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leadership and management

Creating a Collaborative Learning Culture

Mrs Fiona Stafford, Year 6 Learning Mentor, The Geelong College, Victoria


he birth of the ‘Information Era’ and the establishment of a fast paced, global society has transformed the world. Such a society requires people to have a good deal of formal education and the ability to acquire and apply knowledge. Yet above all, they require a habit of continuous learning. Professional Learning and Development in the context of organisational change is multifaceted: influenced by global trends, government directives and local organisational structure and culture. Change and improvements to practice are the key aims of any professional development program, and in schools, the primary purpose is to improve student learning.


What is professional learning and development? ‘Professional learning’ is defined as the learning that results from a wide range of professional development activities (Department of Education and Training, 2017). Professional Learning for teachers is varied and responsive to individuals’ needs. Most schools offer opportunities for staff to attend structured programs alongside more flexible programs where teachers identify their own learning needs. To complement the variety of programs, there are a number of approaches to learning which can be tailored appropriately to fit the individual’s requirements. The big question is: is this being done effectively in schools? ‘Professional development’ is defined as referring to the range AEL 39 (2)

leadership and management of formal and informal activities undertaken by teachers to develop their professional knowledge, professional practice and professional engagement (Department of Education and Training, 2017). And again I wonder: is this being done in a structured way that caters for the individual growth of teachers in schools? What does research tell us about professional learning and development? What constitutes best practice for professional learning and development has been at the forefront of educational reform for many years. Much has been written and researched about professional learning and development in schools. The government’s response to this has been varied and changing in reaction to new understandings gained from the research. The Blueprint for Government schools (Department of Education and Training, 2003) and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (AITSL, 2014) have attempted to highlight the content to guide teacher professional learning. yet have until recently failed to provide a specific framework for the optimum conditions for the professional learning to take place. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership states that professional learning that is relevant, collaborative and future-focused has a highly positive impact on teacher quality (AITSL, 2017). This focus for professional development means that the learning is individualised, based on a social nature, involves teachers being reflective of their own practice and shifts the attention from subject matter to the student. Hawley and Valli (1999) articulate a number of key design principles for effective professional development. These include: • Active learning sustained over time with opportunities to put the learning into practice and with follow up and support • Learning being built into day-to-day work of teaching • Learning that enables collective problem solving • Gaining an understanding of the theory underlying the knowledge and skills being learned • A focus on student learning and collective participation. (cited in Mayer, Lloyd, 2011). The above strategies should be combined with providing teachers with offsite professional development as well as daily onsite professional development with the support of mentors and coaches to encourage deep reflection and discussions. The role of mentors and coaches in work-situated learning is to provide individualised feedback. Learning effectively from feedback requires it to be given in a way that helps the recipient to listen to it, receive it constructively, reflect on it and consider how to take action as a result (Henderson, et al. 2005). Feedback needs to provide information specifically relating to the task or process of learning. This social nature of professional engagement results in higher levels of purposeful collaboration amongst staff which can improve interactions, boost morale and most importantly, improve performance. What are the benefits of collaboration in learning? Collaboration has a powerful effect in magnifying and spreading the benefits of professional growth, and connects teachers and leaders to their colleagues within and across schools. When working collaboratively, individuals are responsible for their learning and respect the abilities and contributions of their peers. In all situations where people come together in groups, there is AEL 39 (2)

