Critical Reflections on Professional Learning Communities in Alberta


Joseph Tarnoczi
[email protected]


This paper critically examines some of the foundational assumptions embedded in the concept of professional learning communities and the implications of those assumptions. The examination is focused on the model of professional learning communities employed in Alberta public schools, and takes an integrated approach, drawing on research from the fields of labor studies, adult education, sociology, and organizational management. The paper concludes that professional learning communities tend to restrict teacher learning and support the status quo, it shifts responsibility for educational shortcomings to individual teachers, and it employ processes designed to make teachers more manageable.


In the last few years, elementary and secondary schools in Alberta have been racing to become professional learning communities. Advocates of professional learning communities trumpet this transformation as a collective initiative aimed at empowering teachers and increasing their autonomy. Even the words ‘professional’, ‘learning’, and ‘community’ leave the impression that participants are embarking on a path toward self-actualization and self-development. Indeed, the most striking feature of professional learning community literature, is how the authors assume that the transition to professional learning communities is unproblematically good for teachers and students. It is almost as if the words themselves have the capacity to short-circuit critical reflection and debate. Debate, when it does occur, is limited to an assessment of implementation strategies. For example, Thomas, writing in the Alberta Teachers’ Association newspaper, cautions teachers not to enter into agreements that lengthen the school day in order to find time to participate in professional learning community meetings. While Thomas offers a number of scheduling solutions that incorporate meeting time into the current school day, he never questions the purpose of those meetings. Thomas’ article is typical in that he limits his analysis of professional learning communities to an investigation of solutions to contentious implementation issues. As a result of these limits, the concepts that comprise professional learning community discourse seems to escape critical examination.

This paper does not address implementation issues, nor does it examine the impact that professional learning communities have on student learning. The intent of this paper is to interrogate and problematize professional learning communities discourse. This critical examination is based on the assumption that professional learning community practices and its associated discourse are a workplace construction, and like any social construction, it preferentially supports particular relationships and institutionalizes uses of power. The power relationships that professional learning communities give preference to are not always obvious. As Spencer notes, “Learning organizations can mask the reassertion of employer rights, part of the new forms of oppression and control in the workplace that should be acknowledged in workplace learning research” (33). This paper attempts to expose those forms of control. The paper opens with an overview of the development of professional learning communities in Alberta and then proceeds to examine four key concepts embedded in professional learning community discourse.

Professional Learning Communities in Alberta

In October 2003, Alberta’s Commission on Learning released a comprehensive vision for the future of primary and secondary education in Alberta entitled, Every Child Learns. Every Child Succeeds. The Commission developed a list of ninety-five recommendations to achieve its vision. Recommendation number thirteen of the report, “Require[s] every school to operate as a professional learning community dedicated to continuous improvement in students’ achievement” (8). In the spring of 2004 the Government of Alberta accepted this recommendation, thereby mandating every public school in the province to become a professional learning community. The provincial government is not the only supporter of the transition to professional learning communities. School administrators and the teachers’ association have also enthusiastically embraced the initiative. Waterhouse, an elementary school principal in Alberta claims, that professional learning communities “has been a beacon of clarity and has refreshed teachers’ feeling of purpose and efficacy in the midst of what has other wise been a desolate environment” (1). The Alberta Teachers’ Association commitment to the concept of professional learning communities can be measured by its development of a series of eight workshops geared toward assisting schools with the transformation (Alberta Teacher’s Association). This emphasis on professional learning communities and teacher collaboration is not just an Alberta phenomenon. Leonard and Leonard describe the pervasiveness of the concept in American education.

The conception of professional collaboration has become a common parlance of perceived effective schooling. In fact, for some, the infusion of teacher collaborative practices is considered to have had an immense and unprecedented impact in the field of education. (386).

So what exactly are educators pursuing when they endeavor to transform schools into professional learning communities? This question is not as straight forward as at first it might appear. DuFour, a leading developer of the notion of professional learning communities acknowledges the wide assortment of organizational structures that claim professional learning community status.

People use this term to describe every imaginable combination of individuals with an interest in education – a grade-level teaching team, a school committee, a high school department, an entire school district, a state department of education, a national professional organization, and so on. In fact the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning. (6).

In fact, it appears that professional learning communities are not intended to represent an organizational structure or an end product; instead the focus appears to be on the transition itself. Couture captures this emphasis on transformation when he describes a professional learning community as a “journey” which nears ” the destination and prepares for the next plateau” (5). By employing the metaphor of a ‘journey’ Couture and others seem to be suggesting that professional learning communities are comprised of series of teaching or labor processes. Yet descriptions of these processes are notably absent in professional learning community literature. In fact, the Alberta Teachers’ Association introduces its workshop series, on developing professional learning communities, by noting that “there is no set formula to becoming a professional learning community”. Given this ambiguity, one is left to conclude that professional learning communities are best described as an elastic set of organizational structures and practices.

