Holding the reins of the professional learning community: principals' perceptions of the normative imperative to develop schools as professional learning communities
This study compared the findings from the literature review in the area of schools as professional learning communities, using specifically Toole and Louis’ (2002) definition of a professional learning community, with the perceptions of twelve Manitoba school principals of the normative imperative to develop their schools as professional learning communities and their perceptions of the reality of administrative practice. Toole and Louis propose that a professional learning community is a concept composed of three interdependent domains, namely a school culture that emphasizes professionalism is client centered and knowledge based, additionally it emphasizes learning by placing a high value on teacher inquiry and reflection, and finally it is communitarian insofar as it emphasizes personal connections. Furthermore, this definition is built on the notion that there are preconditions, structural supports and human and social resources, necessary for professional learning communities. Grounded theory served as both the theoretical structure and research design to gain an understanding of principals’ thinking (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). principals participated in this study in two focus groups (six principals in each focus group), and twelve interviews. Each focus group and interview was transcribed, and content analysis was employed to identify commonalities and differences in the data (Gall, Gall & Borg, 2003). Using open, axial, and selective coding eight themes were identified based on the responses to the research questions (Johnson & Christensen, 2004; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). This study revealed some consistency between the information cited in the literature, with specific focus on Toole and Louis’ (2002) definition, and principals’ perceptions of their schools as professional learning communities. The participants perceived of a professional learning community as being comprised of three interdependent domains, which are professional, learning and community, and as requiring necessary structural supports and human and social resources as preconditions. They identified time, teacher empowerment, interconnected teacher roles, school plans and institutional identity as structural supports. They also viewed trust and respect, and supportive principal leadership as human and social resource preconditions for schools striving to become professional learning communities. The study revealed conflict between the beliefs of the principals and conceptions of professional learning communities as theoretically constructed in the literature. The participants perceived that while a professional learning community is multidimensional, its effectiveness is not necessarily tied to measures of student achievement. There appeared to be few differences between the participants’ perceptions when separated by gender, school type (public or private) and school size (small, medium or large). The participants appeared to have limited notions of professional learning communities and as a result it is hard to make a case that professional learning communities exist in these schools. Additionally, they saw the duty to evaluate teachers as fostering the development of a professional learning community. Finally, while professional learning communities may hold the best promise for sustaining school improvement efforts (Hord, 2004), the efforts associated with nurturing one will lack results if principals do not possess the clarity of what is required for a school to become a professional learning community.