It seems quite ironic the most effective way of becoming an independent learner is through the process of interacting with others. This was social psychologist Lev Vygotsky‘s zone of proximal development argument. Essentially we learn best when we learn from and with others.
Alma Harris and Michelle Jones from the Institute of Educational Leadership, University of Malaya, write that professional collaboration “in the form of professional learning communities, can be a powerful catalyst for building professional capital and by association, improving school performance”. They go onto say that what really matters is the difference professional collaboration makes to learners.
Its impact comes from having a clear model for professional learning and the right conditions to make it work. As Harris and Jones explains, it also needs to have a strong evidence base for it to be truly effective.
In 2008, Parramatta Marist High School adopted a new pedagogical approach to their learning and teaching strategies with the introduction of Project-Based Learning (PBL), Problem-Based Learning and the Flipped Classroom. Although each of these strategies have been learner-centred and designed to provide students with the necessary skills for today’s world, it has also cultivated a culture of professional collaboration and learning within, and now, beyond the school.
This shift has resulted in a relentless focus on building professional connections and sharing ideas with the aim of deepening teacher learning and practice. Discussion and reflection takes place on a daily basis and it is always as Harris and Jones describes, focused on what difference it is making to learners.
The implementation of PBL meant that Parramatta Marist teachers also had to engage in the inquiry and reflection, collaboration and critical thinking that is expected of students as part of the PBL process.
Collaborating and connecting with other professional learning communities has been key to the success of PBL at Parramatta Marist. Their affiliations with the The New Tech Network for Project-Based Learning and Republic Polytechnic, in Singapore for Problem-Based Learning has been key. Several of the staff at Parramatta Marist are also undertaking doctoral research under Prof. Henk Schmidt (a world leader in PBL research) of Erasmus University to build their evidence-base and contribute to the growing body of research on the impact of PBL on student learning and self-efficacy.
As the learning circle widens, so does the opportunities for innovation. Marist’s Centre for Deeper Learning (CDL) was established not only to build the professional capital of its own staff but to share their learning with other teachers.
Kurt Challinor from CDL says the school is now coaching several schools in Australia as they transition to a PBL model. CDL has been facilitating workshops between each school’s common faculty areas as teachers connect on a regular basis to workshop ideas and share resources.
In reflecting on the impact PBL has had on his own teaching practice, Kurt says it has enabled him to continually push new boundaries. The challenge he says, is to stay in orbit long enough to embrace new opportunities and possibilities.
CDL is one example of how shared learning can deepen the learning for students and teachers beyond the school walls.