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Developing Learning Communities

Written by: Claire Badger and Amanda Triccas
6 min read

A learning community can be seen as one where the concept of learning moves beyond the idea of ‘learning = being taught’ towards the view that ‘learning = constructing knowledge with others’ (Watkins, 2005). At Godolphin and Latymer, we have developed a series of learning communities for both staff and students; groups of volunteers engage in current research, exploring its applications to our specific school context. Our model is based on that of Leahy and Wiliam (2012), which was designed specifically to scale up professional development for formative assessment. However, as discussed in Eleanore Hargreaves’ accompanying article, learning community models have been shown to be effective with other foci, and at Godolphin and Latymer we have had groups focusing on a range of topics, including metacognition, assessment, thinking skills and the use of technology to support teaching and learning.

Teacher learning communities (TLCs)

Cordingley et al. (2015) have identified several components of effective professional development, including the importance of teachers engaging with iterative professional development over a sustained period of time, alongside peer learning and support. Our model aims to encompass these aspects.

Each TLC comprises around eight to 12 teachers who meet once a half-term. The key feature of our model is that membership is voluntary and drawn from a wide variety of subject and teacher experience; this year, a third of the teaching body, ranging from the senior deputy head to NQTs, have joined one of our five TLCs. The lack of coercion and hierarchical structures chimes with the positive findings of Hargreaves’ work discussed in the accompanying article. TLCs are organised around particular themes – for example, metacognition or assessment – rather than subjects or key stages, so each group has a broad membership range. Each meeting follows the same structure, starting with feedback, where members report on what they have tried since the last meeting, and concluding with personal action planning, where individuals detail what they hope to accomplish before the next meeting; individual teachers decide their personal focus, giving a powerful sense of autonomy. This action-planning and feedback cycle gives a chance to develop skills through in-class experimentation and collaboration, and takes place over an extended period – in our case over an academic year.

However, while peer support and collaboration are necessary, but not sufficient, ingredients for effective professional development (Cordingley et al., 2015), a further aspect of the TLC model is the inclusion of new learning, linked to the overall theme for the year. This can be a book extract, a journal article, feedback from a conference or a guest speaker (see Appendix).

We have been running TLCs at Godolphin and Latymer since September 2016 and they have proved popular, with an annual increase in the numbers of staff involved. Feedback obtained through a survey conducted at the end of the first year was overwhelmingly positive, with teachers noting how they valued discussing pedagogical approaches with colleagues and also reflecting on their own practice. How the TLCs developed a creative approach was also apparent through comments such as:

[The TLC provided] encouragement to diversify [my] pedagogical style and [gave me] the confidence (almost permission) to take risks.

Student learning communities (SLCs)

The student learning communities are based on a similar model to the TLCs; membership is voluntary and this year we have two SLCs for Year 10 and Year 12 students. It is not just our academic high-flyers who volunteer. The SLCs are popular with students who have found learning difficult in the past and thus comprise the full range of abilities within our school, as well as a wide range of subject interests. The SLC model can be considered a form of ‘informed student voice’, where students are introduced to ideas from research into learning that they can try them out for themselves. It is well known that students’ perceptions of what is beneficial for long-term learning are often clouded by their experience of short-term performance (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015), so the exposure to research is important as it provides justification for discussing different learning strategies and encourages them to try new approaches. Our experience is that students really value opportunities to engage with research on learning and have enjoyed reading articles such as Dunlosky’s ‘Strengthening the student toolbox’ (Dunlosky, 2013). As a result, students have embraced strategies such as retrieval practice and dual-coding (Weinstein et al., 2018).

Initial findings from one author’s MA research into the effectiveness of the SLC model suggest that students find the opportunities to discuss learning with their peers immensely valuable; as one girl commented, ‘[learning is] not something you normally discuss with other people’. The importance of promoting talk around learning is highlighted in the recent Education Endowment Foundation guidance report on metacognition (EEF, 2018). Rather than a didactic approach to teaching learning strategies, the SLC model encourages students to take ownership of strategies for themselves.

The wider school as a learning community

A key feature of developing the whole school as a learning community is the way in which these individual learning communities feed back to the wider school. We run an annual twilight staff meeting where each learning community presents their findings to small groups of staff (staff choose two sessions to attend). In this way, the findings from the TLCs are shared peer to peer; our experience is that this encourages staff who do not feel that they can commit to becoming a member of a TLC to engage in research findings. Students presenting their ideas to staff on what they find helpful in their learning proved particularly powerful and was described by one member of staff as ‘the best INSET ever’.

Student learning communities also plan and run form times and assemblies on learning for other students; anecdotally, this peer-to-peer process appears more effective than the traditional teacher-led assembly. A particular highlight last year was when two Year 10 girls, unprompted, asked whether they could plan a form-time activity on learning for Year 7, as they felt that they had learned so much since Year 7 and wanted to pass on their wisdom to the younger year group.

All of these aspects feed into building the culture of a school as a learning community, one where members are comfortable discussing learning, reflecting on learning and eliciting feedback. As discussed by Weston and Clay (2018), this helps to develop a culture where responsible risk-taking is encouraged and mistakes are seen as opportunities, giving both teachers and students a powerful sense of autonomy over their own learning.

Appendix: Examples of ‘new learning’ discussed in TLCs

Assessment

A marked improvement? (Elliott et al., 2016)

Making Good Progress (Christodoulou, 2016)

Metacognition

Metacognition and self-regulated learning (EEF, 2018)

Metalearning in classrooms (Watkins, 2015)

Deep rivers of learning (Claxton, 2018)

Technology

Teachers are central to the good use of edtech (Scutt, 2018)

Scholarship in academic writing

Closing the Vocabulary Gap (Quigley, 2018)

Landscape of learning

The Learning Relationship: Psychoanalytic Thinking in Education (Youell, 2006)

Psychology in the Classroom (Smith, 2018)

References

Christodoulou D (2016) Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Claxton G (2018) Deep rivers of learning. Phi Delta Kappan 99: 45–48.

Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. Available at: https://tdtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/DGT-Full-report.pdf (accessed 8 January 2019).

Dunlosky J (2013) Strengthening the student toolbox: Study strategies to boost learning. American Educator 37: 12–21.

Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018) Metacognition and self-regulated learning. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/metacognition-and-self-regulated-learning/ (accessed 23 September 2018).

Elliott V, Baird J-A, Hoppenbeck TN et al. (2016) A marked improvement? University of Oxford/Education Endowment Foundation. Available at: <https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/EEF_Marking_Review_April_2016.pdf>  (accessed 8 January 2019).

Leahy S and Wiliam D (2012) From teachers to schools: Scaling up professional development for formative assessment. In: Gardner J (ed) Assessment and Learning (2nd edition). London: SAGE Publications Ltd: 49-71.

Quigley A (2018) Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Scutt C (2018) Teachers are central to the good use of edtech. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/teachers-are-central-good-use-edtech (accessed 8 January 2019).

Smith M (2018) Psychology in the Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to What Works. London: Routledge.

Soderstrom NC and Bjork RA (2015) Learning versus performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10: 176–199.

Watkins C (2005) Classrooms as learning communities: A review of research. London Review of Education 3: 47–64.

Watkins C (2015) Metalearning in classrooms. In: Scott D and Hargreaves E (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Learning. London: Sage: 321-220.

Weinstein Y, Madan CR and Sumeracki MA (2018) Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications 3: 2.

Weston D and Clay B (2018) Unleashing Great Teaching: The Secrets to the Most Effective Teacher Development. London: Routledge.

Youell B (2006) The Learning Relationship: Psychoanalytic Thinking in Education. London: Karnac.

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