Communities of Practice

Several teacher development projects I have worked on recently have adopted a communities of practice (CoP) model. In the context of education, this places great emphasis on creating a network of teachers who learn together and from another, over time, with a common focus on improving their competence as practitioners. The British Council uses the term ‘Teacher Activity Groups’ (TAGs) to describe groups of teachers who engage in this form of collaborative professional development. One recent example of a TAG project is ‘English for the Community’, which was delivered in Romania by the British Council in partnership with the Romanian-American Foundation.

Over two years, some 150 primary and secondary teachers of English formed nine TAGs that met monthly. Each TAG was supported by two facilitators. Participation was voluntary and during their meetings the teachers engaged in various kinds of activities, such as sharing experiences from their classrooms, reading and discussing texts about aspects of language teaching and watching and reflecting on videos of teachers conducting classroom activities. At the end of each meeting teachers also did some action planning, thinking ahead to what new ideas they could try out in their own classrooms. In between the monthly meetings the teachers and facilitators kept in touch through WhatsApp and Facebook groups.

The evaluation of the project indicated that it was effectively delivered, highly appreciated by participants, and, above all, transformative in its effect on teachers’ understandings, confidence, attitudes and classroom practices. One aspect of TAGs that teachers consistently valued was the manner in which they reduced the feelings of isolation that teachers often experience. As one of the facilitators put it

“The TAGs were informal meetings, we all had the opportunity to talk, to share our ideas, just to share experiences and I think it was very important for us as teachers to see that other teachers struggle with the same issues that we do, we are not alone”.

The sense of belonging provided by TAGs also had positive consequences for how participants felt as teachers. One teacher explained that

“Another change was the boost in my confidence and motivation. I realized that I wasn’t alone in my struggles with the difficulties every teacher has to go through”.

Increased confidence and motivation also meant that teachers were more willing to innovate in their classrooms – in the words of another teacher, “I became not so afraid of trying out new things”.

Effective CoPs can bring about a transformation in teacher identity; in this project, teachers who initially saw themselves as isolated, uncertain, unable to effect change and often helpless in the face of pedagogical challenges developed new identities as valued members of supportive groups and who were willing and confident in their ability to make their lessons more enjoyable, motivating, interactive and productive for their learners.

Several factors (such as its extended nature, competent facilitators, teachers’ motivation to develop and practical and relevant content) contributed to the effectiveness of this project and these are pertinent to the design and implementation of teacher development initiatives more generally. Of utmost importance too was the positive, open, supportive and non-judgemental professional learning environment that TAGs created. The relatively modest scale and voluntary nature of this project may have also contributed to its success; CoPs through TAGs, though, are also being applied on a much larger scale elsewhere, for example in India and Egypt and there is evidence from such contexts too that teachers see much value in being part of sustained professional development networks.  

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4 Responses to Communities of Practice

  1. Salim Al-Khayari says:

    Very interesting. The results were almost the same that I reached in my study (I used the term “Teacher Development Group”) in 2012. In general, research shows that this kind of professional groups is one of the most successful professional development channel.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you Salim for your commment. In what context did you do your research? How were the CoPs organised? I’d like to know more.

  2. Ana García Stone says:

    I’m very pleased to see that CoPs are being used more frequently as a form of CPD for teachers. I have been running CoPs for over 4 years now in BC in Madrid and I wrote a training session for facilitators, which I have given in other BC teaching centres in Spain. I think the key points for a CoP are that it is a peer group, who are all both teachers and learners, best practice is not advocated but rather emerges from group discussion and learning, and they meet in a safe space as confidentiality is essential for teachers to open up about their practice.

    We have run CoPs on a variety of topics, all of them suggested by teachers and these have included: assessment, learner autonomy, using stories, vocabulary at C1/C2 levels, motivation, experience vs. expertise (for more experienced teachers). Between sessions teachers experimented with an agreed area and reported back on their experience in the following meeting.

    All the observations you report hold true for us here in Spain although at times it is difficult to quantify or demonstrate what exactly the teachers have learned. However, I think that participation and reflection on classroom practice are valuable in themselves.

    I was going to speak at IATEFL this year about our experiences in Spain with rolling out CoPs at national level and fingers crossed we can do so this year at Harrogate!

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks so much Ana for commenting. Your experience provides further evidence of the ways in which CoPs can support teacher professional development. Your point about quantifying the benefits is important; with smaller and less formal CoPs explicitly documenting the benefits may be less necessary but when they are applied at scale and more formally (for example, by a Ministry of Education) then it does become important to demonstrate how exactly teachers (and hopefully learners) are benefiting.

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