While professional learning communities may be conceived in a variety of ways, most professional learning communities in Alberta employ DuFour and Eaker’s model. Townsend and Adams, who have used observations and experiences in Alberta schools to develop a rubric that measures the effectiveness of professional learning communities, claim that DuFour and Eaker’s book Professional Learning Communities at Work has “had a profound influence in Alberta” (Exploring 5). Skytt, a staff member of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, credits DuFour and Eaker, along with Burnette, for making the term professional learning communities “a commonly heard term in staffrooms across Alberta” (Empowering 1). In an untitiled article, the self proclaimed official magazine for the College of Alberta School Superintendents, The CASS Connection, states that professional learning communities in Alberta are “primarily fashioned after the DuFour /Eaker (1998) model. (31). Given DuFour and Eaker’s influence in Alberta, it seems only fitting to turn to them for a description of professional learning communities. In their book, Professional Learning Communities at Work, DuFour and Eaker list six characteristics of professional learning communities.

  • The development of shared understandings and common values – According to DuFour and Eaker, this is the first and most important characteristic of a professional learning community. They write, “What seperates a learning community from an ordinary school is its collective commitment to guiding principles that articulate what the people in the school believe and what they seek to create” (25).
  • Collective inquiry – DuFour and Eaker identify this as “the engine of improvement, growth, and renewal in a professional learning community” and members of these communities are expected to “have an acute sense of curiosity and openness to new possibilities” (25).
  • Collaborative teams that share a common purpose – DuFour and Eaker contend that these teams are, ” the basic structure of the professional learning community” (26).
  • Commitment to action and experimentation – According to DuFour and Eaker, “Not only do [members of professional learning communities] act; they are unwilling to tolerate inaction” (27).
  • Commitment to continuous improvement – DuFour and Eaker view this commitment as the “heart of a professional learning community” (28).
  • Willingness to be assessed on the basis of results (29).

DuFour and Eaker assert that by embracing these six characteristics, schools will become professional learning communities and improve student learning. Alberta’s Commission on Learning articulates the close connection between student learning and professional learning communities in the background notes to its recommendation.

In professional learning communities, teachers and school administrators continuously seek and share learning and then act on what they learn. The goal is high achievement and continuous improvement for all students no matter what their individual circumstances. The objective is to enhance their effectiveness as professionals and improve their students’ learning. (66)

Even with all the talk of enhancing student learning, Dufour and Eaker’s use of words like ‘commitment’ and ‘willingness’, in characterizing members of professional learning communities, indicate that these communities are very much about influencing change in teachers. All six of DuFour and Eaker’s characteristics require teachers to embrace a particular attitude or disposition. This emphasis on modifying individuals is a common theme in learning organization literature generally. As Elkjaer concludes, a learning organization, “does not start with changes in organizational work practices and structures” instead “it comes to rest more in personal adaptation and organizational socialization” (440).

DuFour and Eaker’s focus on changing teachers is not really much of a surprise, in a practical sense changing teacher behavior is one of the few ways that school administrators and politicians can influence the educational system. It does however beg the question, “What are the techniques that professional learning communities employ to shape teaching behavior?” Given the emphasis that supporters of professional learning communities place on the technical aspects of teaching, programming, and scheduling, it would be reasonable to assume that the primary control technologies are embedded in structures and procedures. On the other hand, the wide range of recommendations for practice hints at more subtle form of control that is fundamentally assumed in the methodologies themselves. In her reflections on the implementation of professional learning communities, Skytt concludes, “that the power in this new model is not the structural and procedural changes that can be implemented in the school but in the cultural and professional changes that teachers and administrators experience as they take back the education process” (Empowering 1). By focusing on notions of culture and professionalism, Skytt’s assessment suggests that professional learning communities exercise control of teachers by shaping the way teachers think about school and themselves.

The remainder of the paper will explore how professional learning communities construct teachers and learning, and examine the power implications of those constructs. The examination takes an integrated approach, drawing on research and theory from the fields of labor studies, adult education, sociology, and organizational management. This framework used to critically investigate three characteristics that DuFour and Eaker associate with successful professional learning communities: shared mission vision and values, continuous improvement, and collaborative learning. This is followed by an analysis of the supportive management style that DuFour and Eaker deem essential for the success of professional learning communities.

Shared Mission, Vision and Values

Those who support professional learning communities stress the importance of developing a common direction, a direction that reflects the interests of all stakeholders. Many writers in fact identify the construction of a common direction as the key component of a successful professional learning community. DuFour and Eaker list shared mission statements, shared vision statements, shared values and shared goals as the four pillars of a professional learning community. The emphasis is clearly on the word ‘shared’. The word ‘shared’ implies that all members of the community are encouraged to participate and all views are given voice. Yet these perceptions do not fit with the fact that schools operate under a legislated mandate and this mandate essentially determines the school’s mission. Even DuFour and Eaker suggest that the development of shared goals might be superfluous when they note that, “a cursory review of [mission] statements reveals that they sound much the same” (58). If these statements all sound the same, if they are not unique declarations of shared purpose, what are they and why emphasize their importance? It is not so much the content of the mission statement that is significant, instead the importance lies in the development process itself. The processes required to produce a common mission statement might be viewed as a shared ritual that builds teacher’s commitment to change. DuFour and Eaker’s support this suggestion, when they write, “The process that is used to develop a vision statement can foster the pervasive support and endorsement that make such a statement an effective instrument for change” (66). As if they are describing a ritual, they go on to say that participants, “should feel as though they have played an integral part in formulating” that vision (66). It appears the primary purpose of engaging teachers in the production of a common mission statement has less to do the contents of the statement than it does with the construction of feelings of equality and respect. The shared feelings of equality and respect that teachers are expected to feel after participating in the process operates as a vector linking the mission statement with personal affirmation. Proponents of professional learning communities, then use this connection to frame teacher commitment to a shared mission statement, as a positive support. Alberta’s Commission on Learning does exactly that when it lists “an increased commitment to the mission and goals of the school” as a “benefit” that teachers will enjoy under in a professional learning community. This section explores how the promotion of a common vision effects teachers, and demonstrates that, rather than giving voice to teacher’s interests, building unifying mission statements advance the views of educational authorities.

