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The experience of remote schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic presents a number of opportunities for the wider uptake of high impact teaching and learning practices. This experience created an environment where teachers are more likely to connect, collaborate and share resources. Although remote schooling lasted the longest in NSW and Victoria, teachers across Australia have had to evaluate and update their teaching. As schools return to face-to-face instruction, we must reflect on how remote schooling may have improved teacher development and collaboration, and how productive teacher partnerships can be embedded within and across Australian school systems.
Research suggests that Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), groups of teachers that collaborate by sharing resources and pedagogical approaches, can improve both teacher practice and student achievement. The temporary shift to online schooling diminished many of the logistical and cultural barriers to establishing relevant and productive PLCs, including across geographies with, for example, a Melbourne-based maths teacher now easily able to upload and share their algebra lesson plan with their peers from Halls Gap to Humpty Doo.
There are several features to this experience that have provided us with insights into the value and potential future design of PLCs to our teachers, students and school communities.
Teachers as students: As schools quickly pivoted online, almost all teachers had to engage in formal or informal professional development to improve their own digital literacy and learn how to educate effectively using technology. This created a unique opportunity for teachers to collaborate and share insights. One study on Australian schooling during COVID-19 listed an improvement in staff collegiality and collaboration as a key benefit of remote learning. Teachers who participated in this study reported that they worked with their colleagues to understand digital modes of instruction and that they discovered a range of new teaching resources and techniques.
Sharing student-focused resources: The need for teaching and learning resources to be online has aided the distribution and sharing of resources. Sharing resources is one way in which PLCs can introduce teachers to new ideas and ways of presenting information, while also reducing the time they might spend making materials from scratch. Critically, the newfound ease of sharing student work and progress may help ensure PLCs are anchored by a focus on student development. The Federal Government explicitly encourages PLCs to “use student achievement data and samples of student work”, and this is easier if such information is already digitised.
Relevance and integration: The ease of sharing information also creates the opportunity to establish subject specific PLCs across the country. Teacher collaboration is most effective when teachers have a similar classroom context and learning goals. Online schooling has removed previous geographical boundaries to PLCs, allowing collaboration across schools, districts and states. This not only ensures that shared materials and feedback translates into teachers' actual classrooms, but it enables engagement from those in small or remote schools who may have otherwise been isolated from PLCs and their associated benefits.
How can we foster and maintain PLCs as we adjust to take advantage of what we have learned from this year?
At the school level, as school and system leaders plan for the 2021 schooling year, they should be examining how teacher learning and collaboration has changed, and work to embed positive changes beyond the pandemic. Many teachers are now more experienced in working together to explore new digital modes of instruction and assessment, and this collaborative and inquisitive work environment should be maintained. This will require giving teachers the skills and time to collect, analyse and reflect on how their teaching practices interact with student performance, and encouraging an atmosphere of curiosity and confidence in sharing these insights.
More broadly, policymakers can support these efforts through facilitating networks and collaboration beyond individual schools, to enable curriculum-focused and subject-specific PLCs. Where practical, teachers could be encouraged to continue to incorporate digitised methods of teaching and assessment. PLCs could be focused around teachers' learning goals, subject matter and classroom context, for instance by leveraging existing subject-specific teaching bodies. Policymakers can also support the development and maintenance of these groups by creating virtual spaces where teachers can collaborate and share insights.
It is critical that PLCs are more consistently integrated into the Australian schooling system and are accessible to all teachers so that all teachers can benefit.
Will is a professional economist with expertise in economic modelling and econometric analysis which he brings to bear on a range of strategic policy analysis, primarily for Australian public sector clients. He specialises in economic analysis and policy in the education sector, where he has over six years’ experience working with key government clients across Australia. His experience includes analysing policy, regulation and funding arrangements from early childhood to tertiary education and beyond. Will’s previous experience includes undertaking extensive evaluations and research in school education, with a particular focus on schooling funding model reform and empirical analysis on the drivers of student outcomes. He has extensive expertise on matters of system improvement for schooling jurisdictions, having delivered a series of major reviews and evaluations for Departments of Education in Australia, as well as major research for the Australian Government. Will also has deep knowledge of the Australian higher education sector, having worked with a significant number of Australian universities and been involved in a number of complex research studies for the Australian Government, to inform funding policy and regulatory legislation.
Extensive, multi-faceted experience in education policy and strategy, underpinned by deep expertise and capability and a record of robust, evidence-driven analysis and advice of the highest calibre.