PhD Research Summary

*This page will be updated periodically as my research develops its focus. Think of this as a perpetual working paper. 

Di Sebalik Papan Hitam: A case study of professional learning communities (PLCs) of English teachers in Malaysian secondary schools

What is your study about?

My research is about the idea of a ‘professional learning community’ or ‘PLC’ for teachers. This is quite a common notion in education policy nowadays, where teachers are asked to meet regularly to share ideas, discuss issues and/or investigate their practice together. In theory, it’s supposed to be good for them and good for students too. I have broadly three research questions.

The first is that I look at the range of ways in which schools can implement ‘PLCs’, as concrete activities with actual objectives. Besides that I also look at teachers’ conceptions of what ‘PLCs’ are i.e. what is the ‘cultural imaginary’ of what they’re doing. My third question is looking specifically at contradiction or contrasting ideas in teachers’ conversations, as an essential component in how they reason, build concepts and make decisions together.

From these three questions, you can visualise my thesis as a kind of linear process — I’m trying to go deeper and deeper into this phenomenon, to the level of analysing its micro-processes.

Why is it important to know about this?

I think there are both intellectual and pragmatic reasons to study PLCs. The pragmatic reason is just that actually, PLCs are really in vogue these days and teachers are increasingly expected to be a lot more collaborative than maybe 20-30 years ago. Teachers are extremely busy people and their time and energy represent a significant public investment to the tune of billions of ringgit each year in Malaysia. If we are going to require teachers to give their time regularly to something, it stands to reason then that we should try to better understand the inner workings of that thing.

Intellectually, I think teacher communities are really fascinating, and don’t get as much research attention as what happens in the classrooms. In a sense you can say my research is on what happens in the ‘staff room’, rather than the classroom. [In reality, my teachers often didn’t meet in the staff room because it was too noisy, choosing instead to find an empty classroom to have their staff meetings. But you get what I mean]. This is kind of why I want to call my thesis ‘Di sebalik papan hitam’ (‘behind the blackboard’), because it sheds light on an educational and social phenomena that on the surface may seem quite ordinary but upon closer inspection, is really intriguing and consequential.

Briefly, what have you found in your study so far?

I can’t give away too much at the moment because I’m still sifting through all my data and trying to make sure my analyses are as solid and valid as possible — but I will say a couple of things.

The first is that I think the very term ‘PLC’ is useful in some ways but not so useful in others. It’s useful in that it captures a certain principle of collegiality and common endeavour as teachers, but it’s not very useful as a descriptor of what teachers actually¬†do. Under the banner of PLCs, teachers engage in a very wide variety of activities, and rightly so, but whether these are effective, authentic and fit for purpose would actually depend on who, what, where, under what circumstances they are enacted. PLCs are not an unambiguously good thing for teachers to do in practice, and will depend on a lot of good judgement. I suggest also that we develop more specific vocabulary to describe what teachers do together (whether it’s ‘Lesson Study’, or ‘Video Club’, or ‘Action Research’) and be clear in each instance why we chose this one activity over the other.

The second thing that I found is that [In construction]

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