Action research through professional learning communities

by Staci Kalmbacher (Dulwich College Suzhou)


Staci is from Texas, USA, and enjoying her first international posting at Dulwich College Suzhou. She earned her bachelor’s degree from University of Missouri before earning a Master’s in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University. Staci has enjoyed serving students and teachers for over 20 years in various leadership roles. She is certified in Distance Education at Texas A&M. Staci was selected to participate in the NASA Classroom of the Future programme and a recipient of the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Fellowship. 

Staci is serving as the Director of Educational Technology as well as teaching ICT at the College. She loves learning, technology, gaming, travel and leadership and looks forward to sharing these with and learning from the Dulwich College Suzhou community.



A professional learning community (PLC) is much more than a department meeting or a group of teachers getting together to discuss a book. A PLC is educators collaboratively engaging in the action research process with intensive reflection upon instructional practices and desired student learning. These communities enable teachers to continually learn from and with each other through in-depth analysis of what does and does not work to enhance student achievement.

A PLC participates in ongoing, embedded learning and its work is structured around an essential question. PLCs recognise their internal expertise and the personalization of professional learning through inquiry. With an emphasis on teacher leadership, PLCs enable teachers to refine their craft and thus improve student learning.

At Dulwich College Suzhou, our PLC processes and structure were inspired by the work of Jean McNiff and Rick Dufour and included the following:

  • An essential question supported by clarifying theories
  • Reflection on quantitative and qualitative data
  • Results leading to informed actions

An essential question was developed by each PLC in its first few meetings.  Equipped with quantitative and qualitative data, teachers created a line of inquiry to address a student learning need. The following is an example from our outdoor learning PLC:

How can we use the outdoor environment as an open-ended resource, providing risk and challenge, to facilitate differentiated learning across the curriculum?

Essential questions guide inquiry into important ideas and promote higher order thinking. They provoke and sustain inquiry, and provide a focus for the PLC’s learning.

Clarifying theories are the PLCs’ values, beliefs, and theoretical perspectives that relate to their focus. At the start of its action research, the outdoor learning PLC gleaned its clarifying theories from the following:

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 2005. Print.
Kable, Jenny. "Reggio-Inspired: Outdoor Environments." Let the Children Play. N.p., 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2014.

As PLCs move through the inquiry process, they often identify additional related research, which they discuss and incorporate into their clarifying theories if it relates to the essential question.

As PLC members begin exploring instructional practices, PLC meetings become a time to share, discuss and reflect on the impact of their activities  on learning. The focus of these meetings is student work, that is: anything students do that demonstrates their increased understanding based on the instructional practice being explored. These may be:

  • common assessments
  • formative assessment
  • work samples
  • writing samples
  • observations, photographs and videos of students engaging in the activity

The Looking at Student Work Association states: “It is important to look at children's work in depth, with others, over time and to engage in reflective dialogue about the work, the child(ren), and teaching and learning.” Reflection on student work conducted as a focused, well-organised collaborative team will generate deeper understanding than the isolated reflections. The PLC is built on mutual trust and respect with a collective responsibility among the members to help each other grow through the process to increase student achievement.

Through collective reflection, our outdoor learning PLC recorded the following progression in their action research:

“By adding ‘loose parts’ children can manipulate the environment, allowing for a richer experience of play and problem solving. In many ways, it mimics the ‘found objects’ ideas of exploratory play in the ‘wild’ but it also provides opportunities for the teacher to add specific provocations that might link with current learning themes. In our first round of structured changes we added blocks and fabric to the outdoor environment, linking to the integrated curriculum in Key Stage 1 and continuous provision in Early Years. In our second round we added a variety of loose parts such as bamboo, tyres, stones and mud. The children continuously repurposed items in the course of experimentation.”

Outdoor learning

Protocols for reflecting on student work may need to be established within the PLC. Protocols offer a framework for conversation and reflection that makes it safe to ask constructive and sometimes challenging questions of each other. These can be especially helpful for new PLCs to ensure focus and establish trust. More information on protocols can be found online at

Action research is open ended; therefore, the work of the PLCs is ongoing. When PLCs share results of their work, it is often a snapshot of their work at a moment in time, as the PLC will usually continue its work the following school year. Our outdoor learning PLC decided to rename the “Results” section of its poster to “What We are Learning” to more accurately reflect its intent to continue its action research.

At Dulwich College Suzhou, the PLCs shared their work each term in the PLC forums, where educators who were not participating in a PLC had the opportunity to learn about the action research being conducted. At the end of the year, PLCs created an academic poster that they presented to the whole College. The PLCs discussed the format for capturing and sharing their work throughout the year, and chose the academic poster because it:

  • shared the PLCs work and invited further dialogue
  • required less time and was less daunting to create than a formal paper (enabling PLCs to spend more time on their own learning)
  • created an artifact of the PLC work to be displayed in each school campus
Academic poster

Kate Beith, Deputy Director of Schools and leader of the Dulwich College International Qualified Teacher (DCIQT) programme, was delighted that the DCIQT learners presented their research in the form of academic posters at the 2016 Dulwich College International Mandarin Conference. “This was a visual way of sharing research. The fact that they had the confidence to talk to their colleagues so enthusiastically about their research shows how far these learners have come. There was a great buzz around the room.”

Academic posters are now being used across our schools as a means of sharing action research. Kate Beith and Mel Stuckey presented their research at Oxford University in May into the use of the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) in the form of a poster. Entitled From Compliance to Commitment, their research poster facilitated professional conversations with the senior members of the academic team and practitioners.

Our action researchers are supporting each other in online forums. Joe McKee, Academic Director at Dulwich College Beijing, organised a series of webinars for DCIQT learners with leading action research expert Jean McNiff. This series formed the basis of some interesting and well-crafted projects, and the learners posed a range of focused questions. Their essential research questions ranged from, “How can we ensure that students engage in assessment of their own learning through written feedback?” to “How effectively does blended learning promote students’ independent learning?” It is evident that much has been gained from the research. Ruth Yang made a bold statement in her evaluation: ”Research shows that words and phrases need to be learned in context in order to avoid the dreaded fate of ‘Systematic Forgetting’. Therefore, we should avoid learning from random lists, phrase books, and vocabulary drills. It is just a waste of time!”

Action research through PLCs supports teachers and enables them to collectively develop their understanding of teaching and learning.  As a focused, collaborative team, teachers engage, explore, discover and bring their learning into their classrooms, schools and organisations. Through PLCs, educators work together interdependently to achieve common goals and support learning for all.


Works Cited:

Baker H, Behan C, Clark L, Hawker E, Prior S, Smith L, Tan V, Tidmarsh E. How can we use the outdoor environment as an open-ended resource, providing risk and challenge, to facilitate differentiated learning across the curriculum? Poster session presented at:  Dulwich College Suzhou; 2016 May 30; Suzhou, China.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many (2006). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work™, pp. 2–4.

"Why Protocols?" Looking at Student Work. Looking at Student Work Association, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.