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Peer Learning Labs

In the realm of school reform, change and innovation are necessary to maximize teacher

effectiveness and student achievement. But change and innovation require all stakeholders to operate, collaboratively, from a place of vulnerability. It is the fear of being vulnerable that often stands in the way of taking the necessary risks to make the radical change that is required to create more innovative and successful educational institutions. When done effectively, Peer Learning Labs (PLLs) are an essential process that help build functional professional learning communities and create a safe space for teachers to be vulnerable. From this place of vulnerability, crucial conversations arise and these conversations often create a space for innovative and proactive system-building.

One specific personal experience comes to mind. As members of a middle school grade-level team, we had decided we needed to align our classroom rituals and routines to maximize the effectiveness of behavior modification practices to help struggling learners access the grade level curriculum. This process started out with discussions and brainstorming ideas, but we soon realized we wanted to experience the classroom context of each of our team members. We decided to use PLLs to visit a lesson in each of our team members’ classrooms. The essential questions we used to drive our observations and our collective vision were the following: What practices are already in place in some or all classrooms that are effective? What behaviors are we seeing in classrooms that we would like to change? What does the research suggest? What specific practices do we, as a team, need to put into place in each of our classrooms to support student achievement?

The best educators are reflective about their craft. I wouldn’t say that PLLs make teachers more reflective, but rather what they do is provide a framework for reflection. Peer learning labs allow reflection to be purposeful and create a framework to connect reflection to collective team, school and district instructional goals. PLLs help establish a path allowing individual and collective reflection to become action.

PLLs can be very effective in breaking down the innate isolation that teachers often operate within because of the nature of traditional school structures. Because of this, PLLs are a fundamental part of a sustainable professional learning community. Also, in any given learning institution, teachers are functioning at different stages of experience. As a result, professional development needs to be differentiated to maximize teacher learning. PLL’s allow for all participants to access knowledge and information based on individual needs. Even if the PLL is driven by a specific collective goal, governed by a School Improvement Plan for example, the skills needed to efficiently reach the collective goal are going to be different for a first year teacher and a veteran teacher.

The PLL process allows each individual to identify their own focus based on their personally identified area of need. This is an empowering experience that brings together teachers of different disciplines and different experience levels. The professional dialogues that start in a PLL are ongoing and will continue into the hallways and teacher’s lounges. The result is a sustainable professional learning community where authentic conversations about instruction are organic and continuous.

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