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Learning communities at Shrewsbury College - Electronic report

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Sandra Stansfield

on 10 November 2016

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Transcript of Learning communities at Shrewsbury College - Electronic report

Learning communities
Results from questionnaires
What do the staff say?
Next steps...
Embedded evaluation of impact
Cross college collaboration
Timetabled meetings
Peer observation
Generic and subject specific themes
Sharing best practice

Introduction/ background
Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Etienne Wenger, 2006

Practitioners take collective responsibility
for managing the knowledge they need

What are Learning Communities?
a journey of discovery...
Learning Communities at Shrewsbury College
Practice based development
tried and tested resources
discussed why it didn't work,
created a toolbox
new ideas and initiatives
developed my knowledge
developed theories
high expectations of learners
Student questionnaires - findings
Staff interviews - findings
‘Learning Communities have helped
our team consolidate
teaching strategies to give us
confidence to try
new things in sessions.’

'I feel empowered
as my experiences in the classroom can be adapted with help from the team.'
‘I feel from a personal point of view
that it has certainly helped me
with bringing new ideas and methods
to  my students. 

I also enjoy the feedback and
peer comments on evaluating each of the methods tried.' 

Criteria for success:

commitment to shared interest

engagement, support, collaboration

practice based development
Linda, Sarah and Kate from Business share their thoughts about the impact of Learning Communities
Marc and Mel, Hair and Therapies
discuss the effectiveness of scaling
Impact of strategies
The need to ...

establish a cohesive and flexible approach to further development of Learning Communities

continue to develop and train a team of learning coaches

ensure communication of a shared purpose and process

effectively manage Learning Communities as a key driver for further strategic development of teaching, learning and assessment

consider and provide the time required to change culture

incorporate effective approaches to continuous evaluation of impact

Results: Evaluation
Staff interviews findings
Commitment to shared interest
everyone has bought into the process
everyone brings things along to the meetings
team effort
came together as a team
non threatening
Moodle site for shared resources
Engagement, support, collaboration
boosted confidence
felt empowered
definitely led to my grade 1
discuss what we need to develop further
all able to bring things to the team
relaxed environment
to explore the impact of Learning Communities as a professional development strategy
to improve the quality of
teaching, learning and assessment
Completed by 90 students,
levels 1 to 4 in
Business, IT, Hair and Therapies
Five in depth, recorded staff interviews
and contributions from an additional
15 staff through discussion forums
Jane Martin
Sandra Stansfield
feedback from students

helped students to see where they could improve, set their own targets within time frame and achieve them
• I like seeing before and after so I can see if I have reached my target
• It allows you to see how confident you feel in a certain area
• Good way to track your progress and build your confidence
• We use scaling to assess our learning and it really helps

feedback from students
Peer assessing
was noted as a useful learning tool:
• You can get a fresh perspective of your work and new methods on getting answers
• Extremely helpful feedback from this strategy
• It's good to see how others evaluate and now I can improve myself
• My peers have been very good in assessing my work whereby they have given both positive and negative feedback but with constructive feedback for improvements that can be made
• Useful discussing findings to identify areas that you might not have considered
• Gives immediate feedback and is a positive tool

Reflection and evaluation
helped identify strengths and specific areas to to improve, as well as being seen as a revision tool by some students
• It helps as you can get more than one person's feedback
• We are encouraged to look at what we have done and could do which I find extremely helpful in deciding the best treatment for the client
• I found looking at my work helps me visualise my future, how far I have come and how far I have to go
• Good to reflect and evaluate so that I can improve on the next treatment. Also shows how much you have learnt/developed.
• Evaluating my written answers is helpful to realise what key phrases are missing
Some groups also used a
SWOT analysis
to prompt reflection and targets setting:
• I can see what I need to improve
• Makes it easier to write more about yourself and improve progress

In some classes students found
setting their own objectives
• Responsible for my own work
• I can set my own pace of learning
• Makes you more comfortable with how to tackle assessments
• Helps me see what I have to do and I feel a sense of achievement once completed
• I found this useful as I understood exactly what I was doing in the lesson
• Setting my own objectives helps me work much better

