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Teacher Learning Communities - Teacher Learning and the New Professional Development, Community, Teacher Learning Communities

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Although they are seldom mentioned in the educational literature or in professional educators' organizations before the early 1980s, it has become commonplace to refer to certain projects, programs, networks, and collaboratives of prospective or experienced teachers as teacher learning communities. The term combines two basic concepts–teacher learning and community–that are part of the discourse in teacher education, professional development, school reform, and educational policy in the early twenty-first century.

Teacher Learning and the New Professional Development

It has become understood that teachers are linchpins in educational reforms of all kinds. In fact, Michael Fullan, a well-known contemporary writer on educational change, suggests that "teachers' capacities to deal with change, learn from it, and help students learn from it will be critical for the future development of societies" (p. ix). This means that teacher learning–how, what, and under what conditions teachers learn to respond to the needs of a changing society–is among the most important issues in educational policy and practice. A strong emphasis on teacher learning is part of what has been referred to as a new paradigm of professional development or a new model of teacher education. The new professional development is conceptualized as continuous teacher learning over time. Early research about how teachers think about their work prompted a shift in emphasis away from what teachers do and toward what they know, what their sources of knowledge are, how those sources influence their work in classrooms, and how they make decisions and construct curriculum within conditions that are ultimately uncertain and changing.

With its focus on teachers as "knowers" and thinkers (not just do-ers), the concept of teacher learning is more constructivist than transmission-oriented. The concept carries with it the idea that both prospective and experienced teachers (like all learners) bring prior knowledge and experience to all new learning situations, which are social and specific, and that active learning requires opportunities to link previous knowledge with new understandings. This means that teachers are acknowledged as not just receivers of information or implementers of teaching methods and curriculum, but also translators and interpreters of subject matter, inventors of teaching strategies, and generators of knowledge, curriculum and instruction.

For prospective teachers, the concept of teacher learning replaces earlier notions of "teacher training," a one-time process prior to the beginning of the teaching career wherein undergraduates were equipped with content, methods in the subject area, and information about educational foundations and then sent out to "practice" teaching. Similarly, for experienced teachers, the notion of teacher learning replaces the concept of periodic "in-service staff development" wherein experienced teachers were congregated to receive the latest information about effective teaching processes and techniques from various educational experts. Rather, it is generally understood that teacher learning takes place over time rather than in isolated moments in time and that teacher learning occurs over the entire professional life span (i.e., prior to and during formal preparation and initial teaching but also during the induction period and the early and later career years) rather than beginning during the formal preparation period and ending once a teacher has achieved a particular professional benchmark (e.g., tenure in a school system, permanent state licensure, national board certification) or position (e.g., mentor teacher, teacher leader, teacher on special assignment). It has also been widely acknowledged that teacher learning projects are most effective when linked to students' learning and curricular reform that is embedded in the daily life of schools and when focused on what Ann Lieberman and Lynn Miller call "culture-building," not skills training.

The concept of teacher learning is part of a new perspective on teacher education and professional development. It is used to emphasize that across the career lifespan, the professional education of teachers is a process of learning to adapt and invent strategies, manage competing agendas, interpret and construct subject-specific and interdisciplinary curriculum, and build classroom and school cultures within conditions that are ultimately uncertain.


Although long used in other fields, the term community is relatively new in the mainstream literature about teacher education, professional development, and educational change. In literary theory, "interpretive community" has been used by Stanley Fish and other theorists to refer to a network of people with similar meaning perspectives. In sociolinguistics, "speech community" has been used by Dell Hymes, John Gumperz, and other linguistic anthropologists to refer to a group of people who engage in face-to-face interaction within a specific context. Jay Lemke defines community as "systems of doing, of social and cultural activities or practices, rather than as systems of doers, of human individuals per se" (p. 93). In the field of composition, Joseph Harris has suggested that the term "discourse community" draws on the everyday meaning of community as a group with common goals and interests as well as the literary concept of interpretive community and the sociolinguistic notion of speech community. In this sense discourse communities are real groupings of readers and writers who share a kind of larger mission, but they also become networks of "citations and allusions" that refer to texts both within the speech community and outside of it.

