Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Learning Communities: From Theory to Practice

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
In a recent blog post, we focused on a new study by Public Profit on learning communities (LC). We interviewed the Public Profit staff and featured their answers on the post. It is one thing to learn about a critical feature of a youth program. It is another to work with peers to translate this knowledge into practice. 

We wanted to hear directly from people who have actually participated in a learning community. Thanks to Katie Brackenridge from the Partnership for Children and Youth, who brings the perspective of a practitioner/participant, as well as an active capacity builder of afterschool and summer programs. We also asked Carol Lewis, Afterschool Coordinator, Vallejo City Unified, who brings the perspective of someone working to build the quality of programs across a district. We offer their responses below. 

Q: Can you describe how your participation in an ongoing learning community was different than a one-time, “fly-by”, training?
Katie Brackenridge,
Partnership for Children and Youth

Katie: Thinking back many years, being part of the first Youth Development Learning Networks was transformational. We were all trying to implement similar practices without being able to name them. The Learning Community created a common language between participants, gave us the opportunity to shift our practices to be more intentional about youth development, and created a space for us to learn about each other’s challenges and successes. 

This approach has longevity. Twenty years later, the Jamestown Community Center remains deeply rooted in youth development theory and practice. As a trainer and advocate, I run into my peers from those first learning communities and continue to feel a strong sense of camaraderie with them.

Carol: In my own experience and in my observations of my staff, participation in an on-going LC leads to greater levels of implementation and higher quality implementation. The site coordinators that participated in Stacey Daraio’s LIAS LC are more articulate about the 5 LIAS Principles and I believe better equipped to support their staff in designing programming.

Q: Can you explain why you chose this more intensive, multi-session, approach?  

Katie: We were excited about being part of a new, forward-thinking and intentional effort to improve our programs. We wanted to learn what the experts were saying about youth programming, apply those best practices, and connect with other youth program leaders across our community.

Carol: I chose it because I believe this style of professional learning is a best practice and I want to ensure my program staff are prepared to meet the high level of expectations I set for programming quality.

Photo Credit:
Q: Can you describe the benefits of participating in an ongoing learning community? 

Katie: We found it was most helpful to learn new theories and practices, try them out back at our programs, and debrief that experience with the facilitators and peers back in the learning community. The key piece of coaching connected to the learning community gave us tailored help with obstacles and challenges. The structure provided an effectively supported implementation.

Carol: As stated above, greater levels of implementation. Also, it provided my staff an opportunity to learn with and from others that are doing the work they do which I cannot provide for them – since I’ve never been a site coordinator.

Q: Would you recommend it to others, and if so, under what conditions or circumstances? 

Katie: Our experience was transformational. To be impactful, program staff have to be genuinely interested in changing practice, willing to look honestly at what currently works and doesn’t work, and share openly with the learning community.

Carol: I would absolutely recommend this type of training to others. The circumstances in which this type of training is better than online or one time lecture-based training is when the implementation of the learning is complex and requires opportunities to ‘try it out’ then return to the group with questions/comments and insights.

In our recent study of the effectiveness of the LIAS project, we heard from a number of Regional Leads on the subject of learning communities. These comments are listed below. 
  • It would be a good idea to roll out additional learning communities in Regions that have not had one yet since it fits nicely with both Quality Standards & Common Core.”
  • “We do a lot of training for people giving an introduction to the LIAS principles. We do very little in terms of learning communities or someone who's assigned to work with the site as a coach. That would be more effective in the long term.” 
  • “I know that the learning community sessions that we did with Stacey Daraio the year before was very well received. It provided the participants great in-depth conversation and it really was an opportunity for sharing. We know that learning communities really have a successful message for improving quality because it makes the concepts real to the participants. That's why I would rate it as a very good strategy.”  

Temescal Associates/LIAS offers the facilitation of LIAS learning communities for afterschool and summer practitioners. Alternatively, we have prepared CalSAC trainers to lead learning communities as well. 

Professional Learning Communities in the Expanded Learning Field

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
Our Co-Director, Stacey Daraio, pioneered the use of learning communities to improve the practice of youth program practitioners in the 1990’s. Learning from her, I led a number of learning communities with the first California Afterschool Regional Learning Centers, the first cohort of high school afterschool programs (ASSETs) and the San Francisco Beacons. 