At first glance the previous paragraph appears to have revealed a paradox. On one hand, there is a mandated vision of education that represents the interests of educational authorities. On the other hand, these same authorities are employing a process designed to evoke a commitment to change. This dissonance is harmonized if teachers are viewed as the subject of change. In other words, the changes that educational authorities seek to produce are not educational innovations; rather they seek increased teacher commitment to an established vision, a vision of education conceived by these same educational authorities. So when they participate in developing mission statements and commit to these common belief statements, teachers are committing to changing their own behavior.

Waterhouse, an advocate for professional learning communities, describes how he sees the act of committing to a shared mission statement as a mechanism for shaping individual teacher behavior. He writes, “These commitments are now the guiding principles we use to ensure concordance between our espoused direction and our actions” (2). In a similar vein, Townsend and Adams contend that the most advanced professional learning communities are ones where members are “actively living out the spirit of the mission and vision” (Exploring 49). DuFour and Eaker underscore the element of immediacy when they emphatically state that, “when people clarify values, they must make commitments about what they are prepared to do now!” (emphasis in the original, 99). All three of these writers clearly intend that teachers judge their actions by the common mission statement. Yet, as previously noted, these mission statements are not independently developed educational initiatives; they are legislated mandates. In a sense, by advocating for a commitment to common mission statements, these writers are asking teachers to commit to carrying the present vision of schools into the future. As they participate in the construction of common vision statements, teachers are expected to take intellectual authority over the movement of the goals, but the goals themselves remain unexamined and intact. Supporters of professional learning communities thus encourage teachers to dedicate themselves to promoting the current vision of education at the expense of innovation and creativity. Fenwick suggests that the loss of innovation is not an uncommon product of learning communities when she writes, “Work place communities also tend to conserve, protect, and recycle their knowledge, not critically challenge and extend it” (Tides 7). While trumpeting offers of collective engagement and promises of reshaping education, the development of common beliefs appears to be little more than a manipulative technique to ensure that teachers commit their efforts to maintaining the educational status quo.

As they emphasize processes that encourage teachers to participate in the development of unifying elements such as a single all encompassing vision statement, writers supporting professional learning communities appear to unquestioningly accept the notion that schools can exist with a single shared understanding. Ortenblad notes that, by supposing that an organization can be defined with a single purpose, unique experiences of individuals in the organization are devalued and marginalized. Townsend and Adams appear to engage in that devaluation when they depict as “reactionary” both conflict related to principles that are “situational and relativized” and teacher learning when it is “individualistic” (Exploring 49, 53). DuFour and Eaker extend that devaluation further than just labeling, when they recommend that all “those who violate the vision and values must be confronted. In an ideal world, every member of the staff would be willing to challenge a colleague who was acting in a way contrary to collective commitments” (112). These remarks by DuFour and Eaker are surprising given that only a few pages earlier they outlined a process that, they claimed, was supposed to produce a shared vision to which every staff member could commit. The remarks are less surprising if one views the process of building a shared vision as a management technology to modify, what educational authorities consider, undesirable behavior.

In its approach to organizational change, professional learning community discourse espouses a technical view of organizations. Writers supporting professional learning communities treat organizational learning as a technical process that is able to produce measurable increases in performance through the isolation and manipulation of certain employee traits. Garrick and Rhodes offer this summary of the technical viewpoint, “this approach suggests that there is a ‘true nature’ of organizational problems and a right way of doing things which can be identified through the application of organizational learning processes” (25). They go on to describe organizational learning approaches endeavoring to ‘fix’ these problems “through the application of mechanistic, systemic or organic modeling practices, which are deemed to be universal and free from the influence of time and context” (20). As Bratton et al. note, “such an approach to understanding learning organizations as entities that can be manipulated tends to focus on learning as the processing of information, rather than a political process of social interaction” (84 – 85). Excluding the consideration of social interaction from learning, in effect excludes and devalues the social characteristics of the learners, their individual beliefs and values, culture, and prior knowledge. Bratton et al. implies that devaluing individual experience is a product of technical view of organizations when he writes, that “managerialist approaches to organizational learning as a technical process have been criticized for minimizing both the role and voice of the worker” (86). In assuming that technical processes govern professional learning communities, supporters of these communities may well be structurally marginalizing the voices of those teachers who do not conform, and thereby limiting opposition to established views. As a result, questions related to examining the social, political, and environmental implications of educational practices, are relegated to the shadows.

