To ensure a higher standard of learning, schools must insist on the best possible quality of teaching and create an integrated, collaborative, continual-growth faculty culture where practice and research unite (Barber and Mourshed).
The Critical Impact of Teachers in Schools
Recent research confirms what most of us already know—that high-quality teaching improves student learning and drives student success. Yet, although teachers are the lynchpins, the “final gatekeepers,” shockingly little is known about their professional learning and development. While the notion of teacher at the center of student learning appears beyond debate, teachers themselves are often left out of the conversation; they remain “the most affected, and least consulted” (Kooy, 2014) in the educational process. Teachers have the primary responsibility for student learning and indeed, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” (Barber and Mourshed, 2007). In this article, I will argue that restoring teachers to their rightful professional position and responsibilities will tip the balance in favor of teacher-driven professional development to transform and improve student learning (Cole, 2012).
Teacher Learning as Professional Development
The current and continuing force to “improve” education over the last twenty years (probably beginning with George Bush’s “no child left behind” movement) has driven the content, testing, and accountability movements. The recognition that change and reform cannot happen without teachers has led to increased emphasis on professional development even in the fiscal “more-with-less” environments. Reliance on the traditional “one-shot” workshop (Clark, 2001) remains the mainstay of professional development. Often planned by external agencies (school districts, for example) and led by an “expert,” they fall far short of the intended goal of affecting change in teachers (Clark, 2001; Fullan, 2006).
To put this into perspective, think back over the number of in-service training sessions, teacher conferences, workshops, and seminars that you have attended. Now, ask yourself some hard questions: “How much has my classroom today changed from what it was like ten or fifteen years ago? How different is my teaching? How many of the ideas, concepts, and skills presented and discussed in trainings actually have taken deep root in my classroom?” And to those questions, we can add: “Who is the expert on my students? Why do outside agencies presume to know my students, my school, my pedagogical knowledge and practices?” The message is fairly clear: Teachers need “fixing” and cannot be trusted to determine their professional learning needs. This is a powerful and compelling point of discussion for Christian teachers and school practices.
While the workshop model still predominates, some changes in structuring professional development includes the popular PLC model (professional learning community) that has been widely adopted across schools and districts. Informed by research on collaboration and social knowledge construction (Clark, 2001; Edwards, 2012; Kooy, 2012; Rentfro, 2005), PLCs consist of teacher groups who focus on issues directly related to their particular school.
While on the surface this appears a more suitable alternative to the workshop, closer examination reveals that PLCs are also often top-down and mandated with administration determining content, process, membership, and deadlines (see Vescio et al., 2008). Fullan (2006) observed that: “the term travels faster and better than the concept” (10) and that its implementation has outpaced the research and theoretical knowledge that informs it. Premature implementation, then, results in the continuing removal of responsibility and accountability for professional learning out of teacher hands; in turn, this blocks the building of authentic professional communities.
The conundrum, alive in most educational contexts, needs attention and radical reviewing, including problematizing traditional professional development practices, such as the following: (1) External agencies organize and dispense knowledge to teachers (“experts,” organizations, administrations, standardized testing companies). The message: Teachers cannot be trusted to make critical decisions for effective teaching without outside help and resources. (2) PLCs often consist of a group of teachers completing an assigned task. The message: teachers are unable to create a learning community that is active, dynamic, sustained and interdependent. (3) Professional knowledge developed by teachers has been neglected and underutilized. The message: teacher knowledge remains implicit, and therefore, teachers are neither accountable for what they know nor responsible for contributing to and learning from the professional teacher community.
Exploring principles of community from a Christian perspective opens avenues for authentic, collaborative professional learning that calls on teachers to act on their shared values and to develop an interdependency that allows them to flourish in their learning and development and to build professional knowledge in community. It means bending traditional expectations, moving from passive “presentations” to active networking and collaborative learning. Research indicates that teacher knowledge develops with active engagement in hands-on work, particularly when such work is relates specifically to local curriculum and policies (Darling-Hammond and Richardson, 2009).
For practitioners, transformative learning happens as they explore their own questions, dilemmas, and concerns in sustained collaboration with others. A critical oversight in the research is the need for teachers to experience and engage in intellectual activities for professional learning and knowledge development in communities (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 2009; Kooy, 2009, 2012b, 2014; Little and Horn, 2007; Lytle, 2008). Unless teachers engage in sustained learning in communities of professionals, understand how learning develops in social contexts, create a shift in the culture of the school, share goals, and are driven to improve, collaborative learning in the classroom will not happen. Teachers need to understand social construction of knowledge (interdependency) before transitioning this into classrooms. Creating communities of teachers is at the heart of Christian schooling, which openly claims community as constitutive in its vision.
My Current Research on Teacher Learning Communities
Since 2000, I have been conducting research with teachers who meet in small communities of learning (Kooy, 2009, 2012, 2014) to construct and reconstruct their teaching through learning. The current research (2011–2015) consists of two K–12 volunteer teacher cohorts with eight teachers each. The research set out to investigate what happens to professional learning and development when teachers generate and conduct their own research questions relevant to their teaching, skills, schools, classes, and contexts, and maintain participation in a sustained community of teacher-learners.