In terms of
English and maths
in sessions, students noted
• Helps with measurements and ratios (hairdressing)
• Helps me to be more professional
• There's a lot of maths in IT and it's an important skill in everyday life
• We use English in our assignments everyday
• Helps you to apply them in the real world
• I struggle with maths and English so it helps me understand them more
• This is a really good way to learn in a real life situation

overall comments
• I get so much more help here and won't complete tasks without full understanding. Teachers care and understand where I need help and push me to pass
• Not spoon fed this year. Worked for ourselves
• This course has taken me out of my comfort zone, and pushed me - which has helped with my confidence
• Variation in the teaching methods makes the lesson more interesting

In 1990 the concept of learning organisations was framed in Peter Senge’s book

The Fifth Discipline’. During the following year or so, there was a growing awareness of the potential impact of this concept on organisational capacity and creativity within the educational sphere. Senge (cited by Hord, 1997: 19) identified the inspirational dimension of learning organisations ‘where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together’. As this model was explored more widely by educators, the idea of learning communities emerged.

Etienne Wenger defines Communities of Practice as ‘groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’, and proposes that there are three crucial characteristics: domain, community and practice. There is a sense in which identity is defined by a mutual domain of interest, together with a shared commitment and competence. The sense of community is realised through regular interaction, joint action and discussion, and the third characteristic sustained through active practitioner engagement to develop a shared repertoire of resources to develop their practice. Wenger et al (2002: 41)argue that one of the key purposes of these elements is to guide the development of communities by highlighting the different areas which require effort ‘in order to foster a well-rounded community’.

The sense of communities in action was pivotal to this initiative; Wenger and Snyder (2000) identify several ways in which communities add value to organisations, including helping to drive strategy; solving problems quickly; transfer of best practices, and development of professional skills. These were pivotal to the creation of Learning Communities and have been observed during the period of this study.

However, there were significant challenges to sustained and cohesive development of Learning Communities across the College. These included ensuring clarity of communication regarding the nature and purpose of the initiative to staff; absorption by staff in ongoing organisational issues; focus on external inspection; uncertainty regarding the validity of Learning Communities as an approach to professional development, and practical issues such as identifying mutually convenient times to meet on a regular basis. In spite of these apparent hurdles, several curriculum teams embraced the initiative in an open-minded and enthusiastic manner. Very quickly these teams engaged with new approaches to assessment, for and as learning, and effective embedding of English and maths. This was rewarding as was the development of other teams who demonstrated real growth as a community, albeit more slowly.

‘How do you design for aliveness?’ (Wenger et al 2002: 50). This question resonates with our current situation, and provides a focus for future growth. Without doubt, the impact of Learning Communities has been significant and this is endorsed by the results of the research. Wenger et al (2002: 50-51) assert that ‘good community design can invite, even evoke, aliveness’ and that the ‘goal of community design is to bring out the community’s own internal direction, character and energy’. This research project has supported a proposed evaluation of impact on staff and students of the introduction of Learning Communities. It has been a valuable learning experience but, furthermore, it could be argued that it has also stimulated the growth of the college as a learning organisation.

Realisation of ‘aliveness’ is based on seven principles: design for evolution; open dialogue between inside and outside perspectives; different levels of participation; public and private community spaces; focus on value; combination of familiarity and excitement, and the creation of a rhythm for the communities (Wenger et al, 2002). These principles will guide approaches to further growth and development of practitioners, communities and, ultimately, the quality of teaching, learning and assessment.
Learning communities
Method: Rationale for research methods
Denscombe (2002) argues that one of the ground rules for good research is that it should relate to existing knowledge and needs. The proposed action research project to determine the effectiveness of learning communities in terms of enhancing approaches to CPD and improving the quality of teaching, learning and assessment meets this criteria. Assessment and evaluation of impact was critical to the future development of communities.

One of the purposes behind the choice and design of research instruments used in this research was to achieve equilibrium between quantitative and qualitative research. The aim was to establish a creative balance which would accommodate the “insider perspective”, encourage the “exploratory, expansionist, descriptive, inductive” and produce “valid: real, rich, deep data” but would also respond to the demands of credibility by adopting an objective, factual and reliable perspective (Blaxter et al. 2006, p. 65).
Previous research conducted through questionnaire and semi-structured interview yielded a wealth of interesting, relevant and useful data. This experience proved beneficial when considering research methods pertinent to this study. In particular, it seemed that these methods would provide a variety of types of data and would allow for further investigation of particular points of interest.

