The aim of this study is to describe and understand the negotiation process within a professional learning community (PLC) for school improvement between principals, students and teachers; and with a particular focus on the principals and students. Wenger’s (1998) social learning theory of community of practice is used as framework in the analysis.
Research has found that successful schools could be described as professional learning communities, PLCs.APLC is characterised by a collaborative culture in which teachers participate in a continual process of creating new knowledge where there is a collective responsibility for supporting each other to improve (Stoll et al., 2006). The principal has an important role in the shaping of this community. Studies have found that there is a need for the principal to practise a leadership which focuses on the learning of the teachers in order to improve teaching (Robinson, 2011; Timperley, 2011). However, we conclude that the students are at the most centred in teachers’ work of planning instruction (Robinson, 2011), they are seldom centred as participators in the community discussing learning matters. They do not seem to be legitimate participators, but rather peripheral to the community, using the terms from Lave and Wenger (1991).
We find this problematic from a democratic point of view and also from the point of the learning of the students. Dysthe (1993) found a clear relationship between high academic performance and student participation and engagement among secondary schools. She also found an apparent relationship between the teachers’ knowledge and experiences in creating learning activities that involved students in meaningful interaction both about the subject matter and about the students’ participation and learning.
PLC research does not provide a strong theory base for how to understand the descriptions and processes in the community. When Stoll et al. (2006) describe a PLC the basis for the account is the most evident data visible in interviews and observations. But how should we understand those data and what is the logic in the relations between the different data? Wenger’s (1998) theory of social learning provides an interesting framework in this respect which we intend to use. Wenger’s hypothesis is that practice cannot be distinguished from community. More accurately he means that individuals appear as actors in a collective, which constitutes the practice.Actors in a specific situation, e.g. in school, shape a community around a practical problem, which they have to solve or manage in order to obtain meaning in the practice or work. Wenger introduces the notion of reification to display how actors’ solutions, or ways of managing, materialise into new concepts, reasoning, understandings, documents, models or tools. Learning, as we interpret it from Wenger, is the negotiation of meaning that takes place among participants experiencing a practical problem. The term “peripheral” describes the condition of the individual when being part of the community but not being legitimated to negotiate the meaning of the work (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In those terms, the students were part of the classroom work but only legitimated as being active participants when invited by the teachers. And concerning the principal the work of Robinson (2011) and Timperley (2011) suggest the principal to practise a leadership which take initiative and become a participator, together with the teachers, in the negotiation of how to improve teaching.
The research context for the study was a compulsory school involved in a professional learning project planned for five years. The school had identified obvious needs to improve student learning and achievement. Teacher participation in the project was mandatory and decided by the local authority. Every teacher in school was supposed to take an active role in the work, in order to improve the schools’ results. The concept of professional learning was built on teachers’ engagement in collaborative learning and the central part of their actions was based on systematic inquiries in the classroom (cf. Wennergren, 2014). Primary data forming the basis for the analysis consisted of 1) field notes from informal communication during three years, 2) written accounts from two principals, 3) interviews of two principals. Secondary data consisted of observations of teachers. With our theoretical starting point in Wenger the analysis was focusing the negotiations that occurred between the principals, teachers and students. Those were the major parties in the daily school practice. From the basis of the theory of community of practice it became essential to investigate the content in the negotiations and who participated in the communication. It also was essential to assess in what degree the negotiations led to reification(s); that is a result the parties believe could improve the situation. Subsequently we have analyzed the data by identifying 1) negotiations, 2) content of the negotiations, 3) the participators in the negotiations, and 4) reifications. Those data were analyzed in relation to legitimization, that is; how active the principals, the teachers and the students could be in the negotiations and reifications of different content.
We expect that the analysis will result in a description and understanding of the principals’ leadership and students’ participation in the school improvement process. The improvement process will be ununderstood as the negotiation process between the principals, teachers and students. The theoretical basis of this can contribute with an understanding of what promotes or prevents the process. Identifying the experience of being a legitimate or peripheral participator is assumed being a critical issue in the process. Finally we will suggest successful parts in an improvement process as understood as negotiations using the theoretical terms from the social theory of Wenger (1998).
Dysthe, O. (1993). Writing and talking to learn. A theory-based interpretative study in three classrooms in the USA and Norway (Diss: Rapport nr 1 APPUs skriftserie). Tromsø: School of Languages and Literature University of Tromsø. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Robinson, V. (2011). Student-Centered Leadership. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Stoll, L., Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Wallace, M. & Thomas, S. (2006). Professional learning communities: A review of the literature. Journal of Educational Change 7, 221-258. Timperley, H. (2011). Realizing the power of professional learning. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wennergren, A. (2014). The power of risk-taking. In: K. Rönnerman & P. Salo (Eds), Lost in Practice: Transforming Nordic Educational Action Research (pp. 133-151). Rotterdam: Sense Publisher.
ECER 2015 - "Education and Transition. Contributions from Educational Research", Corvinus University, Budapest, Hungary, 7-11 September, 2015