In a recent article titled Meeting the Challenge of Infusing Relevant PD in Schools, Lyle Hamm and Kevin Cormier argue that professional learning communities — which encourage colleagues to relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning — often fail as a professional development strategy primarily because they require peers to come together for weekly face-to-face meetings with one another:
Imagine being an educator and getting up each week during a Canadian winter and travelling into a PLC session for a 7:00 a.m. meeting prior to preparing to teach all day. Or perhaps even more exhausting for educators is attending a session for one hour each week after they have finished teaching all day. This adds minimal value to the pedagogy of the educator; instead, it potentially creates mild to major anxiety and toxicity among staff and affects the school culture negatively.
Hamm and Cormier go on to argue that the bulk of teacher learning can be done by facilitating digital interactions and experiences in online spaces — which allow participants to interact with new ideas anytime and from anywhere:
In this professional learning format, the learner is able to continuously build their educational and networking capacities by reading over professional development content and articles. They may contribute to and read discussions where many participants engaged in the topic share ideas and experiences. Key ideas can then be brought back to their own schools to share with colleagues and additional community educational stakeholders such as parents.
As a guy who has spent the better part of a decade working in a school structured as a professional learning community AND using digital spaces to facilitate my professional growth, I see two points of concern in Hamm and Cormier’s thinking:
Digital spaces facilitate sharing and networking — but sharing and networking are entry-level collaborative practices:
Hamm and Cormier are right to suggest that any teacher working in any subject area and driven by any professional interest can find information that will challenge their thinking in digital spaces. In fact, that’s what I value the MOST about the learning that I do online. The peers that I learn from in places like Twitter or Google+ or on the blogs that I follow in my feed reader are always sharing interesting content that I can access easily whenever I have a few free minutes and an Internet connection.
But sharing and networking are entry-level collaborative practices, y’all — akin to nothing more than knowledge-building in our classrooms.
Would we settle for learning experiences that failed to give students sustained opportunities to wrestle deeply or to test their ideas or to be intellectually challenged by their peers? Would we be satisfied if our students were never asked to systematically reflect on who they are as learners or to back up their notions with evidence collected over time? Then why should we settle for learning experiences that fail to give teachers the same opportunities.
Now don’t get me wrong: Deep and meaningful learning done in partnership with thoughtful peers and sustained over long periods of time is technically doable using nothing but digital tools. Determined colleagues really ARE joining together in regular Google Hangouts or Voxer conversations or Facebook groups to reflect around problems of practice together.
But the truth is that deep and meaningful learning in social spaces isn’t nearly as easy as simple sharing. And as a result, simple sharing has become the most common pattern of participation for educators living and learning online. PLCs done well, on the other hand, are designed to move teacher teams beyond simple sharing and into careful reflection.
The most valuable collaborative partners are those who share deep contextual understandings and who develop trust through ongoing personal interactions:
In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, introduces readers to the concept of virtual distance — defined as the social disconnect that can develop between peers who connect primarily through screens:
Today’s keyboard-tapping workers have very little context around who their counterparts are, how they feel about things, or what they hope for — in other words, what motivates them. Without a panoramic perspective, it’s difficult to form a sense of common purpose.
In fact, when a seemingly intelligent screen is the only frame in sight, people often default to decoding messages based on what they know, filling the contextual void using their own experience to color in the blank backgrounds behind their co-workers. But this can create distorted perceptions about other people’s values and beliefs, causing collaboration conundrums.
Sobol-Lojeski goes on to document the impact that virtual distance can have on collaborative efforts, noting that in organizations with high levels of virtual distance:
- Innovative behaviors fall by over 90%
- Trust declines by over 80%
- Cooperative and helping behaviors go down by over 80%
- Role and goal clarity decline by 75%
- Project success drops by over 50%
- Organizational commitment and satisfaction decline by more than 50%
Organizational commitment built around a common purpose is fundamental to successful collaboration in the professional learning community model. When done well, trust and innovation and helping behaviors become the norm in PLCs because peers KNOW that they can rely on one another as they work towards a clearly defined vision of a better future for the students and school that they share.
More importantly, teachers working in PLCs receive targeted support from one another built on contextual understandings that peers in digital spaces can’t always provide. I am uniquely suited to lend a hand to the guy working across the hall simply because I know his personal and professional strengths. I also know the strengths of our students and the system that we work in; I know the stated and unstated expectations of the community that we serve; and I know exactly which resources that we have available to us.
Once again, don’t get me wrong: There ARE tangible steps that can be taken to reduce the virtual distance between peers who work together primarily in digital spaces — but without careful attention, peers working together in digital spaces quickly become nothing more than fellow participants instead of collaborative partners.
The truth is that I’ll never walk away from the peers that I learn from online.
The content and resources that they share are influential, forcing me to rethink my practices. What’s more, connections to peers in other places provide me with a valuable lens for evaluation and comparison. It’s easier to determine if I am on the right professional path when I can get a transparent look at the paths that partners in other places are taking.
And after investing thousands of hours adding comments to blogs, starting conversations in places like Twitter, and making time for face-to-face interactions at national and international conferences, I really do have a handful of peers that I know mostly through digital spaces who add as much to my learning as the peers I work with in person. By nurturing those relationships over time in much the same way that I nurture relationships with learning partners in my school, I’ve eliminated the collaborative struggles caused by virtual distance.
But if I am being totally honest, the learning that I do in digital spaces still remains largely serendipitious instead of systematic.
I stumble across ideas that add value to my learning almost every day — but the value that they add rarely changes the work that I am doing right now. Like the proverbial seeds strewn in a field, some of the ideas that I find today will take root months down the road. Others will wither away and die almost immediately. And a rare few will sprout as soon as I write my next set of lessons. I know that I am learning whenever I am online — but I don’t often feel like I am truly studying my practice with intentionality. My digital interactions are an essential complement to — but not a perfect replacement for — the work that I am doing with my learning team.
And that’s why I’ll never walk away from the peers that I learn with in person.
The simple truth is that they have a unique ability to challenge me as I struggle to meet the ever-changing demands of my classroom and my community. The support that they can provide is truly “just in time” because they are using the same resources to deliver the same curriculum at the same time to students with the same sets of strengths and weaknesses. What’s more, we have a history of interactions and experiences that we can use to inform our actions and our decisions.
I’m not suggesting that digital tools and spaces can’t facilitate LEARNING. I’m just suggesting that when done well, PLCs facilitate COLLECTIVE ACTION — and collective action is the REAL key to moving any school or district forward.
Does this make any sense?
Related Radical Reads:
Five Guys that I Love Learning Alongside
So Much More than a Personal Learning Network
The Power of PLCs