’t the end! It’s critical to debrief the protocol (don’t skip the debrief!) to see how well it served the purpose. If it didn’t serve the purpose well, you need a different process, not no process.

Resources

These resources will help you refine or develop your work with professional learning groups. What do you think is essential for excellent professional learning?

Harnessing Teacher Knowledge: a self-assessment and planning guide for professional learning groups.

Protocols from The School Reform Initiative.

Featured image is courtesy of Education Plus, retrieved from flickr Creative Commons.

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