Pitfalls and possibilities: collegial conversations about students learning as a reflection of teaching impact

Year: 2018

Author: Fletcher, Anna, Wennergren, Ann-Christine

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The impact of a critical friend, an external agent who acts as a supportive yet challenging facilitator, is widely acknowledged as a significant factor in school development and professional learning. A critical friendship is characterised by trust, and enacted through conversations where provocative questioning is used to enhance reflection and challenge participants’ practice-related assumptions and viewpoints. 
This paper is the result of an international collaboration between two academics who each work closely with local schools as critical friends.  The paper aims to illustrate possibilities and pitfalls of impact and engagement, using accounts of Professional Learning Community (PLC) conversations about purposes, tools and practices to enhance teaching and learning.
A selection of conversation transcripts from two separate PLCs were explored to generate insights about classroom applications of collegial learning among teachers. The PLCs consisted of ten teachers at a primary school in the south of Sweden and ten teachers at a primary school in regional Victoria, Australia. Each researcher was familiar with one set of PLC conversations, but not the other. This provided another dimension of critical friendship by challenging the researchers’ own viewpoints about ‘their’ PLC, and generated alterative interpretations of the data.
The analysis was guided by three core considerations: What? Why? How? Of these, ‘what’ constituted content that aligned with the PLC’s purpose; ‘why’ articulated the PLC’s purpose and its shared goals; and ‘how’ referred to the repertoire of systematic methods, tools and strategies which the PLC applied to achieve its purposes.
Findings indicated three main themes. First, the PLC’s purpose (to enhance students’ learning) appeared to be implied rather than explicit in the conversations. In instances when why-questions in relation to educational content were discussed – the conversation was sharpened and provided a rationale to the context. Second, teachers’ monitoring of students’ learning featured strongly, addressing considerations such as ‘What do we expect our students to learn?’ and ‘How do we know when students have learnt?’ Third, general and specific comments relating to how evidence about students’ learning may be collected dominated the conversations.
We conclude that the conversations about learning in the two PLC-teams mainly focused on ‘what’ was going to be improved and ‘how’ changes in practice may occur, rather than ‘why’. This implies a missing link in PLC-teams’ conversations, which critical friends may help teachers overcome by prompting them to articulate the application of ‘why’ in relation to the specifics of their students’ learning.