January 21, 2013

Developing a Sensitivity to the Design of Teacher Learning Communities

The Temescal Learning Community weighing in on a design challenge at Oakland International High School.

The Temescal Learning Community (TLC) weighing in on a design challenge at Oakland International High School.

For a long time, I have held the belief that teacher learning communities have the power to stretch beyond individual school walls to tap the expertise of a broader community of educators and to tackle emergent research puzzles. Our partners in the Agency by Design initiative, the Temescal Learning Community (TLC), include just such a learning community.

The Temescal Learning Community educators hail from four vastly different schools all within a stone’s throw of one another in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, CAEmerson Elementary School, part of the Oakland Unified District is a 300-student, K-5 public school.  Oakland Technical High School (Tech), with a student population of about 1,200, is another district school that has served the community since 1914.  Tech’s campus is next door to another community member, Park Day School (PDS), an independent K-8 school that has been in the neighborhood for 37 years.  It is a short walk from PDS to the newest school in this community, Oakland International High School, (OIHS) which opened in 2007 to serve Temescal’s changing immigrant population.

For over a decade I have been hearing about the benefits of Professional Learning Communities to improve student learning and teacher practice from many voices in the education world including Richard DuFour (the author of several books on the subject) and his various co-authors, researchers at Project Zero, and the National School Reform Faculty, among others. These educators agree that there is tremendous benefit for teachers to participate in groups that represent multiple grades and disciplines. In the past, traditional planning time has been designed for meetings by grade level or discipline. Breaking from this tradition is essential for interdisciplinary planning and for lateral examination of student work to improve instruction. I spent ten years in a project-based school where time was devoted to learning community meetings across grade levels and across disciplines in order to design interdisciplinary units and assess student work—it was a fantastic learning experience. But what about taking that one step further? What might I have learned from my colleagues in neighboring schools?

Introductions at the first learning group session at Oakland International High School.

Introductions at the first TLC learning group session at Oakland International High School.

It is true that we get opportunities to meet other educators if we can afford to, or are lucky enough to, be sent to attend off-site conferences. But those are, at most, a one-week or, more likely, a one-day event. For the Agency by Design project we designed a year of opportunities for teachers to meet, once every six weeks, to embark on a research study of teaching and learning in the domains of design thinking, the maker movement, and thinking through tinkering.

When I was getting my principal’s license a common theme from veteran administrators was that we should build a network of other administrators that we could call on because ours was going to be a “lonely job.”  Fair enough, often a building principal is one of a very small number of administrators at a school. What was stressed as well though, was what one could learn from principals at other sites about how they managed their responsibilities, how they were improving their schools, and what struggles they were facing. Why shouldn’t classroom teachers build those same networks?

Stay posted to follow the process and progress of the Temescal Learning Community as we work together to navigate our way through the pedagogical- and research-based challenges related to the application of the maker movement and design thinking in education.

7 thoughts on “Developing a Sensitivity to the Design of Teacher Learning Communities”

  1. Carol Fineberg says:

    I have observed teaching communities in several districts and when they are good they are very very good! And when they are not …. The good groups seem not only to work very hard to gain and share knowledge related to their work as teachers and sometimes administrators, but they studiously avoid the self satisfaction syndrome and truly challenge themselves by periodically bringing into the circle periodically professionals (in this case designers from various segments of the design community as well as scholars of design) to add to the conversation (not to run “workshops” but to engage in the design process at one juncture or another.)

  2. Jessica Ross says:

    Carol, I appreciate the distinction you make between bringing someone in to “add to the conversation” versus running another workshop. It takes a tremendous amount of work to maintain a group via facilitation rather than continuous knowledge dumping.

    A commitment to active listening is a good place to start. As someone who is still trying to work on that skill I can admit to the struggle to refine it and practice it regularly.

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