Teacher professional development seems to be described in two ways these days: sacred & special or a waste of precious time. Last week, in fact, I met with teacher friends who were lamenting the fact that their school-based Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) fell into the latter category. Among their comments:
“High-functioning PLCs are game-changers, but too rare. They require trust and strong facilitation; two things missing in my school.
“We flop down in our chairs at the end of the day exhausted and overwhelmed. It’s not the best way to come to a PLC.”
“My PLC is tense. There are subtle but strong undercurrents of griping about the administration. We cannot seem to rise above it and get to the learning part.”
It was hard for me to hear teachers rant against PLCs. My personal experiences with them in the mid-90s were transformational and for years I’ve maintained that they are the best way to move individual teacher practice, school culture and student experience from good to great. PLCs not only kept me professionally afloat during some burnout times but also moved me forward in significant ways. Turns out, my PLC experience may have been an educational unicorn and, according to a recent study, my friends’ comments are not that uncommon.
PLCs are not all dying on the vine, however. Many are simply morphing and moving outside of a school-based model. In fact, Twitter is abuzz with pop-up PLCs or Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). My Inquiry Partners’ colleague and I were recently treated to a Twitter tutorial from a friend at TeachBoost on how to enter and act in an online chat session. My first chat experience was fun and engaging, though at times I felt like a BINGO player managing several boards at once. The tone is positive and welcoming. While many of the participants come and go over time, there is usually a core group who form strong and lasting relationships over district, state and national lines. In the end, the chats feel unusually, well, heartfelt.
The Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory is another off-campus virtual professional learning that is hugely popular, reaching across national borders and stirring up issues and solutions. The Collaboratory’s focus runs the gamut of mentoring new teachers to testing out curriculum tied to the Common Core to creating teacher-driven solutions to structural issues in our educational systems around the world.
All this virtual collaborating got me thinking about how we could meld the power and effectiveness of a focused PLC with the diversity of an online community of teachers. This fall Inquiry Partners (where I am a co-founder) is launching a year long pilot called Global Inquiry Groups or “GiGs”. GiGs will offer a bit more structure by placing teachers into small groups of six (each teacher will be grouped according to similar grade and subjects but will represent a different country or school context). GiGs will meet online through live video six times during the school year for about an hour. One teacher from each GiG will be trained to facilitate the sessions and the focus of each conversation will be on a key teaching strategy grounded in research around inquiry-based instruction.
We already have dozens of teachers signed up from the US, Canada, Argentina, China, Malaysia, Laos, Greece, Australia, Mexico, Peru and New Zealand and we will continue to extend this opportunity to teachers through August 10th. Teacher networks from International Baccalaureate, Teach For All, the Center for Teaching Quality, World Savvy and OneWorld Network are participating, offering a diversity of experiences and contexts with a unifying mission of improving access for all students to a great education around the world.
While there is much to be said about the power of building trust in person and school-based efforts to do so, mounting evidence suggest that online virtual learning groups like GiGs offer teachers another powerful avenue for deepening their instructional practice. Many teachers claim to actually be more trusting, open and honest in an online environment. Online discussions with teachers outside of one’s building or even district, for example, are less likely to be derailed by school-based grousing.
Learning outside of one’s school is nothing new, but could be much better promoted and encouraged, especially in countries where there aren’t any professional development experiences available. There are millions of teachers with unique insights and creative solutions for improving the teaching and learning experience. Harnessing this energy worldwide in virtual PLCs is a game changer for all of us.
Interested in joining our first year pilot and leading the movement? It’s free. Click here to sign up by August 10th and comment below with your thoughts about virtual PLCs.
For more on global education and professional development, see:
- 2o Year Forecast: Broader Aims, Students at the Center
- Designing Transformative Professional Learning Experiences
- What is Learning For?
Kimberly is the co-founder of Inquiry Partners, dedicated to supporting inquiry-based teaching and learning around the world. Follow her on Twitter, @inquiryfive.