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Education: Communities of practice
Communities of practice (CoP) and Professional Learning Communities (PLC) are a growing trend in educational circles. According to the Nova Scotia Department of Education, “PLCs provide powerful processes to strengthen not only teachers’ own effectiveness, but also to support the profession’s collective responsibility for the achievement of all students.”But, what exactly are they?In education circles, communities of practice refer to groups of teachers who coalesce around their respective subject areas to learn more together. They are similar to Professional Learning Communities, which are becoming increasingly popular at Canadian schools. Both types of groups share information and experiences in the kind of peer-to-peer learning environment that drives the group forward in a very natural way. Staff members can share syllabi and curriculum guidelines, best practices in teaching and problem solving as well as new and innovative learning methods.

On-site and online
There are many ways to facilitate CoPs and PLCs, and in some regions education ministries are even offering funding to help schools introduce them. For instance, in Alberta, many schools have received support from the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement to implement PLCs. CoPs can be a great resource for educators with specialized skills. Case in point: the Calgary Board of Education has established a Community of Practice for English as a Second Language (ESL) educators.

One alternative CoP set-up is within Web 2.0 structures like social media giants Facebook® and LinkedIn®. South of the border, the U.S. Department of Education is currently supporting a research initiative to explore the design and utility of these online CoPs in hopes of taking advantage of technology for improved teaching practices.

Founding one of your own
So how do you get a teaching CoP or PLC off the ground in your school or district? Here are some first steps to consider:

  • Explore the option. If you’re at the district level, identify a school for the pilot program. Perhaps a school where teachers are looking for a little extra support. Or, if you’re at the school level, think critically about a department that could benefit from the kind of idea and experience sharing that comes with CoPs. Then, approach the requisite people who you envision as key players to gauge their interest.
  • Build support. If the first few individual meetings with key stakeholders go well, the next step is to facilitate a group meeting. There, you can talk about the specifics of a CoP for teachers in that specific school or department. Use the group setting to have a group discussion about what kinds of objectives the CoP would hope to achieve.  This time around, leave some short and sweet informational pieces for the group to really get their wheels turning.
  • Give it a go. Start with a regular meeting schedule and let the agenda happen organically. What do people want to talk about? What elements of teaching have them most miffed at the moment? Distribute some fun new notebooks as a kind of group gift. That way, if someone wants to take notes during the meeting, they can. (For those that came without pens, a free pen might be a nice surprise, too.)

CoP growth and activities
Ideally, CoPs should grow on their own, but it may take some time for your CoP to fully blossom into a thriving group. Inspire organic growth by making meetings lively and fun. Here are some activity ideas to help engage current group members and recruit new ones.

  • Take time to brainstorm. Use the notebooks and pens to do some brainstorming. Ask participants to conduct research on new teaching trends in their respective fields and then report back at the next meeting. What did they find? Any easy ideas worth trying right away?
  • Enliven collaboration. Help teachers forge closer working relationships by working together. Maybe that means observing one another’s classes and offering friendly advice. Or, maybe it means coming up with an innovative lesson plan together, trying it out and reporting back to the CoP as a pair. What did each observe? What appeared effective and what didn’t?
  • Make it competitive. Take this idea to the next level with friendly competition. Take one meeting to develop guidelines and common metrics for the lessons before teaching partners draft formal lesson plans and put them to work in the classroom. Incentivize the contest with tech-y gadgets like a digital photo frame for first place, a large tech trap for second place, and flash drive for third place. Have groups report back on the progress, discuss results and collectively choose a winner.

Communities of practice retain present members and draw in new ones simply by being an open and progressive group where valuable information, ideas and experiences combine to help everyone grow. If you haven’t tried them already, now’s a good time for your pilot test.

Report of the PLC Study Committee.” Nova Scotia Department of Education. May 2011. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

Develop Professional Learning Communities.” Alberta Education. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

“Pathways to Partnership.” Calgary Board of Education. Web. 23 Mar. 2013.

The Promise of Communities of Practice.” U.S. Department of Education, 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2013.

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