According to social theorists such as Joel Westheimer, the central features of community include "interaction and participation, interdependence, shared interests and beliefs, concern for individual and minority views, and meaningful relationships"(p. 12). Along different lines, John McKnight suggests that community is the primary location for the development of relationships and commitments among citizens. In teacher education and professional development, the terms inquiry communities and teacher research groups have been used for some time to describe groups of education practitioners who meet together to inquire systematically about aspects of their own work in schools and classrooms.

Communities of practice is a term that has become prominent in the literature on learning. Drawing on the social psychology of learning, particularly on research about situated cognition and activity theory, the notion of communities of practice is developed in the work of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. Lave and Wenger suggest that "learning, thinking, and knowing are relations among people engaged in activity in, with, and arising from the socially and culturally structured world" (p. 67, emphasis in original). This means that learning is a process that occurs when more and less experienced people work together within communities of practice, which are "the social configurations in which our enterprises are defined as worth pursuing and our participation is recognizable as competence" (Wenger, p. 5). Communities of practice organized around a common goal are the site for participants' learning new roles that are connected to new knowledge and skills. From this perspective, it is not simply learning that takes place within communities of practice, but–since knowing and being are intimately connected to one another–it is also identity formation itself. The idea of professional communities has also been used to understand variations in teachers' interpretations of their opportunities and challenges within the social and organizational structures of schools.

Conceptually, community has been used in a number of different ways in education theory and research and in the social sciences to denote groups of people engaged in particular kinds of work or other activity and linked by a common purpose. Community members typically exchange meaning perspectives and ideas about what it means to be actively engaged in a particular activity or enterprise.

Teacher Learning Communities

"Teacher learning communities" (TLCs) is a term that combines many of the meanings of the two concepts above to refer to projects, programs, cooperatives, and collaboratives of prospective or experienced teachers–often in partnership with university-based educators–that support the ongoing education of participants. TLCs are social groupings of new and experienced educators who come together over time for the purpose of gaining new information, reconsidering previous knowledge and beliefs, and building on their own and others' ideas and experiences in order to work on a specific agenda intended to improve practice and enhance students' learning in K–12 schools and other educational settings. Conceptually, teacher learning community refers to an intellectual space as much as it designates a particular group of people and, sometimes, a physical location. In this sense, communities are the intellectual, social, and organizational configurations that support teachers' ongoing professional growth by providing opportunities for teachers to think, talk, read, and write about their daily work, including its larger social, cultural, and political contexts in planned and intentional ways.

Key Characteristics. Although TLCs vary considerably (as discussed below), they have several key characteristics: ways of spending and organizing time, planned and intentional patterns of structuring talk and written texts in their work together, and a shared purpose or understanding about the central tasks of teaching.

Organizing time. TLCs need sufficient chunks of time in which to work and sufficient longevity as a group over time. Generally, TLCs function over relatively long periods–at least an academic year–and often on an ongoing basis wherein group membership is basically stable although membership changes from time to time. In TLCs that include both experienced and prospective teachers, as is the case in some projects that combine pre-service teacher education with ongoing professional development, the experienced educators may be members of the community over time, while the prospective teachers may change with every program cycle or cohort. When members of a community make a commitment to work over time, there is the potential for ideas to develop, trust to build in the group, and participants to feel comfortable raising sensitive issues. Over time, many communities that support teacher learning develop their own histories and, in a certain sense, their own culture–a common discourse, shared experiences that function as touchstones, and a set of procedures that provide structure and form for continued experience.

