Developing a Sensitivity to the Design of Teacher Learning Communities

A community of teachers and researchers work together in Cambridge, MA and Temescal, CA to learn more about how students understand design in the world.

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 include just such a learning community.

The Temescal Learning Community or, as they are now fondly referred to: TLC, 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?

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 the only or one of a very small number of administrators at a school.  What was stressed as well though, was what you 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 our learning community as we navigate our way through our research challenges.

This blog was published on January 21, 2013.
Authored by
Jessica Ross

Jessica Ross is a researcher and Project Manager on the Agency by Design project.