What Counts in the Development of Teachers' Learning Conversations?: a Case Study of a Group of New Zealand Educators Working Together to Improve Learning Outcomes for Students in Year 9 Classes
This research was undertaken in a New Zealand secondary school. Using case study methodology, it examines teachers' learning conversations as they work together in a group to improve outcomes for underachieving students in Year 9 classes. Participants include four teachers from different departments working collaboratively in a team teaching project, a member of the school's senior management team and an external facilitator. My role is as researcher, initially interviewing participants and observing meetings where they examine data and reflect on classroom practices. My analysis of research data finds that learning conversations are complex. Multiple interdependent factors are at play in teachers' professional discussions. Three interrelated threads - beliefs, relationships and structures - provide the framework for the analysis and are examined in detail. I use a weaving metaphor to explain their interaction and to describe the development and outcomes of the teachers' learning conversations. As the groups' work evolves and the threads are woven together, two aspects are recognised in the cloth. Firstly, contradictions arise and these reveal the two sidedness of the fabric of learning conversations. One side represents the ideal as described in current research literature, and expressed in the voices of educational leaders and in the hopes and dreams of participants in this study. The other side represents the reality of such conversations in practice. Secondly, the research describes an emerging learning community embarking on a new project. The fabric of its learning conversations is at times weak and fragile; threads tangle and fray, the texture is loose and lumpy. Previous structures have to be dismantled and old practices unravelled before new approaches can take hold. Developing learning conversations is found to be a complicated and complex process. Finally, consideration is given to implications for researchers, educators and policy makers if planning to implement and support learning conversations is to be effective. Challenges for researchers include: building knowledge of the secondary school context, particularly factors which support learning for disadvantaged and underachieving students at junior levels; continuing the investigation of the nature of teachers' work in the new professional learning environment that is developing in New Zealand and internationally - and supporting teacher research into that development; and further examination of the factors that contribute to contradictions in teachers learning conversations so that practitioners can be more aware of them and develop interventions that are more likely to realise the potential that learning conversations promise. Recommendations for educators and policymakers focus on strengthening the threads that build the framework of teachers' learning conversations: beliefs, relationships and structural and systemic factors so that professional learning conversations can be implemented effectively.