Structuring talk and texts. Second, TLCs have particular ways of using language in their work together–both oral conversations and written texts. In communities that support teacher learning, groups develop ways of describing, discussing, debating, reflecting on, writing about, and reading about teaching, learning, and schooling. In some TLCs, groups engage in joint construction of knowledge through conversation by making their tacit knowledge more visible, questioning assumptions about common practice, and examining together school and classroom data and artifacts that make possible the generation and consideration of alternative explanations and analyses. Some TLCs use very structured formats for oral inquiries into teaching, such as reflections on practice or descriptive reviews of students described by Patricia Carini of the Prospect School. Other communities do not use formal conversation formats, but they do talk in distinctive ways about teaching and learning. In communities that support teacher learning, all talk does not contribute directly to the joint construction of knowledge about teaching and schooling. Rather, teachers also swap classroom stories, share specific ideas, seek one another's advice, and trade opinions about issues and problems in their schools and larger educational arenas. In TLCs, this "small talk" has an important function–it helps to create and sustain the interpersonal relationships necessary for the larger project or purpose of the community.

In addition, many TLCs use a wide range of texts in their work together, not all of which are published or widely disseminated. These texts often include books and journal articles from the extensive theoretical and research literature in fields related to teaching and learning as well as subject matter literature, including history, fiction, drama, and scientific accounts. Some communities focus on teacher research, action research, and other forms of practitioner inquiry as the primary vehicle for teacher learning. In these TLCs, then, the texts also include teacher research and action research reports in the form of journals, essays, and studies as well as teachers' written records and accounts, transcriptions of classroom interactions, students' writing and other work, school forms and documents, demographic data, and curriculum guidelines and materials. Teacher learning in communities is a fundamentally social and constructive activity that depends on the collective and cumulative power of the community to disseminate ideas, stimulate discussion, and widen the oral and written discourse about schools and schooling.

Shared purpose. Finally, although the specific purposes of various TLCs can be quite different from one another, most TLCs are organized around a common purpose or goal. Almost always, a fundamental goal of TLCs is some kind of improvement or change in professional practice, school culture, community partnerships, or school routines and procedures, in order–ultimately–to enhance students' learning opportunities and increase their life chances. How this task is understood, however–that is, what it means to enhance students' learning and what it takes to increase life chances–varies enormously. Some TLCs focus on the improvement of curriculum and teaching in a particular subject matter or disciplinary area, such as writing, mathematics, or science. Others focus on a broad-based educational agenda such as restructuring or reinventing urban schools, or incorporating the ideals of progressive education across curriculum, assessment, and teaching. Some TLCs are more specifically focused, such as those intended to improve the conditions and outcomes of teaching and learning in particular local schools with a population that has been traditionally under-served by the mainstream educational system.

TLCs in particular school districts may be organized to improve teachers' work in a general area, such as supporting the language growth and development of English language learners or improving early reading instruction in the primary grades. TLCs are sometimes focused on a particular curriculum package, such as "Success for All" or "Reading Recovery," or a particular school district goal, such as improving students' scores on state-wide standardized high stakes tests. Some communities aim to help teachers learn about a particular approach to subject matter teaching, such as cognitively guided instruction in mathematics, process writing, or problem-based approaches to science teaching and learning. Generally speaking, TLCs are most effective and long-lived when teachers choose to participate and when they play a significant role in constructing the issues that are important. This includes participation and choice in community governance and structures–planning, timing, topics, strategies, speakers, evaluation procedures, dissemination activities, and so on. However, in some cases, teachers choose to take on and eventually come to "own" an already-established agenda or purpose and agree to work collaboratively toward a goal set by a school or school district.

Teaching Better Knowing More: Differences among TLCs

The surface characteristics of many TLCs are similar, and in a general sense, all TLCs are aimed at teachers knowing more and teaching better. However, different TLCs are initiated and motivated by quite different ideas about what it means to "know more" and "teach better." A useful way to sort out some of the differences among TLCs, then, is in terms of their underlying assumptions about teaching knowledge and professional practice and about how these are related in teachers' work. Although competing, three major ideas about the relationships of knowledge and practice co-exist in the world of educational policy, research, and practice and are invoked by differently positioned people in order to justify quite different approaches to improving teaching and learning through TLCs.