To the degree that professional learning communities literature recognizes that politics does exist, it treats it like a variable that can be controlled or even eradicated through open dialogue. For instance, Townsend and Adams contend that, in the most advanced professional learning communities: “leaders and members recognize that the resolution of conflict builds organizational strength” (Exploring 49). By linking resolution of conflicts with organizational strength, Townsend and Adams appear to equate ‘resolving’ alternate perspectives with incorporating them into established directions. In this sense, supporters present professional learning communities as a technology to assimilate alternate viewpoints. That assertion is supported by the failure of professional learning community advocates to recommending processes that take advantage of knowledge and experiences that sit outside the fixed prescriptive framework. By assuming that conflicting interests can and should resolved, professional learning communities discourse promotes the notion that there is a single unitary view of education. As it disregards a plural vision of education based on situation and experience, professional learning communities discourse makes power disparities and school politics invisible by simply ignoring them. Bratton et al. note this relationship when they write, “a unitary perspective of management leaning, oversimplifies management learning and excludes critical issues such as politics” (97). Fenwick asserts that by ignoring these politics we are ignoring the fact that “natural community structures and power imbalances” exclude some employees from participation (Tides 7). From this perspective, a common vision is achieved only by supposing that those who are excluded have no independent interests.

Generally, professional learning community discourse portrays conflicting beliefs as something to be avoided or resolved. Ortenbald claims that the literature on the learning organization implies that organizations and their controllers try to resolve potential conflict with the individual, through the discovery of a common interest in the mastery of the external environment (94). Ironically, there is good reason to believe that averting conflict actually inhibits individual learning. When considered from a social perspective, learning requires validation by participating actors, who assign meaning to the process through the exchange of information and rituals. It is from this perspective Karl Weick asserts that individual learning occurs when a single stimulus elicits a variety of responses from different people (Bratton et al. 87). This view of learning sees conflicting encounters as essential requirement of learning.

It may appear paradoxical that professional learning communities would espouse techniques that deter learning. Ortenbald speculates that encouraging individual learning may not be the primary purpose of a learning organization.

Although the individuals seem to be the learning units, it is in fact a shared mental map decided by the management that directs the attentions of the learners. …In fact, the managers control the learning processes. (91)

Ortenbald leaves the impression that learning organizations are little more than a platform to promote managerial control. Although his comments are directed to organizational learning in business, there is no reason to suppose that Ortenbald’s assertions are not applicable to educational learning communities, given their similar theoretical approaches. By focusing on unifying rituals and embracing assumptions that act to exclude knowledge and experiences that do not sit comfortably within a rigid prescriptive framework, professional learning communities are not well situated to advance individual teacher learning or take education in new directions. Rather, professional learning communities are far more likely to take on an assimilatory or cloning function that reinforces current educational views. In the way that it envisions individuals, conflict, and organizations, professional learning communities systemically normalize or standardize the teaching experience. Normalizing individual differences provides a means by which educational authorities can control the collective construction of meaning in the workplace.

Continuous Improvement

Professional learning community literature ubiquitously references the need for teachers to embrace constant change. DuFour and Eaker define the breadth of this expectation when they assert that professional learning communities require that “each member of the organization” is engaged in continuous improvement “forever” (28). In a pamphlet promoting the implementation of professional learning communities, the Alberta Teachers’ Association similarly declares that, “staff in a professional leaning community relentlessly question the status quo”. Haberman takes the notion of continuous improvement to a not uncommon extreme when he describes what it took for teachers to be successful in a professional learning community. He writes, “Teachers continually increased their workloads. No matter how high the output, they continually pressured themselves to create new programs, develop new courses, publish books and articles, and produce more research” (53). Although continuous ‘learning’, ‘improvement’ and ‘innovation’ are consistently represented as an integral aspect of the educational process, what is most striking is how professional learning community discourse has constituted the need for change as an unproblematic truth. The references to uninterrupted change are framed as something unquestioningly beneficial for teachers and students, even though the actual advantages are left unspecified. This section examines the power implications embedded in the concept of continuous learning as framed by professional learning community discourse.

As professional learning community discourse links educational success with perpetual innovation, it enforces the view that teachers cannot and should not feel grounded as educational experts. This connection encourages teachers to view the knowledge they have and their teaching practices as deficient and in need of improvement. The emphasis on the need for continuous change constructs teachers as being in a state of perpetual deficit. Yet, the nature of the deficit is something that is left to the teachers’ imagination. As a result, teachers are essentially expected to develop an anxiety inducing picture of themselves as a practitioner who needs to work harder to avoid being left behind. As it induces fear and uncertainty in teachers, this conception of teaching breeds self-doubt. In an article directed to business managers, Srikantia and Pasmore link this introduction of self-doubt to eliciting compliance from employees. They write, the “difficulty in establishing doubt represents a formidable barrier” that prevents employees from adopting a management perspective (44). They go on in their article to list ways of “enhancing” self-doubt. From this perspective, demands for continuous improvement can be viewed as a management technology to reduce resistance to administrative directives.

