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May 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 8

Research Says / Keep Professional Learning Groups Small, But Connected

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If you've ever tried a home workout video, you no doubt appreciate the power of groups. When exercising to a video by ourselves, many of us find it easy to slack off or get distracted. In contrast, when we attend an exercise class, we push ourselves more, maybe because of peer pressure or the leader's encouragement. ("Sweat is your fat crying!")
The same power of groups is one foundation of professional learning communities (PLCs). But do PLCs actually lead to better student performance? Research shows that under the right conditions, they can (Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008). Not all collaborative teams succeed, however. Some fail to coalesce in a way that holds members accountable for commitment and effort; conversely, some become so tight-knit that they fail to look beyond themselves for answers. It's well documented that both of these shortcomings—tolerating free riders and becoming too myopic—can cause PLCs to fall flat.

The Dynamics of Group Size

In group settings, individuals often don't pull their own weight—sometimes literally. More than a century ago, Max Ringelmann (1913) attached weights to a rope and tallied how much people could pull as individuals and how much they could pull as a group. He found that the more people he added to the group, the less each group member pulled individually. Researchers have since labeled this phenomenon the Ringelmann effect, also known as social loafing. J. Richard Hackman (2011), a Harvard psychologist who devoted his career to studying groups, observed that "the larger the group, the higher the likelihood of social loafing (sometimes called free riding) and the more effort it takes to keep members' activities coordinated. Small teams are more efficient—and far less frustrating."
Smaller groups also appear to create more effective professional learning. Extrapolating from research and experience, Joyce and Showers (2002) identify four common components of professional training: (1) presentation of information about the topic, (2) demonstration of new skills and teaching methods, (3) opportunities to practice the new skills and methods, and (4) peer coaching on the new skills and methods. They found that the first three components increased teachers' knowledge of the targeted professional learning but had a negligible effect on teachers' application of this knowledge to classroom instruction. However, when peer coaching (as happens in small, reciprocal groups) was added, an estimated 95 percent of teachers transferred the new knowledge to their classrooms. Case studies in Australia (Zbar, 2013) suggest that triads may be the ideal group size for this kind of peer coaching—just large enough to encourage challenging conversations, yet small enough to be "safe and manageable" (p. 8).
Small groups pose their own challenges, however. According to business researcher Morten Hansen (2009), they can be subject to what sociologists call the law of homophily, the natural tendency to cleave to familiar practices or connections. Hansen describes a study that asked 400 associates at a management consulting firm to identify whom they would contact first to find an expert on an esoteric topic. Instead of scouring the firm's databases and reaching out to the most well-qualified person they could find, the firm's junior associates reached out to other (equally uninformed) junior associates.
Teachers appear to have the same tendency. A study of how elementary school teachers used social networks during reform efforts (Daly, Moolenaar, Bolivar, & Burke, 2010) found that they interacted primarily with fellow teachers in the same school and grade level; they rarely reached out beyond those groups, not even to their own principals and instructional coaches.

Connecting Groups to Support Change

What can be done to introduce new knowledge to such tight-knit groups? One answer may come from the following experiment. A team of researchers divided 144 students into triads, with the ostensible purpose of seeing which teams could fold the most origami sailboats in a short time (Kane, Argote, & Levin, 2005). Initially, groups were shown a process requiring 12 folds. Midway through the task, a new person rotated into the group and introduced a more efficient process requiring only seven folds. Despite the obvious superiority of the new method, only 25 percent of the groups adopted it. However, in a second condition, when the person sharing the new method held a common identity with the receiving group (such as the same color name tag and group name) the percentage was inverted—75 percent of the groups adopted the better technique. Under these conditions, homophily seemed to support, rather than hinder, innovation.

From Social Loafing to Group Effort

A challenge of effective groups, then, is to make them small enough to discourage social loafing yet open enough to support innovation. It's therefore not surprising that small-yet-connected groups have been at the heart of many successful large-scale reform efforts. For example, an education agency in Michigan used the insights of the origami-folding study to develop a network of teachers who learn new teaching methods, such as WestEd's Reading Apprenticeship program, and return to their schools and help colleagues (with whom they share identity) implement the program. Preliminary results show both high levels of transfer into classrooms and significant increases in student achievement (Norman & Heaviland, 2010).
Similarly, in Melbourne, Australia, 140 teachers from 55 low-income schools came together to learn classroom strategies for improving student literacy, numeracy, and curiosity and then facilitated coaching on the strategies among triads of peers (Hopkins, 2011). The approach yielded not only high levels of implementation but also across-the-spectrum gains in student achievement on Australia's national test.

Leading the Way

Research on both businesses (Hansen, 2009) and professional learning communities (Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008) suggests leaders can support collaboration by setting forth big goals to prompt the need for coming together, demonstrating personal commitment to the effort, and handing some decision making over to groups. It's the same thing aerobics instructors do when they set the pace and work harder than anyone else in the room, and thus get us to work harder within a group than we would on our own.

Daly, A. J., Moolenaar, N., Bolivar, J., & Burke, P. (2010). Relationships in reform: The role of teachers' social networks. Journal of Educational Administration, 48(3), 20–49.

Hackman, J. R. (2011). Six common misperceptions about teamwork [blog post]. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review at http://blogs.hbr.org/2011/06/six-common-misperceptions-abou

Hansen, M. (2009). Collaboration: How leaders avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Hopkins, D. (2011). Powerful learning: Taking educational reform to scale. Melbourne, Victoria: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from www.eduweb.vic.gov.au/edulibrary/public/publ/research/publ/hopkins_powerful_learning_paper.pdf

Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kane, A. A., Argote, L., & Levin, J. M. (2005). Knowledge transfer between groups via personnel rotation: Effects of social identity and knowledge quality. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 96(1), 56–71.

Norman, N., & Heaviland, H. (2010, December). Creating and sustaining an exemplary regional adolescent literacy initiative. Association of Educational Service Agencies annual conference, Savannah, Georgia.

Ringelmann, M. (1913). Recherches sur les moteurs animés: Travail de l'homme [Research on animate sources of power: The work of man]. Annales de l'Institut National Agronomique, 12, 1–40.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24, 80–91.

Zbar, V. (2013). Generating whole-school improvement: The stages of sustained success. East Melbourne, Victoria: Centre for Strategic Education.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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