The first approach is "knowledge-for -practice," where it is assumed that knowing more (e.g., more subject matter, more educational theory, more pedagogy, more instructional strategies) leads more or less directly to more effective practice. Here, knowledge for teaching consists primarily of what is commonly called formal knowledge, or the general theories and research-based findings on a wide range of foundational and applied topics that together constitute the basic domains of knowledge about teaching, widely referred to by educators as the knowledge base. The idea here is that competent practice reflects the state of the art—that is, that highly skilled teachers have deep knowledge of their content areas and of the most effective teaching strategies for creating learning opportunities for students. From this perspective, the purpose of TLCs is to provide access to the knowledge base and help teachers implement, translate, or otherwise put into practice the knowledge they acquire from experts outside the classroom. TLCs that operate according to these assumptions often include school district groups working with coaches or content area experts to implement a new curriculum, institute strategies intended to raise test scores, or make instruction consistent with state or national curriculum standards.

The second approach is "knowledge-in -practice," wherein it is assumed that some of the most essential knowledge for teaching is what many people call practical knowledge, or, what very competent teachers know as it is expressed or embedded in the artistry of practice, in teachers' reflections on practice, in teachers' practical inquiries, or in teachers' narrative accounts of practice. A basic assumption here is that the knowledge teachers need to teach well is acquired through experience and through considered and deliberative reflection about or inquiry into experience. To improve teaching, then, teachers need opportunities to work in communities to enhance, make explicit, and articulate the tacit knowledge embedded in experience and in the wise action of very competent professionals. Teacher learning communities with these underlying assumptions often include facilitated teacher groups, dyads composed of more and less experienced teachers, and other kinds of collaborative arrangements that support teachers' working together to reflect in and on practice. TLCs that operate according to these assumptions often include pre-service contexts where prospective teachers learn how experienced teachers plan and reflect on their work, induction programs wherein novice teachers work with experts, and school-based groups where teachers share stories and experiences.

The third approach is "knowledge-of -practice," wherein it is assumed that the knowledge teachers need to teach well is generated when teachers treat their own classrooms and schools as sites for intentional investigation at the same time that they treat the knowledge produced by others as generative material for interrogation and interpretation. In this sense, teachers learn when they generate local knowledge of practice by working within the contexts of inquiry communities to theorize and construct their work and to connect it to larger social, cultural, and political issues. Here basic questions about what it means to generate knowledge, who generates it, what counts as knowledge and to whom, and how knowledge is used and evaluated in particular contexts are always open to question. From this perspective, new information is not necessarily expected to be used or applied to an immediate situation but may also shape the interpretive frameworks teachers develop to make judgments, theorize practice, and connect their efforts to larger efforts. Teacher research groups, action research groups, inquiry communities, and other school or cross-school collectives in which teachers and others conjoin their efforts to construct knowledge are the major kinds of TLCs that work from this set of assumptions.

Finally, it is important to point out that although TLCs share the goal of enhancing students' learning and improving the quality of schooling, all communities do not share the same ideas about the ultimate purposes of teachers' work and educational change. Some TLCs are overtly committed to working for social change and social justice by altering the fundamental arrangements of schooling and society. Others are more in keeping with the basic goals of the current educational system. Some TLCs fit comfortably with a university's or a school district's stated commitment to teacher leadership, site-based management, or curricular revision. At other times, members of TLCs challenge fundamental school practices such as tracking, promotion and retention policies, testing and assessment practices, and school-community-family relationships, as well as what counts as teaching and learning in classrooms. To the extent that TLCs fit comfortably with a university or school district's institutional agenda for reflective practice, increased professionalism, and teacher accountability, they can be regarded as compatible with ongoing efforts toward teacher education and professional development. But sometimes TLCs critique and seek to alter cultures of collegiality; ways that school or program structures promote or undermine collaboration; ratios of teacher autonomy to teacher responsibility; norms of teacher evaluation; relationships among student teachers, teachers, and their university colleagues; and the ways power is exercised in teacher-to-teacher, mentor-to-teacher, and school-university partnerships. What this suggests is that there is a whole range of TLCs—some that are more readily integrated into the existing social and institutional arrangements of schools, school systems, and universities than others.

