Professional learning community
A professional learning community (PLC) is an extended learning opportunity to foster collaborative learning among colleagues within a particular work environment or field. It is often used in schools as a way to organize teachers into working groups.
PLCs have many variations. In one definition PLCs "extend... classroom practice into the community; bringing community personnel into the school to enhance the curriculum and learning tasks for students; or engaging students, teachers, and administrators simultaneously in learning." Richard Dufour, a recognized national expert in PLCs, finds that "To create a professional learning community, focus on learning rather than on teaching, work collaboratively, and hold yourself accountable for results." The Ontario Ministry of Education defines a PLC as "a shared vision or running a school in which everyone can make a contribution, and staff are encouraged to collectively undertake activities and reflection in order to constantly improve their students’ performance."
The idea behind a PLC was to integrate two concepts that in the past, have been quite distinctive from each other; professional and community. Louis states that, professionalism is, "based on specialized knowledge and a focus on serving client needs"; whereas community is, "based on caring, support, and mutual responsibility within a group."
Barriers to implementation
Many teachers and other educators often feel as if they are pawns in a larger game of chess where school and district leaders place obstacles that can cause issues in educators doing their job (Buffum and Hinman, 2006). Some of the barriers that are present and inhibit the development of PLC's, according to Riley and Stoll (2004), include subject areas, because some educational subjects tend to naturally take precedence over others. Another obstacle is simply the physical layout of the school.
In the book Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Professional Practice, Dr. Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack argue the fact that human beings take mental shortcuts to avoid thinking. They identify six mental barriers to learning including: We Don't Think Through All Possibilities, We Focus on Confirming Our Hypotheses and Not Challenging Them, We Pay Too Much Attention to Things That Are Vivid, We Consider Ourselves to Be Exceptions, We Hesitate to Take Action in A New Direction, We Don't Want Others to See Our Vulnerabilities. Katz and Dack opt for a psychological definition of learning, "Learning is the process through which experience causes permanent change in knowledge or behaviour." It is the characteristic of permanence which raises the bar for all professional learning. Katz and Dack urge designers of professional learning to avoid the Activity Trap – assuming participation in a protocol/process guarantees real learning has occurred or putting so much emphasis on the activity that learning is lost in the shuffle.
Because of these difficulties many teachers are turning to the internet for PLCs. Teachers are finding groups through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media websites that allow them to interact with teachers all across the country to brainstorm and exchange ideas. These groups can be helpful for those with PLCs already at their current school and those without PLCs.
Staff as a community
A PLC is seen as an effective staff development team approach and a powerful strategy for school change and possible improvement. The idea of community is crucial to the success of PLCs. The PLC process should be a reflective process where both individual and community growth is achieved. Among the team there should be a shared vision of where they want the school to be. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge comments on shared vision and states, “The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance. In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt” (1990, p. 9). "Collaborative efforts may seem at first to be hard to organize and keep going, yet under the PLC model of small groups working together within a larger group, the collaborative teams can be organized as either academic, grade level, or any other sub group that works well within the framework of what the PLC’s are hoping to accomplish (Norwood, 2007)".
Through this commitment and creation of a shared vision the team, including leaders and participants, becomes empowered to work together and achieve goals. PLCs are not effective when the team is being told what to do and does not collaborate. PLCs must be a joint venture for it is true that, "Top-down mandates and bottom-up energies need each other.". This process involves sharing diverse ideas and making compromises so that all members are satisfied with the direction in which the organization is moving.
In regards to authentic instruction, student achievement, and teacher empowerment the results of PLCs can be tremendous. This statement is supported by Hord who states, "The benefits of professional learning community to educators and students include reduced isolation of teachers, better informed and committed teachers, and academic gains for students". Expert Michael Fullan has found that PLCs are necessary, stating "Numerous studies document the fact that professional learning communities or collaborative work cultures at the school and ideally at the district level are critical for the implementation of attempted reforms."