Temescal Associates &
LIAS Co-Director, Stacey Daraio
Currently, we are very involved with leading learning communities on the Learning in Afterschool & Summer (LIAS) learning principles

More recently, we have conducted training of trainer (ToT) sessions with the California School-Age Consortium (CalSAC) to lead LIAS learning communities. This allows us to extend the reach of the LIAS project. This is a very effective and necessary approach if we are going to show success in actually changing practice. 

Thus, we were very pleased to see the release of a study of the effectiveness of professional learning communities (PLCs) by Public Profit entitled, Professional Learning Communities in the Expanded Learning Field

Below is an interview with the research staff at Public Profit regarding this study. In a subsequent blog post, we will interview practitioners who have been part of a learning community. 

Q: Can you help us with a brief definition of “professional learning communities”? 

A: PLCs are collaborative cohorts of professionals with a shared interest in improving their practice in order to better serve youth. They meet regularly to reflect, to review data, and to share and develop strategies to improve their professional practice. 

In the expanded learning setting, PLCs tend to follow one of two models: one, for front line staff, emphasizes improving the quality of content-specific activities through trainings on delivering curricula and facilitating group activities and on-site coaching. They can be broad, open to staff from multiple organizations, or narrow, open to staff from one organization. 

PLCs for managers in expanded learning programs focus more on innovative approaches to organizational and systemic improvement via discussion-based meetings and support for continued collaboration. These PLCs tend to be broadly open to mid-level and senior managers from multiple organizations. 

Q: What inspired you to explore this concept? Is this particularly relevant, given recent events in the ELP field? 

A: As interest in promoting quality expands throughout the field, more and more of our clients found traditional approaches to PD – like workshops and user’s guides – weren’t enough to really support sustained practice improvements.

Our clients in Oakland supported several Professional Learning Communities for expanded learning time staff at all levels, and asked us to evaluate several of them. We found that some really strong benefits for staff who participate (see below), and we wanted to share their successes more broadly.

Q: What are the benefits of participating in a PLC?

A: PLCs benefit participating staff in a number of key ways. Participating in a PLC can give staff increased knowledge in a specific content area, and in process-, role-specific knowledge. For example, a staff member participating in a PLC about wellness will build her knowledge in delivering wellness curriculum specifically, and in planning and delivering high quality activities more broadly. 

This happens because PLC facilitators model effective facilitation skills and engage youth workers in practical, hands-on approaches to learning that they can replicate in their programs. Giving staff the opportunity to network with peers and participate in ongoing professional development may even improve retention. 

Q: Can you describe some of the best practices of PLCs? 

A: Many of the best practices of PLCs are related to the pre-work needed before implementation. Assess organizational readiness by asking key questions about logistics and staff capacity. Budget for extra staff time so that participating staff can not only attend PLC meetings, but also can participate in coaching and practice-sharing with colleagues, and spend additional time planning. Create a process by which participating staff can document and share what they’ll learn in the PLC. 

Once the PLC is off the ground, best practices include developing the goals and structure of the PLC based on participants’ needs and ideas, implementing on-site observations and coaching, and leveraging partnerships to give participants access to experts and other resources. 

Q: Are there particular settings or situations that are well-suited to PLCs? 

A: There are some organizational conditions that can make a PLC more effective. To ensure that an organization’s PLC learning is planted in fertile soil where it can thrive, consider making the PLC a long-term professional development strategy complete with a multi-year commitment. Organizations thinking of taking on a PLC should also consider the implementation environment: will the program schedule accommodate new activities? Is there a sufficient budget for materials? Are staff consistently using positive youth development practices in the program? These factors all contribute to the success of the PLC. 

At the staff level, PLCs can be more effective if organizations choose participating staff carefully, making sure that any participants are equipped with strong facilitation skills and eager to grow in their practice. 

Q: How do you know if a PLC is working?

A: We use a five-step framework from Thomas Guskey to think about PLCs, and have found it helpful in tracking the benefits of PLCs. The framework’s steps are:

  • Reactions – did participants find the PLC useful?
  • Learning – did participants gain new knowledge?
  • Organizational support and change – how did the host organization support staff in implementing new practices?
  • Behavior change – did participants effectively apply new knowledge?
  • Youth learning outcomes – what was the impact on youth?

Many existing evaluation tools can help address these questions, including session feedback forms, observations, and surveys of youth and staff.