The role ascribed to continuous learning appears to be underpinned by the logic of human capital theory, which, according to Mojab and Gorman, ” assumes that the more you have learned (or the more capacity you have for learning), the more of an asset you will be for your organization” (235). For professional learning communities, the theory suggests that teacher knowledge is the principal productive force in contemporary education. It is through an implied reference to human capital theory that professional learning community discourse is able to connect success of the educational system to specific personal attributes of teachers. This link implies that it is individual teachers who are responsible for educational outcomes. While the concept of continuous learning implies individual responsibility, supporters of professional learning communities do not hesitate to explicitly assign responsibilities for improvement to individuals. For example, DuFour repeatedly stresses the expectation that teachers “individually and collectively” improve “classroom practice” (What 10). With statements like this, proponents of professional learning communities tie school success to individual teacher’s willingness to learn and embrace change. As a result, individual teachers are constructed as being primarily, perhaps solely, responsible for student success. Skytt says as much when she writes, “The development of professional learning communities presents an opportunity for educators to deal with external pressures, focusing inward on their school to address the needs of students and to experience the personal satisfaction that comes from being a professional in control of the important decisions about teaching and learning” (Empowering 2).

While the preceding paragraph highlights the professional learning communities discourse premise that individual teachers shoulder responsibility for educational outcomes, we may still be left wondering, what exactly are teachers responsible for? Supporters of professional learning communities would likely offer ‘student learning’ as an obvious answer. However questions such as, ‘How should student learning be defined?’ and ‘Who defines it?’ are simply not addressed. While professional learning community discourse claims to be a vehicle to improve student achievement, it also tends to limit how that achievement is conceived. In professional learning community discourse, student learning becomes equated with scores on specific paper and pencil tests. Demonstrating improvement in this narrow conception of student learning becomes the goal of continuous improvement. In Alberta, scores on provincially administered exams have come to characterize student learning. Couture, in quoting Alex, raises these concerns when he writes, “Despite the assurances from the Alberta government that provincial achievement test scores are only one measure of school success, it is telling that their own business plan on the Alberta Learning website continues to highlight these things again and again” (3). While the Alberta Government is quick to trumpet student scores on paper and pencil tests, the fact that Alberta has the highest high school dropout rate among all the provinces is evidence that this conception of student learning alienates a substantial portion of the student population (Schmidt). Yet it is this narrow measure of student achievement that becomes the definition of student learning and the object of improvement in a professional learning community. By invisibly incorporating their definition of student achievement into the framework of professional learning communities, educational authorities ensure that the definition is not contested. In addition, the authorities secure teachers as active advocates of their vision. In this regard, professional learning communities operates to privilege and promote the vision of educational authorities.

By directing teachers to be passionately preoccupied with a ‘focus on results’, professional learning communities operates as a technology to silence a broader educational debate. A debate that could give voice to alternative perspectives that ensure improvements in student achievement would not be treated as an end, but rather the means by which schools provide children with self-fulfilling activities and society with responsible citizens. However, the definition of student learning that is espoused by professional learning communities writers privilege processes and the domination of technical reason. As professional learning community discourse focuses on ideals of efficiency and technical performance, it legitimizes the processes it assumes. In this context, the technical focus, on improving this narrow range of educational measures, works to legitimize standardized testing, and as a result, success on standardized tests becomes the goal of education. As Garrick and Rhodes point out, “This process of legitimation can be seen then as a hoax used (possibly unknowingly) to support dominant views of the world where performativity, as a means towards a supposed social end, becomes the end in itself” (22). In these terms, professional learning communities’ obsession with results traps education in a cult of efficiency, which elevates technical rationality to a position of pre-eminence over other ways of thinking. Getting back to the question, “What exactly are teachers responsible for?” In professional learning communities, teachers are responsible to improve a narrow range of test scores. This focus both legitimizes the testing and stifles broader educational debates.

While professional learning community rhetoric holds individual teachers responsible to promote a vision of student achievement that is not their own, it fails to note that teachers are expected to accept that responsibility without the authority to develop alternative frameworks through which education might be delivered and measured. Specifically, teachers in Alberta,

  • Do not have the ability to alter what they are required to teach; they are legislated to teach mandated curricula.
  • Have very limited influence on the make up of the standardized provincial achievement and diploma examinations that are the primary measure of student learning.
  • Have no authority to alter structural components of the education system that might affect learning, such as number of hours of instruction, compulsory attendance, class size, or even whether or not a school closes.
  • Do not control broader economic and fiscal factors like the impacts of child poverty and educational funding.
  • Are limited, by professional development funding and opportunities, in their ability to upgrade their own skills.

The point is that there are clearly many factors that affect student learning that rest outside of teachers’ control. Professional learning community discourse generally ignores the impact of these external influences. DuFour and Eaker typically respond to concerns that outside factors limit the efficacy of teacher by refocus responsibility back on the individual teacher. The following excerpt provides a good example of that strategy.

