Professional Learning Teams – Traditional Perspectives
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Professional Learning Teams: Explore through traditional perspectives

Present day educational leaders are under mounting pressure to serve their community by maintaining a positive school culture and ensuring student success. The solution is neither simple nor linear, writes Bronwyn Johnstone, Principal of Capalaba State College.

Faced with these pressures, decision makers will find a solution to the challenge is not linear and lies in having a future focus that is sustainable in the long term alongside connecting theory and practice (Dewey, 1902). “Most educators acknowledge that our deepest insights and understanding come from action, followed by reflection and the search for improvement (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 9). DuFour & DuFour (2012) suggest that this cycle of continuous improvement and learning together is best served through Professional Learning Communities (PLC) made up of teams.

Here, I plan to examine the contemporary educational leadership issue of building professional learning teams and explain how various traditions would conceive the problem and its solution. Schools have a dynamic workforce, which requires leaders to continually build staff capacity to work together in teams. As we consider the challenge of building teams it is necessary to examine the classical traditions of educational leadership, as it is these perspectives that have laid the foundation for our thinking today. However, to be able to examine the challenge of building team through the lens of classical traditions firstly it is important to understand the function and make up of PLCs.

Dufour et al (2010) identifies the key elements of PLCs as a focus on learning through; a collaborative culture, collective inquiry; learning by doing; a commitment to continuous improvement and a results orientation. Furthermore DuFour et al (2010) argues that the solution to this challenge is simply to learn by doing.

The greatest insight we have gained in our work with school districts across the continent is that organisation that take the plunge and actually begin doing the work of a PLC develop their capacity to help all students learn at high levels far more effectively than schools that spend years preparing to become PLCs through reading or even training. (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 11)
These elements will provide the basis for analysis and demonstrate the instrumental work of the leader in creating and maintain teams. Each element will be explored from the perspective of Classic Management Theory, Theory movement, the Greenfield revolution and Feminism. Additionally, considering their perception of the problem and solution.

DuFour et al (2010, p11) points out that “it is difficult to overstate the importance of collaborative teams” in a PLC. It is through the collective sharing and discussion that problems are confronted and addressed. “Taylor’s emphasis on the division of manual and non-manual labour” (Stoney, 2001 p33) is at odds with this element. Taylor identified the “organisation of work being the sole prerogative of management” (Stoney, 2001, p. 33). Furthermore Reason (2015) agrees that Taylorism opposes teams and innovations, because it is all about the system. It is about consistence and compliance not creativity and efficiency. Classic management theory endorsed the corporate industrial structure as the model for educational administration (Tyack & Hansot, 1982) which rejects collaboration and endorses procedural efficiency.

Taylor’s influence on education could been seen through the development of handbooks for teaching practices along with timetables and bell times. There is no room for collaboration which is in stark contrast to Thomas Greenfields concept of education.

Collaboration by its very nature requires people to work together, this is Thomas Greenfields domain. Greenfield (1980 p 30) notes that organisation “are the consequences of human action” where “people can do many things and that one thing can be built upon another.” Greenfield states that “the power of organisations lies in the transformative capacity of human action.” This sense of the power of people strikes a chord with today’s collaborative approach to teaching and learning. School leaders work hard to foster a collaborative approach to classroom practices, student learning and data analysis. While data is not high on Greenfiled’s agenda the concept of constructing reality (Willower, 1980) sits central to Greenfiled’s thinking. The ‘subjective’ has influenced the instructional leadership approach, people working together to influence and “bend others to one’s will” (Greenfileld, 1980).

In the same way collaboration is seen as a strength of the feminist approach to leadership where “women encourage participation, share power and information to enhance other people’s self-worth, and get others excited about their work” (Sinclair, 2014, p. 22). A feminist perspective no longer demands a radical response to gender but rather challenges the leader to reflect on the makeup of their workforce and consider how they can nurture the conditions required for collaboration (Wallin, 2015). The move away from independent teaching to collaboration mirrors the leadership ontology from Classic Management to Feminism. While Classic Management would reject the move away from silo teaching, the feminist perspective would celebrate the empowerment of classroom teachers through cooperation and delegation.

Learning by doing
DuFour et al (2010, p. 261) notes that “the learning by doing characterised by an action orientation is a critical factor” in schools. It is by struggling with the problem incorporated with the daily work that real solutions can be found. In a similar way “the power of organisations lies in the transformation capacity of human action” (Greenfield, 1980, p. 40). Greenfields basic premise is that order is created by man, it is through human actions that an organisation exists. Therefore it is a natural extrapolation that humans will learn by doing. Greenfield (1980, p 40) argues that “to understand organisations requires that we understand how intention becomes action and how one person’s intention and action triggers intention and action in others.”

Similarly the feminist view of leadership espoused by Sinclair (2014, p.25) recognises leadership as “a relational, discursive and intersubjective phenomena between people” and it is more than just a job but like Greenfield it is about people and interactions. In contrast Allison’s reflection on academic educational administration sums up the Theory Movement as viewing “organisational functioning and administrator behaviour as objective, quantifiable, predictable, phenomena” (2015, p. 41). As such the learning comes from “conceptual and methodological ingredients” (2015, p.33) delivered by academics rather than learned in situ.

