“Members of Professional Learning Communities are action-oriented: They move quickly to turn aspirations into action and visions into reality… In fact, the very reason that teachers work together in teams and engage in collective inquiry is to serve as catalysts for action.”
— Richard DuFour & Rebecca DuFour
Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work
Inquiry-based learning communities engage educators in action research. They meet regularly to articulate an inquiry question about their own practice and student learning, implement a plan of action, share their progress, give ongoing feedback to their group members, and revise approaches and strategies.
When learning in the arts is central, the learning community becomes artful. Its discussions revolve around helping students understand artistic choices and processes, improve skills, and develop their artistic voice.
Our Artful Learning Communities focus on the implementation of formative assessment strategies, so the teachers’ meetings are powered by the three questions of formative assessment:
1. Where am I going? Each group member identifies the student learning targets and the formative assessment strategies being implemented to achieve them.
2. Where am I now? Each member updates the community on the effectiveness of the strategy and provides evidence of student learning.
3. How can I close the gap? The community provides feedback to inform revisions to teaching practices, especially formative assessment strategies, and thereby improve student learning.
Making changes to one’s practice is complicated, especially when the catalyst for change comes from outside one’s classroom. Learning communities return power to teachers. Effective communities promote a climate of supportive accountability. Teachers engaged in them determine their own goals, and support one another in achieving those goals through a process of experimentation, feedback, and revision. A learning community is especially potent for teachers in the arts, who are often the only specialist at their school.
Because its activity is ongoing, the learning community model allows for gradual and examined change. This makes it especially effective in aiding transformations that shift one’s practice through the integration of formative assessment. If the community is structured well and is supported by quality tools and protocols, it can function smoothly without adding too much time to a teacher’s schedule.
The most effective learning communities are focused on student achievement and utilize research-based methodologies to support their continuous improvement. Artful Learning Communities discovered that action research itself is a formative assessment process:
- It begins as each practitioner identifies their inquiry into student learning—what counts.
- The learning community provides feed- back on the practitioner’s research.
- The practitioner revises and improves instruction as a result.
Involve Your Community
in action research:
The Action Research Model. Action research and reflection on its results should not be haphazard. Before you start, it’s important to identify the who, why, what, and how of what you’re studying so you can make your research visible. Help your community members support each other by downloading examples of action plans and research tools from this website.
You can download a printable version of this Action Research Model here.
1. Set a goal.
What do I want my students to achieve? We begin action research by setting one or more learning goals for students drawn from arts benchmarks and standards.
2. Assess Prior Knowledge
Where are they now? Next, we gauge our students’ distance from the goal by assessing what they currently know and can do.
3. Formulate an Inquiry
How will I address the gap? Then, we can ask what formative assessment strategy might best enable students to cross a gap.
4. Design and Implement
How will I address the gap? Now we can design and implement a plan of action. The teacher applies the chosen formative assessment strategy to his or her practice.
5. Collect Evidence
How will I address the gap? While students learn through the chosen strategy, we document the process in the best and most appropriate way.
6. Reflect and Revise
Did the strategy address the gap? Documentation allows us to examine our own practices, solicit feedback, and make informed decisions about adjustments.
What do I want my students to achieve? Once we see improvement in student learning, we are motivated to set a new goal, and start the cycle again!
Ingredients for success
In addition to using the action research model, Artful Learning Communities connect arts educators across schools, and make modifications to suit our New York City context. Here are some other basics:
Implementing formative assessment is not an overnight transformation. Plan to study it with your community, and support each other’s efforts for at least three years.
A group with too many members can’t hear from everyone at every meeting. A group with too few lacks the diversity of perspective required to generate productive feedback discussions.
The most insightful feedback comes from teachers working with the same age groups in the same discipline who are also open to sharing knowledge across disciplines. For an example of cross-disciplinary learning, we found that viewing videos of another discipline’s research sparked ideas and moved research forward.
Plan to meet monthly or however often is comfortable for your group. Make sure to put the repeating meeting on everyone’s calendar: It’s much more effective than scheduling the next meeting at the end of each one.
Someone needs to manage each meeting’s logistics: attendance, agenda, time management, snacks, and so on. This can be the same person each time, or the role can change hands on an agreed-upon rotating basis. Either way, the meeting leader should be a fellow arts teacher.
Designated teacher leaders should be equipped to conduct community meetings, and community members should know what to expect. Tools and protocols help establish a safe and productive community. For example, our members brainstorm and adopt group agreements such as “Share-the-Air” to avoid one person dominating the conversations. See protocols - Action Plans - reflection
The focus of each meeting should be on student work, and how the teacher’s strategy, according to an action plan, is supporting it. Whenever possible, community members should supply examples of student work or documentation of it in video or some other format that allows it to be shared.
Visiting each other’s classrooms at critical intervals is a key activity that builds a successful Artful Learning Community! Sharing teaching practice with fellow community members is invaluable. An intervisitation is community-oriented, teacher-led, focused, and immediately followed by a structured feedback session. A meeting may follow the debriefing to share student work and update action plans. (See the PLC Tool Kit below).
Download the PLC Tool Kit:
A Professional Learning Community (PLC) engaged in action research needs tools that make practitioner research visible to the practitioner and their community for the purposes of feedback, revision and reflection. The Artful Learning Communities Project developed this downloadable tool kit to support and share their work.
The PLC Tool Kit includes: Action Plan, Reflection Protocol, Intervisitation Observation Protocol, and Intertvisitation Feedback Protocols.
Results from our own community
Between 2008 and 2014, Artful Learning Communities configured several communities of New York City K–12 arts educators, and saw remarkable results. The teachers engaged in action research focused on the implementation of formative assessment strategies to improve arts learning. Action research provided a structure in which to ask: Does formative assessment change teacher practice and improve student achievement in the arts? Our teacher research revealed that the answer was a resounding yes!
These educators—more than 200 music, dance, theater, and visual arts specialists— implemented formative assessment practices in economically disadvantaged schools. Like many arts specialists, some of them taught more than 600 students across five grades per week. All of the ALC arts teachers reported improvements in their own teaching and increases in student achievement. Most also reported that students had grown more motivated and interested in their own learning processes. Teachers credited much of this to their implementation of formative assessment strategies, but they also noted that the sup- port of their communities was integral to their success.
Formative assessment was new to them, and some were resistant at first. Learning communities broke down their isolation and provided support from experienced peers. The majority of members were also personally accountable to the process because they felt ownership of their research and were committed to their colleagues. The learning community model invested trust in the teachers and engaged them in an action research process that helped them to transform their teaching practice and enhance student achievement in the arts.