Examples of Teacher Learning Communities

There are scores of TLCs in the United States and in many other countries worldwide. Many are school-based and/or develop from a local or regional teachers' network or from a particular need, e.g., preparing for National Board Certification. A relatively small number of school-based professional communities have been treated in the literature. Many TLCs are subject-centered and offer teachers opportunities to learn from their own experiences as learners. In the area of literacy, teacher inquiry communities have been sponsored by a range of social and organizational structures, including the federal government, national professional organizations, national networks, foundations and centers, and university centers and university-generated networks. With a few notable exceptions, those connected to universities are most likely to disseminate their work through presentations and publication. A few of these are described here to provide a sense of the range and variation across communities.

Many TLCs have been formed with participants in the National Writing Project, perhaps the most prominent subject-centered teacher professional network nationally. The Multicultural Collaborative for Literacy and Secondary Schools (M-CLASS) teacher research network, based at the University of California Berkeley, began in 1990 as a collaborative of twenty-four teacher researchers from four U.S. cities and has grown to include seventy-five additional teachers who are teacher-credential candidates or part of a university-teacher-research collaborative or members of school-change teams. All M-CLASS teacher researchers seek to improve literacy learning in their urban multicultural classrooms and to communicate the results of their research to other professionals. The Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP) is an urban teacher collaborative network of more than 500 Philadelphia K–12 teachers and educators at the University of Pennsylvania. A site of the National Writing Project since 1986, the community utilizes a wide variety of oral and written inquiry formats to support its many projects, all of which are designed to improve the teaching/learning of writing and literacy by strengthening the critical linkages among language, access to literacy, social justice and educational change. Since its inception in 1986, PhilWP has organized and received funding from various foundations and other sources for more than fifteen teacher inquiry communities, lasting from two to six years each and many linked with other TLCs nationally. The National Writing Project sponsors the Teacher Inquiry Communities Network, a consortium of groups formed by NWPs around the country.

Other TLCs exemplify local collaborations between school districts and area universities. The Madison Metropolitan School District Classroom Action Research Professional Development program has been in existence since 1990. More than 500 teachers and administrators have participated in this program within small groups facilitated by teachers or staff development staff. The research studies, which are published by the school district each year, employ an action research model and use a variety of mostly qualitative research methods. Collaborations have existed since 1990 between this program and teacher education programs at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. In another example of university—school collaboration, school-and university-based teachers in the Athens, Georgia, area have formed fluid, evolving study groups such as LEADS (Literacy Educators for a Democratic Society) and PhOLKS (Photographs of Local Knowledge Sources), and collaborative action research teams (e.g., the Kings Bridge Road Research Team, and the eight-year collaboration of Shockley, Michelove, and Allen [1995] who wrote the "engaging children/families/teachers" series). Using mediating dialogue and action research, they inquire into issues of culturally engaged teaching, educational equity, and social justice.

Often TLCs evolve and take different shapes over time as membership changes and groups develop new purposes and interests. Led by Susan Florio-Ruane and Taffy Raphael, the Teachers Learning Collaborative Network, for example, brought together a diverse group of teachers who lived and taught in school districts across southeast Michigan. The Network comprised three study groups, all focused on improving their understandings and teaching practices in literacy and diversity. Activities included reading and writing autobiography and autobiographical fiction, developing curriculum to support struggling readers, and engaging in school reform of literacy instruction and assessment practices. Another example of teachers working with a university-based faculty member is Kathryn Au's work with the Ka Lama Teacher Education Initiative, established in 1996. This is an effort to create a community of teachers committed to working on the Leeward Coast, a rural area in which the majority of residents are Native Hawaiian. The initiative emphasizes the themes of literacy, multicultural education, and Hawaiian studies, and teachers engage in a variety of inquiry activities, including creating literacy portfolios, writing family educational histories, and developing Hawaiian studies units with challenging academic content.