There are many core characteristics of PLCs (Louis, in press) including collective team work in which leadership and responsibility for student learning are extensively shared, a focus on reflective inquiry, emphasis on improving student learning, shared values and norms, and development of common practices and feedback. Dufour & Eaker (1998) and Levine & Shapiro (2004) as cited in Education for All further break down these points and indicate the characteristics of PLCs are as follows:
- Shared vision and values that lead to a collective commitment of school staff, which is expressed in day-to-day practices
- Solutions actively sought, openness to new ideas
- Working teams cooperate to achieve common goals
- Encouragement of experimentation as an opportunity to learn
- Questioning of the status quo, leading to an ongoing quest for improvement and professional learning
- Continuous improvement based on evaluation of outcomes rather than on the intentions expressed
- Reflection in order to study the operation and impacts of actions taken
Educational community building
- "If schools are to be significantly more effective, they must break from the industrial model upon which they were created and embrace a new model that enables them to function as learning organizations. We prefer characterizing learning organizations as ‘professional learning communities’ for several vital reasons. While the term ‘organization’ suggests a partnership enhanced by efficiency, expediency, and mutual interests, ‘community’ places greater emphasis on relationships, shared ideals, and a strong culture – all factors that are critical to school improvement. The challenge for educators is to create a community of commitment – a professional learning community.” “It sounds simple enough, but as the old adage warns, ‘the devil is in the details.’"
In an educational setting a PLC may contain people from multiple levels of the organization who are collaboratively and continually working together for the betterment of the organization. Peter Senge believes "it is no longer sufficient to have one person learning for the organization." The idea that there is one main decision maker who controls the organization is not sufficient in today’s school; all people within the community must work effectively towards common goals. A major principle of PLCs is that people learn more together than if they were on their own. The idea of team learning is an interesting concept that teachers work to promote in their classrooms but often do not practice in their professional lives. Senge suggests that when teams learn together there are beneficial results for the organization. It becomes the team, not the individual, that is viewed as the main learning unit. High-quality collaboration has become no less than an imperative.
Team learning builds upon personal mastery and shared vision. This involves creating a snapshot of what is important to both individuals and the school community. Although individuals are responsible for their own actions, feelings and opinions, it is the common good of the community that guides decision making.
It is important for leadership in the schools to establish and maintain PLCs. Successful PLCs will require a shift in the traditional leadership role from leader-centered (top-down) to shared leadership. Often, a top down leader will create the vision statement and then staff members will be encouraged to adhere to the goals outlined in the statement. Thompson, Gregg and Niska (2004) point out how many educators often feel that "new ideas that came from someone else without teacher input" are a waste of time and do not qualify as true leadership or support. Principals need to lead from the center rather than the top. The view of the principal as the instructional leader is changing to one that reflects the principal’s role within a community of learners and leaders. "The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance. In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt"
Through this commitment and creation of a shared vision the team becomes empowered to work together and achieve goals. As teachers’ capacity increases and they develop a feeling of success, they will better understand that when they ally their strengths and skills they are able to reach goals they could not reach on their own.
- Hord, S.M. (1997). Professional Learning Communities: What are they and why are they important? Issues about Change. 6(1).
- DuFour, R. (2004). "Schools as learning communities," Educational Leadership, 61(8) p 6-11.
- Ministry of Education. (2005). Education for all: The report of the expert panel on literacy and numeracy instruction for students with special education needs, kindergarten to grade 6., Ontario Education, ISBN 0-7794-8060-0 Retrieved November 16, 2006
- Buffum, A., & Hinman, C. (2006). Professional learning communities: reigniting passion and purpose. Leadership, 35(5), 16-19.
- Riley, K., & Stoll, L. (2004). Inside-out and outside-in: Why schools need to think about communities in new ways. Education Review, 18(1), 34-41.
- Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.
- Norwood, J. (2007). Professional Learning Communities to Increase Student Achievement. Essays in Education 20, 33-42
- Fullan, M. (1999). Change Forces: The Sequel. New York: Falmer Press.
- Marks, H. & Loius, K. (1999). Teacher empowerment and the capacity for organizational learning. Educational Administration Quarterly, 35(5), 707-750.
- Marks, H. & Loius, K. (1998). Does professional community affect the classroom? Teacher’ work and student work in restructuring schools. American Journal of Education, 106(4), 532-57.
- Fullan, M. (2001). The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press. p 74.
- (DuFour & Eaker, 1998, as cited in James, L. (2005)[dead link]
- Senge, P. (2000). Give me a lever long enough...and single handed I can move the world. In The Jossey-Bass Reader on Educational Leadership (pp.13-25). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Gajda, R. (2007). Evaluating the imperative of intraorganizational collaboration. American Journal of Evaluation, 28(1), 26-44.
- Dufour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.
- Thompson, S., Gregg, L., & Niska, J. (2004). Professional Learning Communities, Leadership, and Student Learning. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 28(1), 35-54.