Professional Learning Community

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A professional learning community, or PLC, is a group of educators that meets regularly, shares expertise, and works collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students. The term is also applied to schools or teaching faculties that use small-group collaboration as a form of professional development. Shirley Hord, an expert on school leadership, came up with perhaps the most efficient description of the strategy: “The three words explain the concept: Professionals coming together in a group—a community—to learn.”

It should be noted that professional learning communities may be called many different things from school to school or place to place, including professional learning groupscollaborative learning communitiescritical friends groups, or communities of practice, to name just a few common terms (terms such as professional learning groups and critical friends groups are typically applied to smaller teams of teachers—usually between four and eight, although group sizes vary—rather than to an entire school that uses small-group collaboration as a form of professional development). In Japan, the practice is called lesson study or lesson research. In addition, professional learning communities can take a wide variety of forms or be organized for different purposes. While some educators define “professional learning community” in a very specific way, others may use the term more loosely, even applying it to meetings or groups that other educators would not consider to be a genuine “professional learning communities.” In fact, Richard DuFour, considered one of the foremost experts on the subject, wrote in 2004 that “the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.” For Dufour and other experts and researchers, the term professional learning community should only be applied to schools in which all teachers and school leaders use specific, recommended strategies. The distinction here is subtle and potentially confusing: When a school is considered a “professional learning community,” educators meet in small groups, but in some cases educators consider the small groups to be “professional learning communities.”

Professional learning communities tend serve to two broad purposes: (1) improving the skills and knowledge of educators through collaborative study, expertise exchange, and professional dialogue, and (2) improving the educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment of students through stronger leadership and teaching. Professional learning communities often function as a form of action research—i.e., as a way to continually question, reevaluate, refine, and improve teaching strategies and knowledge. Meetings are goal-driven exchanges facilitated by educators who have been trained to lead professional learning communities. Participation in meetings may be entirely voluntary, and in some schools only a small percentage of the faculty will elect to participate, or it may be a school-wide requirement that all faculty members participate.

In professional learning communities, teams are often built around shared roles or responsibilities. For example, the teachers in a particular group may all teach the same ninth-grade students or they may all teach science, and these shared attributes allow participants to focus on specific problems and strategies—How do I teach this particular student better? How do I teach this scientific theory more effectively?—rather than on general educational goals or theories. Teachers, for example, will discuss and reflect on their instructional techniques, lesson designs, and assessment practices, while administrators may address leadership questions, strategies, and issues.

While the specific activities and goals of a professional learning community may vary widely from school to school, the following are a few examples of common activities that may take place in meetings:

  • Discussing teacher work: Participants collectively review lesson plans or assessments that have been used in a class, and then offer critical feedback and recommendations for improvement.
  • Discussing student work: Participants look at examples of student work turned in for a class, and then offer recommendations on how lessons or teaching approaches may be modified to improve the quality of student work.
  • Discussing student data: Participants analyze student-performance data from a class to identify trends—such as which students are consistently failing or underperforming—and collaboratively develop proactive teaching and support strategies to help students who may be struggling academically.
  • Discussing professional literature: Participants select a text to read, such as a research study or an article about a specialized instructional technique, and then engage in a structured conversation about the text and how it can help inform or improve their teaching.

Reform

Professional learning communities are nearly always an intentional school-improvement strategy designed to reduce professional isolation, foster greater faculty collaboration, and spread the expertise and insights of individual teachers throughout a school. Because teachers may work largely independently—i.e., they will create courses and lessons on their own and teach behind the closed doors without much feedback from colleagues—teaching styles, educational philosophies, and learning expectations can vary widely from class to class, as can the effectiveness of lessons and instruction.