There is a universal human tendency to point out what other must do to bring about desired change, but this tendency must be avoided… The focus outward, looking for the difficulty in others, is always counterproductive. Each group must look to the one group over which it has the greatest influence – itself. Rather than insisting that others should change, individuals must demand it of themselves. (97 – 98).

As they refocusing responsibility on individual teachers, writers like DuFour and Eaker subvert a discussion of broader educational issues.

Couture describes this misplaced assignment of responsibility in a broader context, when he notes, “Across North America, the accountability movement has led to the growth of highstakes testing and a cultural shift in schools that confuses student achievement with learning. … The irony of the outcomes movement is the relentless downloading of responsibility for results to local authorities while simultaneously depriving these authorities of the tools to do the job” (5). Unfortunately, professional learning community discourse diverts teacher attention away from debating these changes. Professional learning communities encourage teachers, students, and parents to accept the status quo and not to critically question decisions made by the provincial education ministry, local trustees, and central office administrators. By focusing responsibility on teachers, professional learning community rhetoric renders the educational governance framework invisible and therefore not contestable. This emphasis on personal responsibility, leaves the implementation of professional learning communities looking like a technique devised to secure the dominant influence of senior educational decision makers.

Collaborative Learning

Teacher collaboration is presented as playing a vital role in establishing a successful professional learning community. DuFour and Eaker highlight this when they write, “The link between collaborative processes to resolve key instructional questions and a commitment to results cannot be overstated” (152). According to Leonard and Leonard, advocates of professional learning communities, collaborative work is an “important key” to developing learning communities (384). DuFour equates this collaboration directly with teacher learning when he writes, educators “must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all” (9). Although professional learning community discourse is offered as solution to increase teacher knowledge, it promotes a narrow view of teacher learning. Generally, it tends to ignore tacit and informal work place learning and privileges oral exchanges in management structured settings. In other words, professional learning community discourse tends to dismiss any learning that is not sanctioned by educational management. While supporters of professional learning communities emphasize the link between teacher collaboration and learning, as Garrick and Rhodes note, these collaborative practices serve other purposes as well. They claim that organizational learning “legitimates its practices through an unquestioned belief that [group learning] will lead to other valuable social goals (a variant on the ‘trickle down’ effect). This legitimization creates totalizing views of organizational ‘realities’, values and priorities that can suppress and marginalize organizational and social activities” which are not consistent with authorities interests (20). This section explores how educational authorities use collaborative processes to promote their vision of education.

Proponents of professional learning communities present teacher collaboration as naturally associated with a desire to improve instruction. Claims that collaboration is natural does not necessarily mean that it is power neutral. Leonard and Leonard offer insight as to how the idea of collaborative participation can be used to exert influence by noting that, thinking of the workplace as a community helps create a culture where employees are morally bound to collective goals (384). While professional learning communities, like any social groupings, generate social pressure to induce compliance to collective goals, members of professional learning communities do not pursue their own collective interest. Instead these communities pursue the interests of educational managers. DuFour explicitly states this when he writes, “Teams must develop norms or protocols…linked with school district goals” (10). By linking their vision to group norms, educational authorities ensure that teachers in these collaborative groups will be talking of improved teaching performance and seeking personal changes that are consistent with the authorities’ vision. The group norms act to guarantee that the educational managers’ vision permeates almost every aspect of these collaborative meetings. As a result, teachers are more frequently exposed to the vision of educational management and hear that vision repeated from all the teachers with which they are collaborating. This constant exposure increases the likelihood that teachers will come to normalize the educational authority’s vision of education. Given that managers control the make up of the community, the topics of discussion, and times when communication occurs, managers not only shape the group norms and ethics, they dictate where and when these standards are applied. Thus, individual teachers experience group pressure to address issues framed by educational managers and to respond with solutions permitted by educational managers.

While constant exposure is one way of establishing an educational vision, it is not the only way. Townsend and Adams hint at how exclusion can be use to promote educational managers’ interests. They imply that a “sense of belonging” to a professional learning is expected to eliminate “competing claims to organizational memory” (Exploring 55). This suggests that those who contest the official history have no right to belong to the community. By controlling collaborative teams, educational managers, through the teachers themselves, are able to indirectly impose their view of education. In Burawoy’s words, employees unwittingly create a “coercive culture system” that promotes management’s interests (Bratton et al 58).

Collaborative processes are used for more than establishing and policing group norms; some collaborative processes, like the use of open or reflective dialogue appear to be employed to shape individual identities. Couture establishes the important role that open dialogue plays in professional learning communities when he writes, “real promise for school improvement lies in open dialogue between colleagues” (8). DuFour and Eaker suggest that reflective dialogue can be employed as a strategic collaborative process to shape the culture of a school. They describe what is expected to happen when teachers engage in reflective discussions.

When educators engage in this dialogue, they examine their school’s operation and their individual practices with a critical eye, looking for discrepancies between the values they have endorsed and the day-to-day working to the school. They articulate their assumptions, attempt to identify the origins of those assumptions and then explore them from new angles (134).

Based on DuFour and Eaker’s description, it appears that the central purpose of the reflective discussions is to encourage teachers to identify areas where their interests are ‘misaligned’ or where their thinking ‘needed improvement’. Townley asserts that this use of reflective dialogue is a calculative technology that aims to change or reconstitute individuals’ behavior to become more productive. Through open dialogue, teachers are expected to learn to share their inner most thoughts to discover and break down negative beliefs, which are restraining them from being more creative and productive. In this light, reflective dialogue appears to be very similar to a confession. As teachers listen to other teachers confess their shortcomings and share their personal values and assumptions, they learn to judge other teachers and the teaching profession itself according to the standards and values developed by the educational managers. In the process, they also come to judge themselves by these same standards.

These acts of judgement become a mirror through which employees see themselves, a reflection that implies that teachers should be passionate about the school’s mission, and that teachers should find fulfillment pursuing educational management’s view of teaching. During the reflective process, teachers are expected to spend time trying to identify these desires and to put them to words. If they are unable to produce these desires and share them, they are considered abnormal. Group dialogue based on critical self-reflection acts to draw attention to these desires and hold them in the teacher’s consciousness. As a result, teachers start imagining the ways that work could be fulfilling and then consciously start to seek fulfillment in work. Through this process, teachers create in themselves a desire to pursue the vision of teaching articulated by educational management. Desires are a fundamental element of human individuality, to a large extent we define ourselves by our desires. The desires that educational managers nurture become an integral part of how teachers see themselves and how they interact with students and other teachers. In short, these created desires come to shape individual teacher’s identity. In quoting Miller and Rose, Townley draws attention to the subtle nature of this form of control.

To the extent that authoritative norms, calculative technologies and forms of evaluation can be translates into values, decisions and judgements of citizens on their professional and personal capacities, they can function as part of the ‘self-steering’ mechanism of individuals. Hence, ‘free’ individuals and ‘private’ spaces can be ‘ruled’ without breaching their formal autonomy. (118)

It is difficult to argue with the conclusion of Bratton et al., that this critical self-reflection “not only reduces the autonomy of the individual worker to reflect the vision and agenda of those in control, but suggests that organizational learning is nothing more than an attempt to control the culture of the workplace” (98).

In addition to reconstructing the identity of teachers, these collaborative practices permit management access to the craft knowledge that has traditionally been a source of teacher’s power in the workplace. Professional learning communities operate under the assumption that educational authorities own individual teacher’s knowledge and skills. DuFour highlights that assumption when he writes, “Collaborative conversations call on team members to make public what has traditionally been private – goals, strategies, materials, pacing, questions, concerns and results” (10). The collaborative practices that are so much a part of professional learning community discourse encourages teachers to share and make explicit the mental work that they do. Through the use of open dialogue, teachers are encouraged to transform informal and tacit knowledge into language and concepts to be shared with fellow teachers and educational management. Casey asserts that these organizational practices, “includes the extraction and codification of workers’ personal capacities, tacit knowledge and affective creativity, It also includes strategic containment of worker knowledge” (625). Mojab and Gorman make a similar claim when they write, “the learning organization model expands the meaning of labor power by demanding access to the workers’ thoughts, experiences, and emotions” (235). As teachers’ mental work and emotional labor is put into words it becomes easier for management to appropriate and control the teaching process. Expropriating control of teaching processes enhances educational managers’ control over teachers and it reduces teachers’ independence. While there is a long history of employers appropriating physical labor processes that can be visually observed, professional learning communities provide a means to access to mental teaching processes. Contu, Grey and Ortenblad see this aspect of the learning organization as an attempt by management to advance the goal of scientific management, to supplant the control which informal and tacit work knowledge gives employees. They go on to argue that learning communities “by no means create knowledge so much as access it and seek to control it” (937).

Supportive School Administrators

Previous sections of this paper have attempted to expose how educational authorities are able to exercise power through building professional learning communities. In all these discussions, the school administrators, who are the immediate supervisors of teachers, are almost invisible. Yet supporters of professional learning communities assign principals an important role. Alberta’s Commission on Learning provides an example of the prominent role of the principal when it states, that key to the success of a professional learning community, is a “supportive leadership from principals who share authority, empower, and facilitate the work of the staff” (66). This section critically explores the role of school administrators as conceived in professional learning communities.

Professional Learning community discourse claims that a distinct style of educational management or leadership is required to promote a common vision, support continuous improvement, and empower collaborative teams. DuFour and Eaker label this management style ‘supportive leadership’, and flesh the concept out by contrasting it with the model of leadership that emerged from the 1970’s and 1980’s research on effective schools. They found this research characterized an effective principal as a “strong and forceful, assertive individual who was quick to take the initiative” (183). They go on to declare that “this autocratic approach is incongruent with the assumptions of a professional learning community” (184). DuFour and Eaker advocate for a less direct management style. In their words, “Rather than relying on regulations and procedures to screen every decision or to control others, [leaders of professional learning communities] rely on shared vision and values to give people the direction they need in order to act autonomously” (185). Although they suggest it, emancipitory autonomy for teachers is not what DuFour and Eaker have in mind. They place clear limits on teacher independence when they note that, “while [principals] must encourage individual and team autonomy, they must also provide their staff members with guiding principles – criteria teachers can use to assess their decisions and actions. …[Teachers] should be given clear guidelines and boundaries…” (187). In other words, principals should present themselves as supportive and compassionate as long as the teacher ‘wants’ to do what educational management expects. DuFour and Eaker’s model educational leader is one who covertly convinces teaching staff to manage themselves. For teachers to manage themselves appropriately, they must adopt desires and inclinations that will produce behaviors that are sanctioned by management. This shift to self-regulation demands a management style that moves from an emphasis on controlling behaviors to one of creating desires. In professional learning communities, principals are expected to guide teachers in developing a desire to pursue “the common vision”.

