My background is in teacher learning and I have always been fascinated by the factors that influence teacher engagement in professional learning activities in schools. I have spent years studying teacher learning and comparing the learning that takes place in schools with learning that takes place in other industries. My findings are both controversial and disappointing – that in the very workplaces (schools) where the core business is learning, the quality of teacher learning experiences is often poor. Staff learning is frequently undervalued and underutilised. Too often teachers are working in isolation and their ‘professional learning’ is restricted to one-hour meetings after school each week and five ‘training days’ over the course of a year.
I compared this to the potential learning that takes place in other workplaces, such as construction sites, steel factories, and hairdressing salons. I feel that the hierarchical environments often found in schools can be restrictive to teacher learning. Consider the extent to which the learning environment in your school enables opportunities for: distributed leadership in which all teachers, including the headteacher, engage in professional dialogue about teaching and learning; team teaching; engagement in practitioner research; collaborative planning; coaching and mentoring, peer learning and lesson studies.
I believe that the education community has much to learn from other workplaces on how to develop learning environments that support the formal opportunities for learning, such as staff training sessions, as well as creating an expansive learning environment that promotes informal learning opportunities. Think of formal learning as the one-hour staff meetings after school – how much creative collective energy will teachers have at this time after a day in the classroom? Compare this with the various other opportunities during a working week where teachers may potentially be learning informally:
- Conversing with year group colleagues in partner classrooms about specific teaching strategies or individual children.
- Conversing with colleagues across the school during the day or over lunch.
- Reading articles about education.
- Reading websites/blogs about education.
- Seeking out advice from colleagues.
- Evaluating children’s learning and work with colleagues.
- Informal observations of teaching activities.
- Team planning meetings.
- Team teaching.
- Pupil progress meetings.
The Thinking School
My argument is that there is significant additional potential for teachers to interact and learn socially in schools, and we can purposefully create an environment that encourages it. It is a useful exercise to consider your learning environment and the extent to which it encourages and enables a climate of collaborative peer learning, team teaching, engagement with and in research, and where all members of the team see themselves as learners. It is not the people in a school that make the difference, it is the relationships between them that matter most. We can deliberately create an environment which builds effective working relationships to enhance collaborative informal learning.
My research focused on the development of a dynamic learning community within a ‘thinking school’ (Atwal, 2019). The thinking school is one in which staff learning is seen to be as significant as pupil learning. The simple premise for the development of this dynamic learning community is my belief that the greatest influence on the quality of pupil learning experiences in schools is the quality of teaching, and that the greatest single influence on the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher learning. Leaders in the school should therefore be seen as lead learners, and their core responsibility should be on leading the learning of team members. The promotion of a thinking school is based on the development of a learning environment within our schools that maximises opportunities for both formal and informal teacher learning.
Communities of practice
During my research I took the opportunity to study the quality of learning environments in other institutions and industries, and I was introduced to workplace learning literature. This introduction changed my perceptions. I developed an understanding of the value of informal learning, and decided that I wanted the learning environment for staff in our school to be more expansive. I looked at the example of a hairdressing salon, in which all members of staff are continually reflecting and evaluating their practice – they have the potential to be creative, work collaboratively and engage in informal and formal dialogue about their practice.
The dominant model of theorising about learning in workplace learning literature is centred on a social and participatory perspective. Central to Lave and Wenger’s (1991) work is the social community, and the processes, relationships and experiences that underpin participants’ feelings of belonging and how these influence their workplace learning. Some school environments are more supportive and conducive to teacher learning than others. Higher-achieving schools have a greater capacity to support teacher professional learning because of a greater emphasis on the development of conditions that promote social capital, such as trust, opportunities for collaboration, and networking.
Leaders within a school are in a position to make decisions therefore that can have a positive or negative impact, both in terms of conscious decisions to provide formal learning opportunities and of unconscious decisions that promote a positive learning environment. Examples of these activities include opportunities for observing others, mentoring and coaching, collaborative working, and opportunities to take risks and make mistakes (Marsick, 2009; Evans, Hodkinson, Rainbird et al., 2006).
