In his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, scientist and organizational-theory expert Peter Senge describes a learning organization as a place “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”
This framework is visible in schools where the focus is on learning, rather than teaching, where teachers become co-learners in the learning process and traditional classrooms shift to become communities of practice.
Unfortunately, most schools simply aren’t there.
In my mind, there are three reasons why schools have failed to develop as true learning organizations—culture, competition, and isolation. As educator Roland Barth has said, “Relationships among educators within a school range from vigorously healthy to dangerously competitive. Strengthen those relationships, and you improve professional practice.”
Fortunately, teachers are beginning to resist the forces that encourage isolation and unproductive schoolhouse competition. Through virtual exchanges and the building of personal learning networks, teachers are increasingly drawing on external communities that promote connection and knowledge-sharing. Some of these virtual networks develop into powerful learning communities that connect the ideas of educators from around the world as they explore together and push traditional education boundaries.
Today’s professional development needs to immerse educators in just such community experiences.
Re-Examining Instructional Practice
The more I use Web tools to connect and collaborate with colleagues, the more convinced I am that reflection and relationship-building are the keys for teachers striving to develop their practice and adapt to changing learning needs. Increasingly, other educators are having this realization as well.
Nick Romero, a member of a virtual network of learners, recently shared how collaboration with other educators has pushed him to re-examine what he is doing in his classroom and how to improve it:
As a teacher, I constantly ask myself: How can I better engage my students and enrich their experience? How can I make their learning more meaningful? Working with a community of learners is helping me find answers to those questions. Meeting (in person and virtually) with teachers from other schools and learning about their successes, questions and struggles in implementing 21st Century Skills in their classrooms has been invaluable. Ever since the first meeting, my mind has been spinning. I feel there is so much to learn about what these skills are and how to effectively teach them to my students. I have a steep learning curve, but I am excited to take this on.
Another linked–in teacher, Lisa Snyder, shares her learning journey:
What I’ve come to realize is that by using Web 2.0 tools to learn we are gaining exposure to the world that our kids already inhabit easily—and learning in that environment is not neat and tidy. It requires openness to new experiences and letting-go of my tradition-based ideas of what schooling is. Learning is not linear, and while I’ve espoused that for years, it wasn’t until I was able to live the non-linear, sometimes frustrating, always interesting world of a 21st century learner that I realized what it really means.
Putting PLCs Online
Unfortunately, providing space for reflection and collaboration is not something most schools do very well. Indeed, while many teachers have begun to build their own online learning networks, these networks often are not linked to professional learning communities in schools.
Teachers need to experience the same kind of collegiality within their school-based professional learning communities that many are now finding out on the Web. One of the most powerful ways for teachers to create more in-house collegiality is by actually forming Web-based professional communities right in their own backyard. Virtual learning communities can connect colleagues under the same roof just as readily as they bring educators together from around the world.
Professional development providers in a school or district (or teachers themselves) should consider using the Web’s networking tools as a way to promote the creation of any-time, any-place professional learning organizations. Teams of teachers within a school could collaborate and learn together with other diverse thinking educators from around the world.
This 21st Century version of the PLC would live up to the far-sighted advice from the 1970s: “Think globally, act locally.” Such a PLC would allow for job-embedded professional development that is shaped by a truly expansive perspective. In this setting, teachers could develop the perspectives of change agents and the knowledgeable voices of frontline education reformers.
Fear of Change
This is, of course, very scary stuff for traditional schools still steeped in the formal culture of the past. If teachers come to know a lot about the educational changes taking place in the world, and they learn how to be effective in evoking change, then that creates problems. Teachers start asking questions. Things get messy. In the words of teacher-leadership experts Gayle Moller and Marilyn Katzenmeyer, we “awaken the sleeping giant” and change is no longer incremental and controllable.
I used to say, “Change takes time.” I don’t say that anymore. Look around you. Change is happening at exponential rates. The challenge for educators is to adapt to the rapid pace of change—indeed, to become leaders of change—before we as an institution find ourselves irrelevant in the lives of the students we seek to help.
We have to awaken ourselves collaboratively, and the Web is just the tool we need to do it.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook