The Wallace Foundation’s Education Leadership Professional Learning Communities

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The Wallace Foundation’s Education Leadership Professional Learning Communities

The following takeaways draw on the common success elements of the six case studies and those discussed in the literature, focusing on the design of LCs, their implementation and their outcomes.

I. Design to Create Maximum Value

Participating in an LC can be a significant time commitment, so LC organizers want to maximize value for the participant, the group and the funder. We discuss here some common design elements to leverage the learning for the greatest impact.

Augment other learning models by attending to peer learning, collective learning and learning in action.

Notwithstanding the broad theoretical foundations established in the literature, in reality there are no clear-cut boundaries that delineate LCs from other forms of learning. The examples studied included models that were predominantly peer exchange, like CCI-NCH, EFLC and WFPLC; fellowship oriented like Eureka-Boston; or structured around training, like CMF-PALN. What we believe amplified these learning models was their attendance to key elements that are typically associated with LCs. We posit that LCs have the potential to amplify more conventional learning when they are designed and implemented with the following elements in mind:

  1. Peer learning: Peers learned both from each other and from outside experts.
  2. Collective form: The group setting added to the learning experience. Peers generated new learning by being together rather than merely exchanging learning they developed individually. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
  3. Learning in action: This was achieved when participants drew on their current or past experience, not just engaged in abstract or theoretical learning. Sometimes the action component was intensified through site visits to successful models or through action learning projects where groups of peers worked on a specific project with a deliverable that would also advance their own work. The underlying lesson was to "make it about real life."

Advance work participants are already doing and contribute to a collective vision.

Participants seemed to get the most value from LCs that advanced work they were already doing. For example, grantees worked on LC projects that concomitantly advanced their programs, and practitioners grappled with questions they were facing in their daily practice. At the same time, an LC on the whole was likely to generate most value when participants bought into a collective vision that was larger than their individual learning aims. For example, SOTFCOL participants transformed teaching pedagogies to be more fitting with 21st century learning demands, and Eureka-Boston fellows worked to strengthen the nonprofit field in Massachusetts. An LC can generate value both for the immediate work of its participants and, in the "big picture" sense, going beyond immediate work to address collective issues. Participants need both the immediate gratification of getting help with something pressing in their own work and the sense that they are tangibly contributing to something much bigger - a contribution they wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to make.

Balance commonality and diversity in the backgrounds and expertise of members.

Maintaining diversity in the perspective and expertise of members was a recommendation that consistently came up in all of the cases. It is relatively easy to establish commonality in an LC, which by definition is a group of peers tackling a common issue or question. Equally important is ensuring a level of thought diversity that creates interdependence in learning (because participants complement each other's expertise), makes collaboration possible (because each participant has something that the other does not) and helps to finesse how the learning is applied. LCs that risk becoming too inward focused can also benefit from the periodic infusion of an external perspective from other experts who can bring new information at key moments.

Engage senior leaders and groups of participants to help drive change at organizations.

Senior staff participated in all of the LCs studied, and the learning was amplified when the participating senior executive was joined by other members of his/her team. The logic here is that the participation of teams of participants, or top leaders, or both together, can create the critical mass needed to effect change at the organization, if that is the objective. Obviously when both leaders and staff participate together in an LC, they can really drive home the learning and introduce changes. However, for small organizations it means that several core team members may be away at the same time.

Only drive participant collaborations if it will help their work or is critical to the LC vision.

LCs are by default intense collaborative learning structures. Unless it is integral to participants' work or central to the LC's theory of change, including collaborative work in LCs comes with its own challenges and requires additional resources for facilitation. The cases studied had the common underlying assumption that peers share many of the same questions and challenges, so learning collaboratively could only help them deal with those challenges. In addition, some LCs, like WF-PLC, relied on structured collaboration among participants through action research group projects because the program's vision was to strengthen school leadership and to embed it as a policy conversation at the district and state levels. WF-PLC was prepared to offer hightouch facilitation for each action research project.

II. Implement with Evolution in Mind

Much of the literature discusses the emergent nature and fluid structure of LCs as desirable characteristics. This point is corroborated by the cases, which continued to adapt to the evolving learning needs of their participants without compromising their broad parameters related to vision. Below are some points related to continual adaptation as well as success factors related to implementation in general.

Demonstrate success or facilitate an early "win" early on.

Several LCs, namely SOTF-COL, Eureka-Boston and CCI-NCH, cited the importance of demonstrating success early on through a site visit. Especially when an LC is first starting it is difficult to visualize what would make it successful or what participants are expected to achieve if practice change is the objective. A site visit, therefore, helps to give participants a first-hand experience early on. In the cases studied, the site visits helped the group understand what success look like and seek to emulate it. Another way of demonstrating success is to enable the group to achieve a small early win together as a way of building momentum and trust, a strategy employed by WF-PLC.

Shifts between peer- and expert-driven learning can reinvigorate the LC.

While LCs are described in the literature as predominantly peer-led learning vehicles, injecting "expert" input can help reinvigorate an LC when learning seems to become stale. There were some notable shifts from expert- to peer-driven learning in SOTF-COL, and from peer- to expert-driven learning in CCI-NCH and WF-PLC. In SOTF-COL, program managers realized that as grantees were implementing their programs, they were utilizing new practices and becoming experts in their own experience. It made sense for expert input to be front-loaded to provide the tools and knowledge necessary for peers to engage in implementation. The opposite was the case in CCI-NCH. In CCI-NCH, the very specific types of expertise required on technical aspects of their grants meant that participants needed more expert input.

Engage facilitators who bring both process and content expertise.

In participants' view, a good facilitator acknowledged everyone's perspective, documented and synthesized learning, and helped move the group toward fulfilling their commitments, particularly in action learning projects. Good facilitators were also able to adapt in the moment to participants' pressing issues or learning needs. In most cases, facilitators were not only regarded as people who could help the group learn at its best, but also sources of learning. They helped inject content expertise at the right time and added overall value to participants' learning experience. In LCs where collaborations between participants was a desired outcome, facilitators played an important role in weaving the community and building trust in a way that could help collaboration to emerge organically.

Support different modes of engagement and craft individualized projects.

Participant ebb and flow is not only inevitable in an LC, it is also healthy. The literature stresses that an LC success is not equivalent with its own duration or its members' continued engagement. As learning evolves, some members may find less connection to the LC and it is natural to become less engaged or drop out. Most of the LCs studied offered a combination of mandatory, often large group convenings and optional interim activities. CCI-NCH practiced another form of flexibility, in which clinics had discretion to nominate any three members of their teams to attend the large group convenings. This strategy can prevent the overburdening of participants, yet has the potential to compromise community building because the frequency of interaction between members is reduced. Creating opportunities for participants to work on group projects that interest them most is a high-engagement strategy that can help sustain participant interest, if participants are interested in dedicating the time on such projects.

Community building is important but not always a priority.

While the literature discusses "community" as one of the main pillars of an LC, in the cases studied, community bonding and identity were not always perceived as priorities. For example, in CCI-NCH, the participants spent much time together over the years, which contributed to bonding, and yet it was more important to establish high visibility for the community clinic field than building the internal cohesion of the LC. In the cases where community building was of high importance, organizers relied on specific and intentional strategies. In Eureka-Boston, the theory of change was premised on a strong sense of community among fellows. One way the facilitator helped foster this was by asking fellows to bring in personal artifacts with which they could tell stories about their lives. An indirect way that a sense of community was established was through participants' belief that the LC served a larger purpose than individual learning. Each LC had a big mission, and grantees' sense of purpose intensified as they could see the kind of impact they were making.

LC sponsors can play various roles in addition to learning partner.

Grantees appreciated when LC funders positioned themselves as learning partners who were sharing the participant's struggle and grappling with the same challenges. However, other than participating as a learner, sponsors can play multiple valuable roles in an LC. For example, focusing on building meta-learning for the field or taking the learning into policy settings is an invaluable role, which does not require funder presence in all LC activities. This can be especially helpful in new LCs where trust is still building and grantees are wary of candid conversations with funder presence.

Sometimes participants need support for continued success "back home."

In some of the cases studied participants experienced negative consequences, either for introducing changes back in their organizations that others did not welcome, or for experiencing a personal transformation that made it difficult to continue in the same environment. Whereas all of the LCs encouraged risk-taking and innovation, before these incidents occurred, they did not quite anticipate how to deal with these issues. LC organizers and facilitators should anticipate the occurrence of such challenges and make themselves available to participants experiencing these issues. At the same time, part of the onus also falls on the participant to seek support and guidance from LC organizers, facilitators or peers.

Continual just-in-time feedback leads to iterative improvements and eventually "getting it right."

The six LCs were not static entities but communities of continual emergence and improvement. Over the years, and through various iterations, program organizers, especially in the fundergrantee LCs were able to respond to challenges just-in-time and provide adjustments accordingly. This took holding regular frequent meetings between organizers and facilitators and gathering continual anecdotal feedback from participants even before obtaining results from formal evaluations.

III. Recognize and Communicate Multiple Outcomes

Especially for the LCs designed in service of larger grantmaking programs, it is often challenging to tease out LC outcomes that are distinct from the program. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that success looks different for each LC and that positive outcomes will often be discovered as an LC goes on rather than confirming predefined indicators of success.

Success takes many forms, from building knowledge to changing practice to achieving scale.

All of the LCs studied were instrumental in building knowledge both for the community itself and the field more generally. For example, The Wallace Foundation built knowledge for the education field, in part by investing in research that challenged and validated the learning emerging from the LC. On another level, several LCs set out to change individual and/or organizational practice. For example, SOTF aimed to change pedagogical practices at Hawaii schools, and CMF-PALN's goal was to help individuals and organizations become more inclusive. The following approaches, discussed throughout this summary, contributed to changing practice:

  • Supporting a core group of participants from each organization
  • Providing supplemental support to help apply the learning
  • Facilitating continued success "back home"
  • Encouraging senior-level participation
  • Demonstrating examples of success
  • Immersing the learning in grounded, concrete examples
  • Investing in trust building and bonding between LC participants to facilitate candid sharing and learning
  • Sharing responsibility with participants for designing sessions and voicing their concerns on a regular basis

On yet another level, all of the LCs studied contributed to scaling effective practice. For example, in CCI-NCH a project originally focused on increasing health-related data collection about the Asian and Pacific Islander community and raising awareness about health disparities decided to create a community garden after being exposed to other grantees with gardening projects through the LC and seeing a critical need in their community. It helped that CCI provided small supplemental grants to enable grantees to adopt these practices. Similarly, when action learning groups came out with a pragmatic and useful product in WF-PLC, it catapulted the learning across the country. For example, one of the groups addressed the challenges facing principals that prevented them from devoting more time to instructional leadership by creating a new role called the School Administration Manager (SAM) to support the principal in making change. So far, this role has been introduced in 37 districts across nine states. Eureka-Boston offers another example of scaled practice in which fellows were able to develop an entirely new entity, the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, to address for the first time the collective needs of nonprofits in the state.

One research proposition in need of further testing is that LCs hold potential for changing and/or scaling practice because they are based on real experience, making change both more tangible and tenable.

Less measurable outcomes like community and trust often precede more tangible outcomes.

Often, creating the right environment of safety, trust and respect can invite and facilitate the LC's greater aims of changing or scaling practice or impacting the field. Participants interviewed regularly referred to "having more resources at their fingertips" and their peers' generosity in sharing connections and other resources. While the exchange of information and connections is not in itself an example of changed practice or joint action, it is indeed a precursor and indicator of collective action that should not be dismissed.

Capture and communicate what success looks like.

We have discussed the importance of gathering continual feedback and stories without waiting for the results of formal evaluations. Understanding an LC's impact requires being open to the multiple ways that LCs can achieve success. Some examples of outcomes include:

Visibility: LCs such as CCI-NCH and WF-PALN invested heavily in bringing the voices of their participants to the policy table and placing community clinics and school leadership, respectively, on the map. Others, such as Eureka-Boston, achieved enormous visibility for the role of the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts. The cases highlight the power of LCs to shed light on certain issues or heighten the influence of a certain set of actors, given the right resources.

Expanded peer/resource networks: LC participants reported the formation of lasting relationships with peers and the generous exchange of resources and information. The culture of sharing is often the product of investing in community building.

Collaborations: In Eureka-Boston, where collaboration was integral to the theory of change, several participant organizations joined forces on certain projects, and on another scale, fellows participated in founding the first Massachusetts nonprofit association. In other examples, such as SOTF-COL and EFLC, learning partnerships emerged between dyads or groups of participants, in which they visited each other to learn from their respective work and remained in touch as mutual resources. When collaborations emerged organically, it was partly because the learning environment was conducive to trust and mutual respect.

Transformational learning: Apart from, and sometimes as a precondition to changing individual or organizational practice, participants mentioned deep personal revelations and heightened awareness or understanding of an issue. CMF-PALN offered many examples of participants becoming more respectful in their communications with peers, more empathetic in their outlook and more understanding of the complexities of cultural competence.

Resilience: In several cases participants reported developing capacity for engaging in difficult conversations and dealing with difficult situations more generally. Eureka-Boston fellows have improved their "staying power" at organizations and developed mechanisms for dealing with burnout. Our hunch is that the peer support made available through LCs and their environment of innovation and experimentation help participants become more resilient in the face of challenges.

Enhanced capacity for learning: Apart from the knowledge the LCs generated, participants have also become more adept learners. SOTF-COL offers an excellent example of how participants can amplify learning by creating parallel learning spaces at their own schools and between schools. In our view, this is a significant and sustained contribution that ensures that benefits extend far beyond the LC itself.

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