Conversely, Classic Management would welcome action orientation, (that is, the workers working) but would reject the devolved authority. This perspective stipulates that the work of the leader is to lead and the worker to work and to blur the roles would only contaminate the system (Callaghan, 1962, Tyack & Hansot, 1982). Streamlined efficiency can only come from factory line precision (Reason, 2015). Therefore the modern leader must ask themselves who they want to struggle with the problem and identify solutions. Classic Management, the Theory Movement, Greenfield’s revolution and the feminist perspective will provide some guidance. Yet leadership requires reflection not just action and it is through reflection that leaders can conceive solutions.

Collective inquiry
The Theory movement can be credited with new ways of understanding educational administrative processes and creating a more balanced work force (Culbertson, 1981). Particularly, the professionalism of the workforce through tertiary training which resulted in an increased level of academic inquiry and in so doing created more powerful decision makers. This greater level of inquiry helped to develop a greater sense of relevance in the decision making process and to produce a basis of knowledge that would help guide and inform action.

Many elements of the Theory movement continue to impact on education today. It is crucial to have a workforce who all have elements of ownership and responsibility in their role. As well as the ability to make sound decisions, based on evidence that could be applied to classroom practice. As there are no text book answer for many of the educational and social challenges faced by teachers today, Greenfield’s focus on the subjective provides scope for classroom teachers to share in the leadership of solution finding through collective inquiry.

Pringle and Gold (1990) reflections on women in management track the journey of women in leadership positions and the influence they have had on workforce engagement. The review critiques the role and leadership style of women which have allowed for influence and power. Most notable is that regardless of the approach to leadership, women typically foster “nurturing cooperative relationships” through “their belief in “authenticity and honesty” as a management style” which brings a “wholeness to their work” (Pringle & Gold, 1990, p. 12). Furthermore the feminist perspective challenges leaders to build the collective agency, which can only be built over time and with reflection (Blackmore, 2013). Additionally, it is important to recognise,

How leadership is shaped and practiced is therefore highly contextualised. In addressing context and organisations, critical and feminist organisational theorists recognise how different perspectives on leadership add richness to organisational life (Blackmore, 2013).

Commitment to continuous improvement
Fundamental to the workings of a professional learning team is a commitment to continuous improvement.
The goal is not simply to learn a new strategy, but instead to create conditions for perpetual learning – an environment in which innovation and experimentation are viewed not as tasks to be accomplished or projects to be completed but as ways of conducting day-to-day business, forever. (Greenfield, 1980)

Taylor’s commitment to efficiency meant that an eye to the future was important however, the delineation of roles meant that “the main function of management was forward planning” (Stoney, 2001) not the worker. It was perceived that “a strategic thinker or manager” was “more visionary, wiser and ultimately more important” (Stoney, 2001, p. 35). Furthermore, product gains could be achieved through “the division of labour, work measurement and the separation of conception from execution” (Stoney, 2001, p. 28). This is vastly at odds with the concept prescribe by DuFour et al who recommend that “participation in this process is not reserved for those designed as leaders; rather it is a responsibility of every member of the organisation” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010, p. 13).

Greenfield (1980, p 39) states that “people are by and large creative” and that “the result of this creativity” is variety. Further stating, “by constantly doing, man not only creates but also re-creates” (Greenfield, 1980, p. 39). This expression is an affirmation of continuous improvement, Greenfield is not only supportive but suggests that this is the natural order of human action.

The feminist perspective would caution the leader to consider whose future is being created and how it will impact all involved in the system. The feminist perspective allows the leader to look broader than gender and consider engagement and ownership at all levels of the organisation. It is through recognising and valuing difference that all voices can be heard (Blackmore, 2013) and alternative solutions can be explored.

Results orientation
Andrew Halpin (Culbertson, 1981) acknowledge the thinking at the 1957 UCEA Career Development Seminar as attributing to the Theory movement, especially the growing perception that “naked empiricism” was inadequate. That researches needed to work beyond the raw data and predict what might happen, then test. This thinking is a key element of professional learning teams. Action research challenges leaders to look at what you have, ask what it is telling you and devise a course of action. “Members of a PLC realise that all of their efforts must be assessed on the basis of results rather than intentions.” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010)

The feminist standpoint suggest that the results orientation is more about the collective achievement and collective responsibility. Leading “in ambiguity, in circumstances of ‘not knowing’. And being open to diverse and shifting measures of success” (Sinclair, 2014) this is at odds with strict data informed decision making. The feminist perspective troubles the system by challenging the leader to consider a move away from top down leadership to a more relational collaborative approach and therefore ask what results are most relevant to the classroom teacher. In contrast, Taylor’s primary concern was for increased efficiency, however he prescribed the achievement through rationalisation and separation of duties as opposed to collaboration and innovation. Taylorism reflect more of a control system (Braverman, 1974, p. 47) than a management approach.

The theories of Classic Management, Theory Movement, Greenfield’s revolution and the feminist perspective highlight that the solution to the challenge of building teams in schools is not straight forward. For leaders to be effective in building teams they need to draw on the collective wisdom and learning from leadership history. Interestingly Allison (2015) calls for a “fifth age” of administrator preparation which would incorporate both the learning from school leader’s actions in schools and the academic research world, emphasising that the way forward is to learn from the past and chart a new course forward.

It would appear that we are now on the brink of Allison’s fifth age and it is imperative that we heed Dewey’s (1902) warning. Armed with the knowledge of the importance of connecting research and practice (Dewey, 1902). It is evident that we need to learn from the past to ensure present day educational leaders can to serve their community by maintaining a positive school culture and ensuring student success. The solution will be simplified by the support of the academic sector working alongside the practicing profession and each having future focus that is sustainable in the long term.

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