Dysfunctions of a professional learning community

collaborationImage: Science in Action

This post is a response to a challenge put on the Teaching and Learning in South Australia Facebook page. The page looks at aspects of the South Australian Teaching for Effective Learning framework. We were asked to read Steven Weber’s Five dysfunctions of a professional learning community and reflect on it. I have done a lot of reflecting around the TfEL and have reflected before about my PLN. That presentation needs to be updated since my network has changed and expanded. So what do I think about the dysfunctions of personal learning communities? I have used Steven Weber’s headings.

Dysfunction #1: Lack of Norms

If you consider the meaning of community , then I prefer the ecological one:

A group of interdependent plants or animals growing or living together in natural conditions or occupying a specified habitat

and the mass noun one:

The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common

Teachers working together in a community to improve the learning outcomes for students can be strong independent units and can develop a natural way of sharing their ideas and experiences or they can be put into a group situation where they are expected to work in a specific area of pedagogy.

This is where the norms are important. It is important to be open about how that community will operate if the group doesn’t naturally function co operatively. Some groups are better than others. Most groups do not go through norms clarification. In that sense there is an assumption people will know how to relate and exchange ideas. This is not always the case and formal attention to norms invariably smooths that over. In my experience online communities can come together more productively than real life ones since electronic media force you to focus on content and communication rather than all the other peripheral issues of real life groups where you do have to go through what the communication processes are , what the attendance expectations are, what the outcomes are to be and then what the level of input is for each member of the group. Online that is clear and it is a choice of whether you are present or not and how much you contribute is up to you. You are not distracted by personalities, habits and comportment of others. Online communities gather with a prepublished agenda and the focus is 100% on that agenda.

Dysfunction #2: Lack of Team Goals

Goal achievement is more readily accessed in real life teams. The action plans, the ideas generation and the implementation are all concrete things for people to discuss ,develop and do. Online teams are looking more generally at issues, ideas, approaches and can clarify methodology and theory well. Real life teams can achieve solid practical outcomes with clarity because they have more time if the expectations are clear. Online teams can clarify all the reasons for doing these things and ensure that individuals who participate in the discussion come out of it knowing more than when they went in. Virtual teams support the individual who then will become a more confident and more able real life team member.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Trust

from Steven Weber’s article:

According to Lencioni (2007), a lack of trust “occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses, or needs for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible.”

I only agree with the second part of this but trust is a very big issue in teams and not one which is easily overcome if the trust is not there. Online you can become a target or someone can attack your ideas and some would just wilt and pull out of the discussion. That achieves little. In a real life team it largely comes down to how open and straight forward the team members are and whether there are common goals and ideas and whether there is a hidden agenda or power hierarchy. No one has to be in an online team but an online team is good back up if your real life team doesn’t suit you well. Teachers are probably in more than one learning community and that is a good idea. The last thing you need is a teacher who is not able to grow through collaboration or discussion of ideas with other teachers. I don’t believe trust is built by sharing mistakes, vulnerability and weaknesses. I think that is coming at it from a negative point of view. A professional learning community is looking at pedagogy, theory, curriculum expectations, professional standards. For me, then, this means we are looking at having a comfortable level to discuss those ideas so we strengthen ourselves , our knowledge and our experience through airing ideas and thoughts in a professional setting. The group leaders are the ones who will be alert to learning gaps and how to broaden the experience for all participants. Leadership is a skill and members of a team have to feel comfortable in a group and  be able to express their ideas and thoughts.

Dysfunction #4: Lack of Communication

True. Communication is everything. These days you can communicate in multiple modes and that is a real advantage. Getting information and ideas out is easy so there is no excuse for lack of communication. It is also important to make it clear to a group how you are communicating. Online communities are more efficient and effective at communicating and Twitter is the number one in my book. It is important to have a place for ideas and feedback and that is more easily managed online. This way a community is dynamic and connects more naturally from meeting to meeting since discussions and input are valued and can grow on.

Dysfunction #5: Lack of Essential Learning Outcomes

From Steven Weber’s article:

From my observations, developing essential learning outcomes involves trust, conflict, debate, time, and the ability to come to consensus.

It is very important to have time to look at departmental documents, examination board criteria and performance management criteria et al. If we are to truly develop as a profession we need to dedicate quality time to look at professional documents , guidelines like the TfEL and share our ideas with other professionals. Online communities can become quite international in their input and that is even better because you are not locked up in regional thought bubbles. You can look at what you do in your region and compare it with how others approach things in their region. A professional learning community will do that – focus on something and then broaden the discussion so that the classroom implications, the teacher practice expectations and the attainment possibilities are all clear to the individual teacher. It then needs to be linked to curriculum outcomes and expectations and the sorts of assignments which would fit the bill and then how you would reasonably assess those assignments.

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