Developing the trust and capacity to work collaboratively is very important for the success of Professional Learning Teams. It takes time and persistence

a sharing of authority and acceptance of responsibility among group members for the groups’ actions. The underlying premise of collaborative learning is based upon consensus building through cooperation by group members, in contrast to competition in which individuals attempt to better other group members (Laal, Ghodsi, 2012). Collaborative learning environments follow a framework for distributed leadership (Spillane, et al., 2001) which results in empowered teachers and motivated learners, with teachers themselves believing they are capable of providing effective learning and teaching. This also improves trust and relationships amongst staff and in turn, enhances the school’s culture. What is a professional learning community? Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, have gained increasing attention from researchers over the last few decades and have been present in schools for even longer, but do teachers really have an understanding that being a part of one means more than just ‘working with’ a group of people? A Professional Learning Community takes place when a ‘team’ of individuals who share a goal work together to achieve the goal, assess their progress, make corrections, and hold themselves accountable for achieving their common goal (AITSL, 2014). These Professional Learning Teams (PLTs) shift the attention from subject matter to improving teaching quality in order to enhance student learning and achievement. PLTs can contribute significantly to schools becoming learning communities by fostering a culture of collaboration and collective responsibility for the development of effective teaching practices. The teams need to carefully plan the process they follow to achieve their objectives. This process must include strategies for collecting student outcomes data, the preparation of action plans, procedures for implementation, and methods of evaluating the impact of their work on teacher practice and student learning. Teams also need to be aware of requirements for successful teamwork, such as including someone with high level leadership skills, organising time to meet regularly and reflect in a meaningful way, and obtaining support from the school leadership team. Developing the trust and capacity to work collaboratively is very important for the success of Professional Learning Teams. It takes time and persistence. Teachers must be prepared to experiment, take risks, make mistakes and suffer setbacks. The success of the collaborative nature of Professional Learning Teams is also based on the incorporation of structured processes and clear expectations. The most effective collaborative processes involved in professional learning teams include peer observations, coaching and mentoring and providing specific and meaningful feedback to group participants. How does my school engage with a collaborative approach to professional learning? My experience of Professional Learning and Development over the last 12 years as a Primary Teacher has changed dramatically: from documenting hours spent at external professional develop27

leadership and management • • • • • • • • •

Figure 1: The Action Research Cycles (Source: Centre for Enhanced Learning and Teaching, 2002)

ment sessions to recording the time spent reflecting, planning, implementing and analysing my own classroom practice on a specific learning goal with a team of learners. My current school is highly focused on finding authentic ways to meet the individual professional learning needs of its educators. As a response to the research findings about action research and collaboration as a basis for effective learning, my school developed a ‘Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation’ (CLRI) document. This document breathes life into our school as a centre for innovation and research; it defines the school’s belief in deep collaboration which encourages us to innovate in a way that has a positive impact on learning (CLRI, 2017). In order for the school to shift the notion that professional learning is something done to you, at the beginning of 2016 they implemented individual and collaborative Learning Projects. The Learning Projects in our school context are defined as an embedded form of action research where staff strive to learn something new, deepen their knowledge base, stay current with new developments in learning or experiment with an innovation that aims to improve student outcomes (CLRI, 2017). The process that teachers undertake in these projects is adopted from the action research spiral of Reflecting, Planning, Acting and Observing on an aspect of the teaching practice. The Learning Projects involve working in collaboration with other teaching professionals in the workplace to achieve a common goal. The school provides time for the teams to meet regularly to: • Reflect on an aspect of their teaching practice 28