While professional learning communities may take a wide variety of forms from school to school, they tend to share a variety of common features:

  • Teachers will likely meet regularly—every other week or every month, for example—and work together to improve and diversify their instructional techniques. For example, they may agree to identify and monitor student learning needs in their classes, conduct observations of their colleagues while they teach and give them constructive feedback, collaboratively develop and refine lessons and instructional techniques, and improve the support strategies they use to help students.
  • Time for meetings is often scheduled during the school day, and participation in a professional learning community may be an expected teaching responsibility, not an optional activity that competes with out-of-school personal time.
  • Groups generally work toward common goals and expectations that are agreed upon in advance. Groups may even create mission and vision statements or a set of shared beliefs and values.
  • Meeting procedures are commonly guided by norms, or a set of conduct expectations that group members collaboratively develop and agree on. A norm might address meeting logistics (e.g., start meetings on time, stick to the agenda, and end on time) or interactions (listen attentively to colleagues and make sure feedback is respectful and constructive).
  • Meetings are often coordinated and run by teachers who have been trained in group-facilitation strategies, often by an outside organization or training professional.
  • Meetings typically follow predetermined agendas that are developed by facilitators in response to group requests or identified teacher or student needs.
  • Facilitators typically use protocols—a set of parameters and guidelines developed by educators—to structure group conversations and help keep the discussions focused and productive.
  • Facilitators will make sure that conversations remain respectful, constructive, objective, and goal-oriented, and they may step in and guide the conversation in a more productive direction if it becomes digressive or negative.
  • Facilitators will also ensure that conversations remain objective and factual, rather than subjective and speculative. For example, group members may be asked to cite student-performance data, specific examples, research findings, or other concrete evidence to support their points, and facilitators may point out assumptions or generalizations.

Advocates of professional learning communities argue that the practice can foster and promote a wide variety of positive professional interactions and practices among teachers in a school. For example:

  • Teachers may assume more leadership responsibility or feel a greater sense of ownership over a school-improvement process.
  • Teachers may feel more professionally confident and better equipped to address the learning needs of their students, and they may become more willing to engage in the kind of self-reflection that leads to professional growth and improvement.
  • The faculty culture may improve, and professional relationships can become stronger and more trusting because the faculty is interacting and communicating more productively.
  • Teachers may participate in professional collaborations more frequently, such as co-developing and co-teaching interdisciplinary courses.
  • More instructional innovation may take hold in classrooms and academic programs, and teachers may begin incorporating effective instructional techniques being used by colleagues.
  • Teachers may begin using more evidence-based approaches to designing lessons and delivering instruction.

Debate

While the professional learning community concept is not typically an object of criticism or debate, skeptics may question whether these groups can actually have a positive impact on student learning, or whether the extent of that impact justifies the time or expense required to make them successful. Since it often extremely difficult, from a research perspective, to attribute gains in student performance to any one influence in a school (because so many potential factors can influence performance, including familial or socioeconomic dynamics outside of a school’s control), the benefits of professional learning communities may be difficult to measure objectively and reliably.

It is more likely, however, that professional learning communities will be criticized or debated when they are poorly implemented or facilitated, if they become disorganized and unfocused, if they are perceived as a burdensome or time-consuming obligation, or when teachers have negative experiences within their groups. Like any school-improvement strategy or program, the quality of the design and execution will typically determine the results achieved. If meetings are poorly facilitated and conversations lapse into complaints about policies or personalities, or if educators fail to turn group learning into actual changes in instructional techniques, professional learning communities are less likely to be successful.

In addition, administrators and teachers may encounter any number of potential challenges when implementing professional learning communities. For example:

  • A lack of support from the superintendent, principal, or other school leaders could lead to an inadequate investment of time, attention, and resources.
  • Inadequate training for group facilitators could produce ineffective facilitation, disorganized meetings, and an erosion of confidence in the process.
  • A lack of clear, explicit goals for group work can lead to unfocused conversations, misspent time, and general confusion about the purpose of the groups.
  • A dysfunctional school or faculty culture could contribute to tensions, conflicts, factions, and other issues that undermine the potential benefits of professional learning communities.
  • A lack of observable, measurable faculty progress or student-achievement gains can erode support, motivation, and enthusiasm for the process.
  • Highly divergent educational philosophies, belief systems, or learning styles can lead to disagreements that undermine the collegiality and sense of shared purpose typically required to make professional learning communities successful.