The dynamic learning community
Through my research, I identified key factors that potentially impact on the provision and implementation of teacher learning activities in schools. I detail these key factors within an overarching definition of a ‘dynamic learning community’. Key features of this model include specific teacher learning activities that can be implemented in schools to support both formal learning opportunities and encourage informal learning activities within the promotion of a positive and expansive learning environment. Examples of activities include: opportunities and time made available for teachers to undertake research; teachers selecting their own focus for professional learning that is related to pupil needs and their own practice; collaborative working in pairs and teams; and non-judgmental lesson observations. To enable this model to work successfully, it is imperative that teacher learning is led by learning-focussed leaders who are able to work in partnership with teachers and contribute to learning activities.
A recent international study on the teaching profession (Schleicher, 2015) has discussed how teacher learning approaches have remained the same despite constant changes to conceptions of pupil learning and the skills required for students to contribute effectively to society. Schleicher (2015, p. 9) argues that the following three key ingredients are required to create a responsive 21st century school.
- Teachers are confident in their ability to teach.
- A willingness to innovate.
- Strong school leaders who establish the conditions in their school that enable the former two ingredients to flourish.
At a time of significant change and challenge in schools, particularly in terms of the recruitment and retention of staff and expectations for pupil outcomes, we need to think differently about what teachers need. By truly developing our teaching within an expansive and collaborative learning environment, teachers will have the confidence to innovate and develop their practice. The aim is to develop a dynamic community of lifelong learners, staff and children within a ‘thinking school’.
Why we need dynamic learning communities in our schools
My doctoral research found that the relationship between engagement in learning activities and the expansiveness of the learning environment is a dynamic process. The evidence suggested that engaging in activities such as peer learning supports the development of a community of learners whilst also encouraging positive attitudes to learning among individuals. The quality of the learning environment for teachers varies widely between schools. Consequently, the quality of children’s learning experience also varies. Much more can be done to improve teacher learning experiences in schools. The teachers I interviewed for my research spoke about the significance of learning that happened informally within their year group teams and across the school. It was clear that some of the teachers had experienced restrictive environments in their school, where their learning was constrained by organisational difficulties or lack of opportunities. They put this down directly to the decision making within the school, particularly by their school leaders.
My findings showed unequivocally the influence of school leaders in determining the expansiveness of the learning environment – or lack of it – and whether learning opportunities were available to teachers. The teachers I interviewed valued opportunities for collaborative planning highly, seeing such activities as promoting a positive culture for learning within the school. They view school leaders to be in a position to design professional learning opportunities that enable them to engage in professional dialogue and learn collaboratively with and from each other.
School leaders need to be both confident and humble. Confident because they are informed about their practice and aren’t afraid to be creative and take risks. Open and transparent in their professional dialogue with staff, maintaining the focus on children’s learning and progress. And humble and accepting that they can learn from their peers. They operate in a culture of high challenge and high trust, able to challenge the team to achieve optimal outcomes for their children yet open to challenge from team members because it’s all about the impact of their actions on children’s learning.
We have to believe that with the right culture and conditions in place, our teachers can learn and develop in the same ways that we believe children can learn and develop. The dynamic learning community is designed to be collaborative and if you are a member of staff at such a school, you have to be committed to keep on learning. Engagement in activities such as action research, peer learning and lesson study enable teachers to gain confidence and become more positive about their learning.
Atwal K (2019) The Thinking School – Developing a Dynamic Learning Community. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational.
Evans K, Hodkinson P, Rainbird H et al. (2006) Improving Workplace Learning. Oxon: Routledge.
Lave J and Wenger E (1991) Situated Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marsick VJ (2009) Toward a unifying framework to support informal learning theory, research and practice. Journal of Workplace Learning 21(4): 265-275.
Schleicher A (2015) Schools for 21st Century Leaders: Strong Leaders, Confident Teachers, Innovative Approaches. International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Paris: OECD Publishing.