Thursday, June 2, 2011

Professional Learning Communities: Are we just moving furniture around?

As a principal I believe in schools as learning communities.  While I am in support of this organizational paradigm, it is worth noting some of the clear advantages and challenges.

The Case for Schools as Learning Organizations/Communities

Peter Senge, in his book the Fifth Discipline defines the learning organization as “ a place where people continually expand their capacity to create results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to act together. (Senge, 1990, pg.3) 

Richard DuFour builds on these concepts and lists six key attributes of learning communities in schools. In particular, he writes that learning communities have a shared sense of mission, vision and values; collectively inquire and question the status quo; use collaborative teams as common practice; are action orientated with a desire to constantly experiment; constantly seek continuous improvement; and are always results orientated (DuFour, 1998). Another group of researchers write that: “If schools want to enhance their organizational capacity to boost student learning, they should work on building a professional learning community that is characterized by shared purpose, collaborative activity, and collective responsibility among staff” (Newmann and Wehlage, 1995, pg.37 as cited in DuFour, 1998).

 In his book Change Forces, Robert Fullan argues that schools can best deal with change by becoming learning organizations and asks the following question: “What would it take to make the educational system a learning organization – expert at dealing with change as a normal part of its work, not just in relating to the latest policy, but as a way of life”? (Fullan, 1993)

One of my favorite researchers on organizational development amplifies this message when he writes: “Every enterprise has to become a learning institution and a teaching institution. Organizations that build in continuous learning in jobs will dominate the 21st century (Drucker, 1992).

The Potential Limiting Factors

While the benefits of schools' embracing the attributes of a learning organizations are clear, certain forces internal and external to a school can serve to seriously undermine this endeavor. 

One particular indictment of the learning organization looks at its paradoxical nature and how its employees are asked to be innovative risk takers, while at the same time demanding that those same employees be measured under to the old paradigm of results-based outcomes.

The learning organization discourse presents itself as a romantic ideal encouraging workers’ personal growth and imaginative engagement – yet this discourse continues the workplace tradition of dictating which kind of growth counts most, what imaginative endeavours are most valued, what kinds of talk, relationships, and identities are allowed and which are out of bounds or even meaningless…the reality of workers’ multi-situated and continually shifting identity, as well as the complexities of their workplace learning are neither valued or even acknowledged. (Fenwick, 1998)

This observation only serves to illustrate that creating a learning organization requires fundamental and systemic change at all levels of the organization. “High performance learning communities represent the product of complex transformational change…they do not fix anything, they begin from scratch.” (Castle and Estes, 1995)

Of course this premise also applies to schools and how they see the creation of a learning organization. “School systems cannot be high-performance learning communities with only superficial reorganizations that are no more effective than rearranging the furniture”(Castle and Estes, 1995).

Questions for Reflection

As a I write this, I am reflecting on my school's journey to becoming a professional learning community - are we just moving the furniture around or we engaging in deep rooted, systemic and transformational change?

Perhaps, as we look at reforming our school system to reflect the needs of the 21st century and its learners, this might be the perfect opportunity to "start from scratch" - and build true learning organizations?


  1. Great reflections, Johnny

    DuFour puts forward an image in one of his books as the PLC being a coffee table with four legs: mission, vision, values and goals.

    A coffee table is a piece of furniture that should draw people together. It invites conversation and sharing of ideas (think Starbucks). However, I sometimes feel like the coffee tables in our schools get moved around to increase aesthetic appeal without any significant long-term impact. Solely moving the furniture (exclusively focusing on student learning) will not produce the "fundamental and systemic changes" of which Castle and Estes write.

    Teachers need to sit around the coffee table (the PLC if you will) and have conversations about the meanings behind what they do. Laura Servage nails it in her essay, "Making Space for Critical Reflection in PLCs":
    The opportunity to explore and sometimes to debate the philosophies behind our actions generates the sort of creativity and momentum that is critical to sustaining school improvement efforts.

    The paradoxical nature of risk taking within an old paradigm will only dissipate if we increase collaborative capacity and organizational understanding by asking difficult questions of each other and reaching consensus on the purposes of our work.

    Let's move the coffee table and the other furniture but only if it's purpose is more than cosmetic

  2. Johnny, I worry about "starting from scratch". To start from scratch indicates that there is nothing worth keeping and that there is no good work happening. I know that is not the case in your school (or any school for that matter). I think the road to a high functionign PLC looks critically and reflectively on current practice and decides what to keep and what to scrap.


  3. No wonder Peter Senge has popularized the idea of "learning organization." Just like furniture, people need to be varnished too, especially the ones tarred with the same brush.