The questionnaire was devised to reflect a variety of types of question (Dawson, 2006), in order to maintain interest and to gather qualitative and quantitative data. However, the analysis of such responses can be a time-consuming process, and some respondents may be deterred by the commitment required to provide meaningful answers. Questionnaires were distributed to 90 students in two different curriculum areas within the college; these were chosen as they provided the opportunity to elicit the views of students on a range of courses from Level 1 to 4, both part and full time, and from students aged 16 upwards.

The decision to use semi-structured interviews to achieve triangulation of research methods was justified by the need to explore more fully “the nature of emotions, experiences and feelings” (Denscombe, 2003, p. 165), associated with, for example, collaborative work with colleagues and its subsequent effect on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment. Semi-structured interviews involve asking the same questions in each interview but offer a flexibility to explore other issues if they arise. Interviews were held with five members of staff across two curriculum areas.

There were two key focus areas for the study: enhanced approaches to CPD and improved teaching, learning and assessment. In the Ofsted inspection report (2011) the quality of teaching and learning was judged to be variable. As a result, staff surveys were conducted to determine views on effective approaches to CPD to address this issue. Approaches included:
Twilight training
Annual Conference
Coaching 121 and in teams
Sharing fairs
Formative observation strategy

The new observation of teaching and learning (OTL) strategy, introduced in December 2012, which combined coaching/formative strategies with graded, summative observations, provided the opportunity to analyse areas for development with greater accuracy and support staff in exploring and experimenting with practical and constructive strategies to improving practice. Petty (2009) cites a range of teaching, learning and assessment strategies with high effect sizes that were adopted by members of staff with encouraging results.

However, a fresh approach to CPD remained a key priority. The concept of Learning Communities, or Communities of Practice, emerged as an initiative which provided a platform for collaborative, practitioner-based professional development. This built on the experience of team coaching, piloted with several teams in the previous academic year.

Collaboration with an HMI in a consultative role endorsed the approach. Guidance was given on adopting a focused approach across the College which included assessment for and as learning strategies, tools and resources, and later an emphasis on effective embedding of English and maths.

Further support for this approach is widespread; Lassonde and Israel (2010: 6) note that traditional approaches to professional development, for example, one day training workshops, have very little effect on changing the way teachers teach. They argue that "Potential effects are frequently weakened by lack of follow up and inconsistencies in implementation". Programmes offering coaching and frequent feedback are more effective. They cite a plethora of research which substantiates collaborative group learning as the most powerful kind of professional development and is the most important factor in realising change.

Shrewsbury College gained grade 2 in the Ofsted inspection June 2014, an improvement on the previous inspection in October 2011. Comments in the report which support the development and impact of learning communities and the focus on assessment for and as learning and effective embedding of english and maths include:

'The recently established ‘learning communities’, which consist of small groups of teachers working together with a learning coach to develop teaching and learning strategies, have contributed to developing the craft of teaching.'

'The successful formative and summative internal lesson observation process is designed to bring about uniformity and dissemination of good practice. Advanced learning coaches support teachers well, and the recent introduction of learning communities has provided teachers with a supportive forum to further improve the variety and quality of their work.'

'The development of students’ English and mathematics skills is good. Teachers skilfully weave functional skills into their lessons.'
(62% students strongly agreed/agreed English and Maths in sessions helped their employability skills)

'Teachers provide helpful and constructive feedback on students’ written work. As a consequence, students know how to improve the quality of their work and what they have to do to achieve high grades.'

Hair and Therapies inspected as a subject area and the report noted:

'Teaching, learning and assessment are good, and this is reflected in the consistently high success rates in both subject areas. A number of aspects of the provision are outstanding.'

'In the best lessons, students set the pace of their own learning and devise their own incremental development targets. They benefit from good peer assessment and critiques which help them to plan their forthcoming work.'
(Students strongly agreed/agreed that scaling (63.5%), reflecting (90.9%) and evaluating (88.8%) helped them set their own targets to improve)

'Assessment is rigorous and fair. The feedback received by students for their written work on beauty and complementary therapy courses is constructive and developmental. Teachers are assiduous in correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation errors.'

