The challenges of establishing and maintaining PLCs and how they might be addressed?

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The difficulty of developing professional learning communities should not be underestimated. In addition to the usual daily implementation issues associated with any change process, there are bigger hurdles that, as yet, remain unresolved in many places. Of these challenges, we have chosen to highlight several in this book, although we recognize there are other important ones. The first challenge is the endemic difficulty of creating PLCs in secondary schools, where size and structure militate again school-wide collaboration, and where, specific disciplinary knowledge takes priority over shared knowledge about pedagogy and adolescent development needs. This is why secondary school studies of professional learning communities often focus on subject departments, and why professional community is usually lower among secondary school teachers (Louis and Marks 1998). A deputy head (assistant principal) in a secondary school in one of our research projects (Bolam et al. 2005) described his school’s professional learning community using a metaphor of a lava lamp with moving oil blobs, illustrating challenges of developing professional learning communities in secondary schools: ‘The learning community is the lamp but different things move around. At the moment the {specific subject} department is rising and is near the top of the lamp, but in three years’ time … it may look different’ (Stoll et al. 2006b, booklet 6: 3).

A second challenge within professional learning communities is brought into even sharper focus when their membership is extended beyond classroom teachers; that is the nurturing of social capital. Social capital is based on the quality of relationships among members of a social group and is facilitated by the extent and quality of internal and external networks. As Hargreaves (2003: 5) notes: ‘As a shorthand, intellectual capital is about know-what and knowhow and social capital is about know-who.’ Social capital is often taken for granted in tightly knit communities. However, the more cohesive the internal ties are within a group,, the less likely the members are to be densely networked with people in other groups. As those who study social networks have found, it is ties among groups that foster the most rapid spread of information (Granovetter 1973). Without due attention to fostering ties outside the school, strong professional communities can, paradoxically, become a barrier to change. If we take seriously the call to extend professional learning communities, going beyond schools as individual units of change, the situation becomes even more complex and the need to address social capital even more imperative, finding ways to help people engage with each other, and remain engaged, in ‘relationships that have high degrees of satisfaction and achievement’ (West-Burnham and Otero 2004: 9). Another key challenge, also explored in this book, is sustainability, described by Hargreaves and Fink (2006: 17) as being ‘basically concerned with developing and preserving what matters, spreads, and lasts and ways that create positive connections and development among people and do no harm to others in the present or in the future’. Sustainable development in all organizations, including schools, is premised on a number of principles, including inclusiveness, connectivity, equity, prudence, and consistent attention to the needs of human beings (Gladwin et al. 1995). What matters most in PLCs, however, is learning in the broadest sense (Delors et al. 1996); learning that is for all and is continuous (Stoll et al. 2003). For Hargreaves and Fink (2006: 17), and for us, sustainable improvement ‘preserves and develops deep learning for all that spreads and lasts’. This raises tensions between the inevitable and necessary flexibility and moving, energized set of relationships and stability, because it is extremely hard to learn in unstable settings. Instability is a serious problem for schools which, as public institutions, have a limited ability to manage their own policies, even under school-based leadership and management. Instability that comes from outside the school is currently confounded by turnover among teachers and school leaders in many countries. Rather than worrying about lack of new blood, many school systems worry about how to create social connections and community under conditions in which every year brings a large number of new staff members, many of whom have little experience. Rapid changes in personnel may reinforce the experienced educators’ belief that they need to be self-reliant rather than counting on support from peers and school leaders (administrators).

Sustaining connections and community is made more complex by the explosion of technology, which permits the development of online groups that provide stimulating sources of information and safe, neutral arenas for support, but may also be unstable, more likely to involve imbalanced participation, and less amendable to the sustained, deep, reflective engagement that most of us associate with face-to-face relationships that endure over time (Trauth and Jessup 2000).

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