Professional Development – CFG + PLN = D&M?

by ajc

An Overview

Professional development can be a sticky topic, sometimes bleeding into areas such as contractual obligations and monetary reimbursement. There is, however, lurking below the surface, a more implicit and problematic dissonance. Not all professional educators are consciously aware of this disconnect, but the contempt with which some view staff-wide professional development indicates that they “sense” its existence. I’m referring to the incongruity between how we ask our instructors to teach, and how we ask them to learn. The premise of this post is that the combination of Critical Friends Groups and Personal Learning Networks has the potential to offer deep and meaningful professional development.

Differentiated instruction is a term that is used to describe the instructional strategies / philosophy aimed at reaching the needs of every student. That is to say that the teacher takes into account a student’s

academic abilities, learning styles, personalities, interests, background knowledge and experiences, and levels of motivation for learning.

(No, I’m not going to comment on learning styles, but I’m aware of their unsubstantiated nature.) Thus, differentiation refers mostly to pedagogy – how we teach. But, at a more abstract level, aren’t teachers being asked to cater to the individualized / idiosyncratic needs of each student? And, does staff-wide professional development do the same? (Not typically.) Opportunities for instructors to attend workshops and conferences outside of the building are often better in this regard, but such opportunities aren’t frequent enough to cultivate intellectual growth.


Alternatives to structured, staff-wide professional development exist. Two such possibilities are Critical Friends Groups and Personal Learning Networks. These entities might be best described as “communities”, and differ in the relationship of the individual to the group, ranging from central (the focus) to the periphery. This vocabulary is derived from Lave & Wenger’s communities of practice, specifically the term ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. Their idea was that individuals move from the periphery towards the center as they become comfortable with the community and, to a lesser extent, the content / information. As an aside, these ideas have been around since the Middle-Ages and find their roots in the ideas of apprenticeship.

Critical Friends Groups were developed by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform in 1994. They focus on creating a professional learning community in which “teachers talk to teachers about teaching”. These discussions are led by trained practitioners who follow protocols (strategies) specific to the topic of deliberation. Marnie Curry’s 2008 work, entitled Critical Friends Groups: The Possibilities and Limitations Embedded in Teacher Professional Communities Aimed at Instructional Improvement and School Reform examines one school’s implementation of the CFG framework. A visual representation of her findings is below. Clicking on the image will produce the full sized version.


Curry’s judgement is that the ambitious nature of CFGs hampers their overall effectiveness. Further, she refers to them as “politicized entities” in which “in-depth attention to subject matter is unlikely” (p. 770). As such, she recommends careful considerations of the inherent constraints of the CFG framework. One can see from the visual representation of Curry’s findings that the strengths of the framework lie in its ability to cultivate community and a shared understanding (of school-wide initiatives), while it mechanistic and diverse nature impedes in-depth discussion of both subject-specific and emergent issues.

A Personal Learning Network, according to David Warlick:

involves an individual’s topic oriented goal, a set of practices or techniques aimed at attracting or organizing a variety of relevant content sources, selected for their value, to help the owner accomplish a professional goal or personal interest.

Kate Klingensmith identifies the potential components of PLNs. Her list includes the following technologies.

  • Social networking sites
  • Microblogging
  • Professional profiles
  • Wikis
  • Blogs
  • RSS Reader
  • Nings
  • Social bookmarking
  • Webinars
  • Backchanneling of conferences

It’s interesting to note that Kate doesn’t include face-to-face conversations with colleagues, as I would have. I think it’s unwise to exclude those with whom we interact everyday, especially if they are related to our topic of interest (our co-workers, for example). What is most interesting about PLNs is how they shift the locus of control completely towards the learner. This shift, combined with the corresponding sense of autonomy should, research tells us, lead to an increased desire (motivation) to learn. It’s important to note that contributing is a fundamental piece of the PLN. That is to say that the majority of the components listed by Klingensmith allow for both the consumption and creation of content/knowledge. Individuals who take PLNs seriously participate in this way.

A Hybrid Model

Administrators must prioritize their objectives as they consider professional development initiatives. An honest assessment of school-wide professional development workshops should make it clear that a significant percentage of staff don’t participate therefore making their experience meaningless. The interpretation of this reality is pivotal. Either (a.) the supervisor blames these staff members for their inattentiveness (often the case, I assume), or (b.) the supervisor blames his or herself for providing a “one size fits all” learning opportunity. If he or she chooses the latter, than a “community” approach might be considered in place of the traditional didactic conference.

At the end of Curry’s paper, she alludes to a potential solution to the inherent constraints of CFGs.

Instead, solutions may have to come from elsewhere, perhaps in the form of multiple and complementary CFG-like professional development opportunities in subject matter departments and academies (p. 770).

What if PLNs are used in conjunction with CFGs? The primary advantages of CFGs is the sense of community and an awareness of school-wide initiatives/events that they promote. Certainly, their ability to debate pedagogy in a general sense is a powerful attribute and an advantage as well. But, it is one that could be replaced via an instructor’s PLN, which would have the added benefit, if correctly constructed, of addressing subject-specific pedagogy, a weakness of the CFG. Combining these two constructs might allow the school to run abbreviated versions of the CFGs, focusing specifically on cultivating a sense of community through conversation of school-wide initiatives and individuals “reporting out” on their work with their PLN.

In summary, the suggested model is based on 3 tenets.

  • A member’s CFG is the foundation of their PLN
  • Individual’s learning objective(s) with (outside/online) PLN are determined by the individual
  • CFG gatherings focus on tying each member’s outside PLN experience to the group and to the school as a whole

It is assumed that meetings with the CFG would lead, periodically, to revision of individual learning objectives. Comments/critiques are welcome.