Redefining the transformative dynamics of teacher learning communities

Issue 29

“Redefining the transformative dynamics of teacher learning communities”

Evaggelia Frydaki

Pages 41 – 55

Professional learning communities are proposed as ideal places for professional development and improvement of the educational work. In the relevant academic discourses a distinction emerges between: a) the discourses that link collaboration with school efficiency and the improvement of student performance, and b) those that describe collaboration as a shared dynamic of shaping a school, where classes will also transform into learning communities. Research, today, focuses more on professional learning communities as organizational schemes of teachers’ professional learning, but lags behind in highlighting the characteristics of their collaboration that make it more beneficial – in relation to its purpose.
The purpose of this paper is to review the field, highlight the open-ended issues and then present a “case study”, which redefines theoretical and research considerations. Although research mainly shows that strong learning communities are significant factors in the improvement of teaching and pedagogical reforms, they seldom reveal the impact of teachers’ collaboration in students’ learning, apart from general ascertainments that, since teaching is being improved, so does the quality of learning (Luyten and Bazo 2019· Reeves et al. 2017).
At the same time, there are findings about the negative consequences of collaboration. Especially when it is centrally planned –with top-down processes– and characterized by standardized procedures, by constant demand for accountability, and by treating teachers as “means” for students to learn and improve their skills, it can bring the opposite effect: it can undermine teachers’ desire and capacity for growth (Swanson et al. 2018· Levine and Marcus 2010· Westheimer 2008· Huberman 1995).
Two crucial points to ponder:
i) Does the multiplicity of definitions of collaboration, the concealment of the assumptions that underpin it as well as the purpose it serves, make it difficult to understand and evaluate the mechanisms that make it effective? For example, it is important to determine whether the development of students, at which teachers’collaboration aims, is defined as the improvement of their performance or as the overall empowerment of their subjectivity (Frydaki 2011).
ii) Is the knowledge that teachers acquire through their collaboration in line with that which they use in classrooms? If, i.e., they learn to think critically and question their practices, do they seek to teach their students to think critically and question as well? And if so, what is the result? The initial distinction between the meaning of collaboration in terms of effectiveness and of the transformative dynamics of the school, which recurs in current research (Reeves et al. 2017· Laviè 2006) reminds us that it is difficult to evaluate the results of collaboration, regardless of the educational purposes
it explicitly or implicitly works for. On this basis, we present a “case study” which illuminates some conditions under which a learning community emerges as a place of professional development and dynamic transformation of the educational work.The “case study” highlights the qualitative features of teacher collaboration in a learning community, which started as a working group for the development of a Curriculum and was transformed into a learning community with a corresponding imprint in the educational work. According to the members’ reflective assessment, this result stemmed from teachers’ free and dialogic formation of a common understanding of what constitutes improved teaching and how it relates to their own professional development. The learning community was formed not because the members of the work group worked together for hours and exchanged views; but because they co-constructed a shared understanding of the purpose of their work, and showed maximum openness to the other voices, to the point that they transformed their own. Due to this shared perception, the qualitative characteristics of their cooperation were transferred to their classrooms and transformed them into learning communities.

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