'Teachers integrate the teaching of mathematics and English well with hairdressing and beauty therapy lessons. They are particularly good at prompting students to solve short mathematical problems at the start of lessons, for example, by asking them to calculate the cost of particular treatments. Students often receive fractional marks for their assessed work which teachers then encourage them to add up to calculate an overall mark. Teachers encourage students to use dictionaries in most lessons to confirm the spelling and explanation of complex words.'

Shrewsbury College Ofsted Report, 2014
Review of the research process highlighted the following points:

To ensure validity of data, the same questionnaire was completed by students in all areas and at a range of levels. However, this meant that some of the questions were less relevant than others to some groups. For example, questions around impact on punctuality and attendance received negative responses from adult groups in accountancy and in beauty therapies ; whilst they valued the teaching, learning and assessment (TLA) strategies, they had not impacted on existing levels of attendance and punctuality which were already high
The wide range of assessment and embedding strategies and individual practitioner intepretation meant that staff involvement during the questionnaire phase was vital in terms of interpreting the questions for their students
Although the total sample size was 90 students, not all questions were relevant to all groups; it was, therefore, important to take this into consideration during the analysis phase
The final question based on scaling a comparative approach to prior and current learning proved inconclusive. Students interpreted the question differently; some answered the question based on in-year experience of teaching whilst others referred to previous learning experiences on other courses and at school
The final question invited students to suggest improvements and was intended to provide teachers with feedback to further improve use of relevant strategies. However, a number of students interpreted this more broadly and made comments about general College issues
The value of piloting questionnaires is acknowledged and it was intended to amend the questionnaire following a pilot stage. However, exisiting time pressures were exacerbated by two Ofsted inspections within a month of each other; this meant that there was insufficient time to carry out extensive revision

Blaxter, L., Hughes, C., and Tight, M. (2006), How to Research. Third edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Dawson, C. (2006), A Practical Guide to Research Methods. Second edition. Oxford: How To Books Ltd.
Denscombe, M. (2002), Ground Rules for Good Research. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Hord, S. (1997) ‘Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement’ Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
Lassonde, C. A. and Israel, S. E. (2010)
Teacher Collaboration for Professional Learning.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Petty, G. (2009)
Evidence Based Teaching.
2nd ed. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.
Wenger, E. C., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W. M. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Wenger, E. C. and Snyder, W. M. (2000) ‘Communities of Practice: The Organisational Frontier’ Harvard Business Review. January-February 2000 pp. 139-145.
Business was also inspected. Ofsted comments include:

'The quality of teaching, learning and assessment is good across all business courses, including business management, administration, accounting.'

'A strong focus on improving the standards of teaching and learning has had a positive effect on students’ experiences in the classroom and on their outcomes.'

'They make good use of peer learning and assessment to share ideas.'
(62% of students strongly agreed/agreed that peer assessment helped them improve their work)

'Students produce good standards of work and enjoy their lessons. They value highly the activities teachers plan for them. In an outstanding lesson observed during the inspection, students particularly enjoyed the team relay activity. The teacher challenged students to remember as many terms and definitions from a previous topic and then asked the students to explain them to their peers in a meaningful context.'

'Teachers take great care to provide students with constructive individual feedback on their written assignments so that they know how they can improve their grades in future. Students also receive regular encouraging feedback on their performance in lessons, which motivates them to work hard and participate fully. They value the increased levels of confidence and the feeling of being well prepared; a result of completing practice examination papers. Teachers encourage students to assess each other’s work to encourage independent learning skills. Whilst teachers routinely identify spelling and grammar mistakes in assignments, they do not always provide sufficient guidance on the correct words and phrases to use.'

'Students develop good English and mathematics skills in lessons through activities such as proofreading and the regular checking of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Teachers encourage students to use an online thesaurus during tutorials to extend their vocabulary and improve their writing skills.'
Shrewsbury College Ofsted Report, 2014

The College self-assessed the observation grade profile as having improved to 80% good or better. During inspection week, this was endorsed by 83% of sessions graded by inspectors as good or better

Ofsted conclusions support staff perceptions about the importance of learning communities as an approach to CPD and their impact on practice noted earlier in staff feedback comments and video extracts.
Results: Evaluation
Student questionnaire

Completed by 90 students,
levels 1 to 4 in
Business, IT, Hair and Therapies
(click each page
to read text)
Full transcript