This emphasis on supportive management is evident in literature on organizational learning outside of education. As Bratton et al. note, in the learning organization “leadership agency is equated with adult learning facilitation principles, such as collaboration, reflection and self-directiveness” (53). Likewise, professional learning communities educational managers are no longer defined in terms of their technical knowledge or their delegated authority, instead they are conceived in manner that emphasizes influence based on trust, caring, and patience. Whereas the traditional educational manager’s authority is limited to workplace issues, the professional learning community leader is conceptualized has having influence over broad aspects of teacher’s life. The professional learning community principal is constructed as a steward or a guide who is charged with helping each individual teacher better understand themselves. These leaders are presented as pastoral professionals whose purpose is to connect teachers to the work place and reduce the alienation that they might be feeling. This leadership style makes demands of teachers as well. Supportive leaders require teachers who are willing and able to engage in open self-reflection and establish critical self-reflection as a norm. In promoting this ‘supportive leadership’ educational authorities create a pathway to invade teachers private lives. In accepting this leadership style, teachers are permitting themselves to be reconstructed according to management norms. That is not to suggest that in practice teachers passively accept this reconstruction. DuFour and Eaker show that they recognize reshaping teachers is a contested imposition when they label teachers who do not accept this form of management, as ‘resistors’, and urge educational leaders to “care enough to confront them” (193).

Townsend and Adams give a sense of the level of emotional commitment that educational managers are seeking in their description of the most advanced professional learning communities. For example, they declare that for teachers in advanced professional learning communities, “organizational learning is a source of motivation and pride” and that “the work of the organization gets done with enthusiasm” (Exploring 38 – 40). Along the same lines, Waterhouse highlights the ‘affirmation’ that teachers experience when participating in a professional learning community. He quotes one teacher who claims, that as a result of being part of professional learning community, “I know I am valued, valuable and validated, and that makes every school day a gift and not a grind” (4). Linking words like ‘pride’, ‘enthusiasm’, and ‘validation’ with workplace activities suggests that learning communities offer teachers a pathway to personal fulfillment. Even though educational managers may be portrayed as guiding teachers toward ever more penetrating personal insights, they are not disinterested facilitators. Under the guise of benevolent stewardship, educational managers are seeking to inspire teachers to transform increasing amounts of potential labor into labor useful to the organization.

By presenting professional learning communities as sites where individuals are able to expand their capacity to create results they truly desire, professional learning community discourse operates as a vector linking the concept of schools and teaching with the concept of personal development. As Solomon notes, through these references to personal growth, we come to “see the workplace as a perceived site of self-fulfillment” (45). Contu, Grey and Ortenblad argue that framing the workplace as space where individual needs are met is a deliberate management strategy (932). Traditionally, self fulfillment is associated with personal wishes, motivations, and feelings of love, pleasure, and fear. Professional learning community discourse abstracts these motives, affects, and desires and creates the notion of a rational self fulfillment associated with pursuing improved student achievement. As Fenwick puts it, “the resulting ethic of enterprise potentially co-opts and subverts workers’ deepest desires for self-fulfillment” (Tides 12). From this perspective, the construction of school administrators as supportive stewards appears to be a tool that educational authorities use to access a teacher’s personal belief structure in order to exercise new forms of control.


Professional learning communities discourse promises teachers the opportunity to control educational change and set new educational directions. Yet there is little evidence that the concept has the ability to live up to teachers’ expectations. Even as educational authorities leap to embrace professional learning communities, it remains a challenge to identify exactly what a professional learning community actually is. Advocates of professional learning communities speak of empowering teachers to create shared mission statements for schools, yet they ignore the constraints that teachers face. The talk of shared mission statements serves more to inhibit dissension and preserve the status quo, than it does produce innovative educational visions and practices. While professional learning communities present continuous learning as a goal, it employs practices that inhibit and limit learning. Practically, the pursuit of continuous learning functions primarily to assign increasing levels of responsibility to teachers. Although professional learning communities stress the creation of collaborative communities, the communities do little more than provide social pressure to normalize management’s intentions. All in all, professional learning communities appear to have a lot more to do with managing teachers and protecting the status quo than with inducing educational creativity. If professional learning community discourse is a management technology, it is a sinister one. As Bratton et al. conclude, “the discourse of workplace learning as a mechanism of control may represent an unprecedented level of penetration by the relations of ruling into the lifeworld of human communities…” (166). It is only through critical reflection on foundational assumptions that teachers will expose and mitigate the forms of oppression and control embedded in professional learning community discourse.


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