Creating Schools as the Centers of Inquiry: Building Professional Learning Communities

Submitted by:

Kathleen Fleming

EDCI 6303


The term learning community is becoming well integrated into the vocabulary of educators in America. This paper focuses on how learning communities can be introduced and developed in schools by bringing professionals together to learn. Comprehensive school reform requires new content, new skills and new thinking. Therefore, everyone involved in the reform must be regarded as a learner. As new learning environments are developed, communities of continuous inquiry and improvement are the result.

Community is the shared life of human beings. It means more than mere association. By virtue of their immediate interaction with one another, human beings are necessarily associated. But community means meaningful association, association based on common interest and endeavor. The essence of community is communication, the sharing of meanings through common symbols or language. Communication is the means of individual as well as social growth. (John Dewey)

Creating Schools as the Centers of Inquiry: Building Professional Learning Communities

'There is growing evidence that the best hope for significant school improvement is transforming schools into professional learning communities' (Dufour & Eaker, 1998). This paper will focus on what Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker have labeled the professional community of learners. This is a term that is quite vogue at the moment and is being used to describe many areas in the educational reform field: grade-level teaching teams, school committees, school district sight-based teams, etc.

However, programs and materials do not bring about change, people do. So, for the purpose of this paper, a professional learning community will be defined as one in which the teachers and administrators in a school continuously seek and share learning and then act upon this information to implement school change. This document will explore the concept of how learning communities can be introduced and nurtured in schools through professional development.

Schools that are characterized as true learning organizations possess a culture that is truly communicative and collaborative. Driven by a mutual accountability for ensuring student success, each individual in the school community not only takes responsibility for but contributes to everyone's learning. To establish a professional learning community, school staff must begin by engaging in learning together. Research has shown that when administrators and teachers become learners together through professional development activities, 'questioning, investigating and seeking solutions,' a new kind of relationship is forged-learning leaders (Newmann & Wehlage, 1995).

One of ten regional educational research and development laboratories in the United States, the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) has designed a project called Creating Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement which targets the creation of professional learning communities in schools. This study indicates that organizations improve when their members are learning consistently and effectively (SEDL, 1997). The SEDL describes a professional learning community as schools 'characterized by shared purpose, collaborative learning activities, and collaborative responsibility among staff'. When teachers feel they are supported in ongoing learning activities, working together as learning teams, they are more committed and effective than those who do not receive this affirmation. By providing shared learning opportunities for teachers to train together, collaborate together, and expand their roles as professionals, the impetus towards a campus professional learning community begins. Teachers who have this sense of their own efficacy are more likely to stay in the profession and contribute to a school's shared vision.

Focusing on people is the most important way to change any organization. Michael Fullan (1993) says that it is only when enough people within an organization change that the organization can be transformed. The Flour Bluff Early Childhood Center had always been a good school, filled with professional educators, and children who were learning. But the question is what were they learning? Teachers were teaching, but teaching in isolation, islands onto themselves. As administrators new to this campus, the principal and I felt that a really successful school must go beyond this, that a good school must also focus on a collaborative community, building relationships that cared. This community building was approached in a commonsense manner, collaboration, conversation on creating changes in the area of reading to better support the school district's Literacy Initiative. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge writes 'It is becoming clear that schools can be re-created, made vital, and sustainably renewed not by fiat or command, and not by regulation, but by taking a learning orientation' (Senge, 1990). At the Early Childhood Center, by developing a shared vision and a shift to the focus on student learning rather that student teaching, we were able to make learning our orientation, with improvement in the teaching of reading a priority. We developed a professional culture that is continuing to promote learning improvement.

Our Reading Collaborative literacy training has enabled us to begin the crafting of the critical conversations necessary in community building. As a direct result of this training and the ensuing 'critical conversations', teacher isolation has been reduced and school morale has increased. Those critical conversations have transformed our school by creating a school climate that values communication and reflection, envisioning the future. This discourse has allowed a mutually respectful community to blossom where teachers share instructional decisions in a democratic setting. ECC teachers are constantly seeking information and sharing their expertise with their colleagues. Our campus literacy training has resulted in the development of teacher learning leaders. These learning teams model pedagogy, plan and implement workshops, make budgetary decisions, analyze instructional activities, and help reflect on our schools instructional practices. Peer coaching has also become a valued component of our campus culture. There has been a huge jump in commitment to the vision and goals of the school and our teachers now feel a shared responsibility for student success.

Today, this campus is a caring community of teachers, whose discourse and work are helping to restructure this campus. In a larger sense, by working to understand each other in the pursuit of knowledge and community, the teachers are helping to establish a campus where caring collaboration is the norm. This is a school where everyone feels they belong.


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