Some TLCs connected to universities reflect the priorities of academic research centers or departments. For example, The Action Research Group (ARG), an affiliated program of Community Psychology's "Partners for Progress" at the University of Illinois, Urbana, is one part of a long-term commitment by staff from a university and public school to work together to develop awareness and sustain initiatives that will make connections between communities in order to enhance student achievement in a predominantly low-income, African American area. In addition to dialogue about work in classrooms, the "Partners" group has worked on a school-based course in "Race and Teaching," a community garden on the school site, and a community arts project. It is currently involved in efforts to develop more project-based learning through regular planning meetings of grade-level teams, to create an evaluation of students' learning that goes beyond standardized test scores, and to develop a practice-based course in "Teaching for Social Justice." Since the early 1990s Sarah Michaels and the Hiatt Center for Urban Education at Clark University have worked closely with a number of Worcester Public School teachers in a variety of teacher research activities. These include university and school-based seminars, informal teacher research groups that meet after school over a period of years, and a number of Spencer Foundation supported efforts from their Practitioner Research, Mentoring, and Communication grant program. This work has resulted in the publication of books, videos, articles, and presentations at national conferences. A common thread in this work is the focus on talk and the importance of the teacher's role as orchestrator of rigorous, coherent, and equitable classroom conversations.

Quite a number of TLCs function outside any school or university context. Among the most prominent and widely published is the Brookline Teacher Researcher Seminar founded in 1989 as a collaborative of seven teacher researchers whose members have adapted the research tools of sociolinguistics and ethnography to the classroom in order to explore their own questions, dilemmas, and concerns for equity through the study of "talk" or classroom discourse. The weekly meeting serves as a central part of the methodology where teachers assist one another as each member, through collaborative exploration of an individual's data, begins to uncover new understandings of children's meanings and to cast away habitual ways of seeing and thinking. Also widely known is the Philadelphia Teachers' Learning Cooperative, which is closely related to Patricia Carini's work at the Prospect School in Vermont, founded in 1965. Using the documentary processes developed at Prospect, the Philadelphia TLC has been meeting weekly for more than twenty years. Beginning, new, and experienced teachers use structured oral inquiry processes to examine children's work and classroom/school life. Members of this group and others connected with Prospect consult with other TLCs–locally and nationally–to acquaint others with ways to use these processes in different contexts and for various purposes. The work of Prospect and the Philadelphia TLC is disseminated through summer institutes and a growing number of publications.

Electronic Teacher Learning Communities

Many TLCs–particularly those that involve local, regional, or national teacher networks–have developed online technologies integral to their collaborative work. One of the oldest and best known, The Bread Loaf Teacher Network, creates online communities of teachers who have attended one of the campuses of Middlebury College designed to bring together rural and urban teachers for intensive graduate work related to teaching writing, theater, literature, and multicultural studies. For more than ten years, Bread Loaf has been giving teachers financial assistance for ongoing research and has used major grant support to make it possible for rural and more recently urban teachers to participate in summer graduate work designed to foster learning communities supported by technology. Linked across sites by an electronic network called Breadnet, many Bread Loaf teachers focus on teacher and student generated collaborative and community-based projects that combine action research, service, and advocacy. Increasingly, teacher learning communities are using electronic media to disseminate their work for other audiences.

The examples above represent a small number of the teacher learning communities that have burgeoned over the last several decades. In contrast to training programs for teachers or transmission-oriented, in-service staff development programs, this growth is not yet well-documented. Teacher learning communities represent a major cultural shift with considerable potential for promoting lifespan learning in the teaching profession and altering the cultures of teaching and teachers' work. Realizing this potential clearly depends upon the willingness of teachers to engage with each other in a joint search for meaning in the work of teaching and schooling. But it also depends upon support at all levels of the educational system to reconceptualize teaching as learning and teacher education and professional development as continuous work in learning communities. The rapid growth of learning communities signals that practicing teachers can effectively self-organize for intellectual work, collaborate with consultants and university partners, generate new knowledge about daily practice that is of value beyond their local community, and contribute meaningfully to the transformation of schools and districts.


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