Plan for the implementation of change Put the plan into action Observe the outcomes of the change Discuss observations Give feedback to each other Reflect on each individual’s progress towards the shared goal Reflect on the effectiveness of the change Draw conclusions from the documented data, and Use research findings to devise appropriate future actions. More recently, the school has also added more formalised collaborative aspects to the Learning Projects, such as collegial observations and coaching. These new additions are the school’s step towards engaging with an even more meaningful collaborative approach to professional learning whilst still catering for individual interests and passions. The major successes of the implementation of working on Learning Projects in Professional Learning Teams is that the teachers are empowered to guide their own course of action and generate their own professional learning. The collaborative nature of the learning and development has also resulted in deeper relationships with other teaching professionals, a sense of autonomy over research findings and feeling a stronger connection to the learning due to its direct relationship with classroom learning and teaching. The Professional Learning Teams that have been built into our culture of professional learning have ensured the development of our school as a collaborative learning community. You will know your school’s professional learning culture is collaborative when: • Teachers engage in frequent, ongoing formal and informal conversations about pedagogy and teaching practice • Teachers work together to research, plan and design effective teaching strategies and programs • Teachers engage in professional dialogue to evaluate and modify teaching strategies and programs • Teachers engage in regular classroom observation and feedback and can articulate how changes in their practice impact on student outcomes • There is collective ownership of learning goals and outcomes, for both the individual and whole school • Teachers undertake leadership roles that include initiating and leading professional discussions with colleagues to evaluate practice (Australian Professional Standards for Teachers) • Collaboration is prioritised and sufficient time is given to investing in the practice (AITSL, 2014). Conclusion Schools have a responsibility to cater for the continuous learning of their staff in order to optimise the learning outcomes for students. If schools have a systematic approach to professional learning and development where staff feel empowered, supported and valued, there is higher potential for improved professional learning. The CLRI at my school is one example of a professional learning program that aims to break down professional isolation. It utilises Professional Learning Teams to create interdependence among teachers, build learning communities and demonstrate the power of teacher collaboration in learning. References Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) 2014, The Essential Guide to Professional Learning: Collaboration, available at AEL 39 (2)

leadership and management https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/professional-growth-resources/professional-learning-resources/the-essential-guide-to-professional-learning---collaboration.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Spillane, JP, Halverson, R, Diamond, JB 2001, ‘Investigating School Leadership Practice: A distributed Perspective’, Educational Researcher, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 23–28.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) 2017, Professional Learning, available at http://www.toolkit.aitsl.edu.au/category/professional-learning

Further reading

Centre for Enhanced Learning and Teaching, 2002, The Overview of Action Research, available at http://celt.ust.hk/ideas/ar/intro.htm, CELT Publication Website. Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation, 2017, Here we are all Learners and we are all Teachers, available at http://www.clri.com.au/ category/innovation, The Geelong College. Department of Education and Training 2003, BLUEPRINT FOR GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS; Future directions for education in the Victorian government school system, available at https://www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/ edulibrary/public/govrel/reports/blueprint-rpt.doc Department of Education and Training 2017, Professional Learning Approaches, available at http://www.education.vic.gov.au/ Henderson, P, Ferguson-­‐Smith, A, Johnson, M, 2005, Developing essential professional skills: a framework for teaching and learning about feedback, BMC Medical Education, vol. 5, no. 11, doi http://dx.doi. org/10.1186/1472-6920-5-11 Laal, M, Ghodsi, SM 2012, Benefits of Collaborative Learning; Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 31, pp. 486–490. Mayer, D, Lloyd, M, 2011, Professional Learning; An introduction to the research literature, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Melbourne.

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DuFour, R, Eaker, R, 2005, Professional learning communities at work tm: best practices for enhancing students achievement, Solution Tree Press, Blomington, In. Hattie, J, Timperley, H 2007, The power of feedback; Review of Educational Research, vol. 77, no.1, pp. 81–112. Hord, S, 2009, ‘Professional learning communities’, Journal of staff development, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 40–43. McLaughlin M, Talbert, J 2010, Professional Learning Communities: Building Blocks for School Culture and Student Learning, available at https://crceducation.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/professional_learning_communities_0.pdf

About the author Fiona Stafford (MEd) is a classroom teacher at a private school in Geelong. Fiona gained her Master in Education through Deakin University and utilised the action research methodology when undertaking her context-based research. Fiona’s career in education is driven by exploring pathways to professional learning through an action research model where teachers are empowered to choose their own goals and work collaboratively to reach new understandings.


Profile for Geelong College

Creating a Collaborative Learning Culture  

By Fiona Stafford, Year 6 Learning Mentor, The Geelong College. Published in AEL Vol 39 (2)

Creating a Collaborative Learning Culture  

By Fiona Stafford, Year 6 Learning Mentor, The Geelong College. Published in AEL Vol 39 (2)