Teacher Educators as Teacher Researchers: Relational Learning Communities in Professional Development

This article was originally published on the Division K Blog.

How can our work as teacher educators be sites of knowledge generation about teacher education?  Over the past decade the Center for Studies in Jewish Education and Culture at the University of Cincinnati has been asking this question as we plan, implement and evaluate the professional development opportunities that we offer to teachers across North America. One example of this kind of systematic reflection on practice is discussed in Dr. Miriam Raider-Roth’s recent book (2017), Professional Development in Relational Learning Communities; Teachers in Connection. This book is rooted in practitioner action research studies of three summer seminars in which teachers came together to study the teaching and learning of Jewish culture in their classrooms. Hailing from public, private, urban, rural PK-12 schools that were both secular as well as parochial, the teachers gathered for week-long seminars to deepen their content knowledge as well as pedagogical practices.  While Jewish culture was the focus, our hope was to create a model that could be applied to the study of many cultures.
Designing rigorous studies of our practice as teacher educators and of the participants’ perceptions of learning was a cornerstone of our work. This figure illustrates how our research informed each iteration of our work as well as the field of professional development. 

Fig. 1: Research Design Cycle
Picture(Raider-Roth, 2017 p. 9)

By creating an iterative study of these seminars, our aims were both to improve the quality of teaching and learning in the local context and also to “go public” with the work to inform the field and garner important feedback from peers in the field (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Having both the local and global purposes in mind, the research team sought to be responsive to Christine Sleeter’s call that “teacher educators themselves be active shapers of a shared and usable research agenda on teacher education” (p. 146).
One important outcome of this study was understanding the importance of relational awareness for both the teacher educators and participants. Through studying teachers’ reflections on their learning that occurred during and after the seminars, in addition to in-depth open-ended interviews conducted 3-6 months after the seminars, the researchers developed the notion of relational learning communities(RLC) and their place in supporting teachers’ learning of complex subject matter, like the study of culture.

Building on a rich history of research on professional learning communities and communities of practice (e.g. Allen, 2013, Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Little, 2006; Wenger, 1998), RLCs pay explicit attention “the the construction and nurturing of relationships between and among participants, facilitators, texts/content, and context” (Raider-Roth, 2017, p.2). RLCs are differentiated from other models in that RLC facilitators need to build and refine their relational awareness. In other words, they need to build the capacity to attend to the dynamics of relationships between all the partners in the learning process, detect when relationships fall apart of disconnect, and create opportunities for repairing those relationships. RLCs also teach participants the skills of relational awareness so that members of the community can take responsibility for one another’s learning. 

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