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Ask A REL Response

January 2020


What research has been conducted on PLC use during in-service (science) teaching?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on PLC use during in-service (science) teaching. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed PLC use during in-service (science) teaching. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. These references are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist."

Research References

  1. Cheah, Y. H., Chai, C. S., & Toh, Y. (2019). Traversing the context of professional learning communities: Development and implementation of technological pedagogical content knowledge of a primary science teacher. Research in Science & Technological Education, 37(2), 147-167.
    From the abstract: "Background: Professional learning communities are increasingly recognized for their significance in building teachers' competencies for educational reform. However, the knowledge development cycle of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK) through multiple professional learning communities is not well researched. Purpose: This qualitative case study investigates a primary science teacher's TPACK development in the context of two interdependent learning spaces: a joint-school and a within-school professional learning community. The school's organizational and sociocultural influences on teacher learning are also examined. Participant: Teacher Sean (pseudonym) embarked on a science innovation project after two years of teaching in a Singapore mainstream school. He was tasked to integrate mobile-based inquiry learning and visible thinking pedagogical approaches, and to pilot the designed lessons for a primary three class. Design and methods: A case-study approach involving multiple sources of data with cultural historical activity theory as the analytical lens was employed, to unpack the complementary and contradictory interactions across different interrelated activity systems. The purpose was to understand the (mis)alignments within and between the two professional learning communities. Results: The findings indicate that Sean's ("subject") learning from the joint-school professional learning community to the within-school professional learning community faced multiple tensions that hindered his TPACK development ("object"). He faced difficulty in manipulating tools (technology and visible thinking routines) to translate the joint-school co-designed lessons into classroom implementation. Additionally, the volatility of the school's organizational routines ("rules") and the lack of communicative leader-teacher partnership ("division of labor") did not afford sufficient infrastructure or instructional support. Conclusions: Interactions between the teacher's personal and contextual factors inhibited the designed TPACK from being implemented successfully. For ambitious pedagogical undertakings as illustrated in this case, more perceptive and synergistic organizational design thinking is needed to support beginning teachers' TPACK development."
  2. Dogan, S., Pringle, R., Mesa, J. (2016). The impacts of professional learning communities on science teachers' knowledge, practice and student learning: A review. Professional Development in Education, 42(4). 569-588.
    From the abstract: "The purpose of this article is to provide a review of empirical studies investigating the impact of professional learning communities (PLCs) on science teachers' practices and knowledge. Across 14 articles that satisfied the definition we embraced, most were devoted to the change in science teaching practices, disciplinary content knowledge (DCK) and pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) of K-12 science teachers. Although a small number of studies have implicit focus on comparing measures of student learning, we set out to examine the studies in science education and present how teachers engaged in PLCs focusing on examining and exploring strategies to promote student learning. Analysis of the related studies resulted in the following: PLCs can help teachers increase their PCK and DCK; increases in PCK and DCK may facilitate the change in teacher practices from traditional into more inquiry-based approaches; science teachers collaboratively focusing on student learning in PLCs are more likely to change their practice; and studies do not embrace student learning as an essential feature of PLCs. Methodological flaws and future directions along with implications for science teachers' professional development are discussed."
  3. Lewis, E., Baker, D., Watts, N. B., & Lang, M. (2014). A professional learning community activity for science teachers: How to incorporate discourse-rich instructional strategies into science lessons. Science Educator, 23(1), 27-35.
    From the abstract: "In this article we describe current educational research underlying a comprehensive model for building a scientific classroom discourse community. We offer a professional development activity for a school-based professional learning community, providing specific science instructional strategies within this interactive teaching model. This design activity provides a quick and practical means of transforming science lessons to be more engaging for students. Through this activity teachers can redesign any science lesson by focusing on each of the five core components of a scientific classroom discourse community: (a) scientific inquiry, (b) oral discourse, (c) written discourse, (d) academic language development, and (e) learning principles. By using this structure teachers will be better able to meet the "Next Generation Science Standards" and facilitate greater interdisciplinary learning. An example of a redesigned water cycle lesson is provided."
  4. McGee, S. (2016). The relative influence of formal learning opportunities versus indicators of professional community on changes in science teaching in urban schools. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research, 12, 150-162.
    From the abstract: "Previous research has shown that professional communities have the potential to be a powerful lever for continuous improvement in school settings. This research seeks to extend previous research by investigating the indicators of professional community that influence science teaching practice. This study took place in a network of urban neighborhood high schools, where low student achievement and high teacher turnover present barriers to professional community. Science teachers were surveyed on the extent to which they participated in a variety of formal learning opportunities and engaged in collaborative practices that are indicative of professional community over the course of a school year. The teachers also indicated the extent to which they changed their teaching practices during the same time frame. The results indicate that teachers engaged in a variety of collaborative activities such as advice seeking and collaborative discussions about curricula and student work. These conversations were associated with changes in teaching practice."
  5. Mesa, J. C., & Pringle, R. M. (2019). Change from within: Middle school science teachers leading professional learning communities. Middle School Journal, 50(5), 5-14.
    From the abstract: "Contemporary professional development efforts have shifted away from a deficit model toward the acknowledgment of the agency and ability of teachers to evaluate and direct their own professional learning. This article describes how middle school science teachers can take charge of their own learning by initiating and participating in science-focused professional learning communities (PLCs). Teachers in PLCs can observe and reflect on their students' work, test ways to improve their students' learning and evaluate their efforts based on student results. The collaboration among middle school science teachers in PLCs can allow them to solve issues of practice and increase student learning as well as enhance their own knowledge of science and science teaching relevant to new national standards, the Next Generation Science Standards. This article provides specific guidance for middle school science teachers interested in initiating PLCs, and a protocol to guide the discussion of student work in PLC meetings."
  6. Sgouros, G., & Stavrou, D. (2019). Teachers' professional development in nanoscience and nanotechnology in the context of a community of learners. International Journal of Science Education, 41(15), 2070-2093.
    From the abstract: "This case study focuses on teachers' professional development in NanoScience and nanoTechnology (NST). In the context of a Community of Learners (CoL), in-service teachers in collaboration with science education researchers, nanoscience researchers and experts from science museums, developed a teaching module. This module integrates NST topics along with aspects of science communication, i.e. development of science exhibits and socio-scientific issues, e.g. ethics regarding the research in this field. The data were gathered over 1-year period by using video recordings and interviews. The Interconnected Model of Professional Growth was used to study the processes that support teachers' professional change in this context, as they are elicited from their interactions in the CoL. Our findings indicate that the dynamic of teachers' interactions with colleagues and the mediating processes that impact on their professional learning, are crafted on the basis of the emerged challenges in each phase of module's design and development. These findings give an insight on teachers' professional learning as they transfer their professional knowledge regarding scientific topics which are innovative to them, i.e. NST, into their teaching practice. In this respect, this study contributes to research literature relevant to teachers' professionalisation in order to implement innovations in the classroom."
  7. Thompson, J. J., Hagenah, S., McDonald, S., & Barchenger, C. (2019). Toward a practice-based theory for how professional learning communities engage in the improvement of tools and practices for scientific modeling. Science Education, 103(6), 1423-1455.
    From the abstract: "To organize for the improvement of science instruction teachers need opportunities to collaboratively learn from practice, in practice, and to engage in the revision of classroom tools. In this paper, we examine how a professional learning community (PLC), comprised of middle school teachers and researchers, worked on the improvement of Ambitious Science Teaching (AST) practices and developed instructional practices and tools supporting model-based inquiry. This paper focuses on the first year of a 5-year research-practice partnership in which teachers and researchers routinely coplanned, cotaught, and codebriefed science lessons via improvement cycles. We conducted an analysis of teacher-designed tools, reflective talk, and classroom observations. All teachers engaged in increasingly sophisticated forms of AST practices over the year and began to use a similar tool to scaffold scientific modeling with students. Yet, there were two distinct variations that evolved with grade-level teams. One team developed a practice and tool supporting students' final form articulation of ideas with models and the other team developed a practice and tools supporting the revision of models over a unit of instruction. We argue that both grade-level teams engaged in productive learning and that PLC benefited from having different perspectives on relatively similar practices for scaffolding students' scientific modeling. On the basis of the findings, we propose three key components to a practice-based theory for how PLCs negotiate tools as a part of the improvement of teaching practices: anchoring improvement in a particular tool and practice, supporting variation in teacher learning and making teachers' pedagogical reasoning explicit."
  8. Trabona, K., Taylor, M., Klein, E.J., Munakata, M., & Rahman, Z. (2019). Collaborative professional learning: Cultivating science teacher leaders through vertical communities of practice. Professional Development in Education, 45(3), 472-487.
    From the abstract: "This article presents findings from a multi-year study of a grantfunded professional development fellowship program that supports teachers in becoming science teacher leaders and improving science curriculum and instruction. The program's activities are designed to: (1) create and support a corps of teacher leaders, (2) institute a culture reflective instruction, and (3) improve teacher quality through vertical articulation of curriculum and professional development. This paper shares the experiences of fellows in our third cohort during their first year in the program and focuses on their collaboration in a vertical group. Three significant themes emerged in the data: tendency to participate in a pseudo community (engaging in superficial conversation); focus on emerging problems of practice; and finally, interactions that encourage pulling back the curtain and reflecting on the details of practice."


Keywords and Search Strings
The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Professional learning communities and science teachers
  • Communities of practice and science teachers

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.