Professional learning community

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A professional learning community (PLC) is a method 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 of practice-based professional learning.


The phrase professional learning community began to be used in the 1990s after Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline (1990) had popularized the idea of learning organizations,[1][2]: 2  related to the idea of reflective practice espoused by Donald Schön in books such as The Reflective Turn: Case Studies in and on Educational Practice (1991).[3][4] Charles B. Myers and Lynn K. Myers used the phrase professional learning community in relation to schools in their 1995 book The Professional Educator: A New Introduction to Teaching and Schools,[5] and a year later Charles B. Myers presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association titled "Beyond the PDS: Schools as Professional Learning Communities" that proposed a path from professional development school (PDS) efforts to schools as professional learning communities.[6] In 1997, Shirley M. Hord issued a white paper titled "Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement".[7] A year later, Richard DuFour and Robert E. Eaker published the book Professional Learning Communities at Work.[8] Since the late 1990s, a large literature on PLCs has been published.[9]


PLCs have many variations. In Shirley M. Hord's 1997 definition, it means "extending 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".[7]: 1  Hord noted that 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.[7] In 1998, Richard DuFour and Robert E. Eaker explained:

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." Educators willing to embrace the concept of the school as a professional learning community will be given ambiguous, oftentimes conflicting advice on how they should proceed.

— Richard DuFour and Robert E. Eaker, Professional Learning Communities at Work[8]: 15–16 

In 2004, DuFour stated that initiating and sustaining a PLC "requires the school staff to focus on learning rather than teaching, work collaboratively on matters related to learning, and hold itself accountable for the kind of results that fuel continual improvement".[10]: 11  In 2005, the Ontario Ministry of Education defined a PLC as "a shared vision for 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".[11]: 53 

Michael Fullan has noted that "in the spread of PLCs, we have found that the term travels a lot faster than the concept, a finding common to all innovations. The concept is deep and requires careful and persistent attention in thorough learning by reflective doing and problem solving."[12] Fullan also noted: "Transforming the culture of schools and the systems within which they operate is the main point. It is not an innovation to be implemented, but rather a new culture to be developed."[12]


There are many core characteristics of PLCs including collective teamwork in which leadership and responsibility for student learning are extensively shared, a focus on reflective inquiry and dialogue among educators, collective emphasis on improving student learning, shared values and norms, and development of common practices and feedback.[13]

The 2005 report by the Ontario Ministry of Education titled Education for All indicates the characteristics of PLCs are as follows:[11]: 54 

  • 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

Supporting conditions[edit]

Around the time that the term professional learning community was coined, a group of education researchers became interested in the similar idea of "professional community" in schools.[14][15] Based on data they collected in their research for the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, Sharon Kruse, Karen Seashore Louis, and Anthony Bryk developed a three-part framework to describe the critical elements and supportive conditions that are necessary to establish a healthy "professional" culture.[14] The components of this framework are described in the following table. Kruse and colleagues found that "in schools where professional community is strong, teachers work together more effectively, and put more efforts into creating and sustaining opportunities for student learning."[14] They also suggested that the social and human resources are more important than the structural conditions in the development of professional community.

Professional culture in schools[14]
Critical elements
Reflective dialogue De-privatization of practice Collective focus on student learning Collaboration Shared norms and values
Supporting conditions
Structural conditions
  • Time to meet and talk
  • Physical proximity
  • Interdependent teaching roles
  • Communication structures
  • Teacher empowerment and school autonomy
Social and human resources
  • Openness to improvement
  • Trust and respect
  • Cognitive and skill base
  • Supportive leadership
  • Socialization

Use of data[edit]

In their 2015 examination of middle school mathematics teachers' collaborative conversations regarding student data, Jason Brasel, Brette Garner, Britnie Kane and Ilana Horn found that the teachers used data to answer four questions:[16]

  • "What do we need to reteach?"
  • "To whom do we need to reteach it?"
  • "Why did students struggle with this?"
  • "How do we reteach it?"

The matrix in the following table shows how Brasel and colleagues found that the teachers combined these four questions to learn about two dimensions of teaching: student thinking and instruction.[16] The authors found that while the most productive collaborative discussions—that allowed the teachers to learn more about mathematics content, students and pedagogy—focused more on why and how, the teachers tended to address only the first two questions, what and to whom. While these conversations were helpful in identifying students in need of remediation, they did little in the way to improve instruction in the long run.[16]

Learning about instruction[16]
Weak Strong
Learning about
student thinking
Weak Targeted reteaching
  • What?
  • To whom?
Tips and tricks
  • What?
  • To whom and how?
Strong Bounded improvement
  • What and why?
  • To whom?
Responsive revisioning
  • What and why?
  • To whom and how?

Staff development[edit]

Barriers to implementation[edit]

Teachers and other educators can feel as if they are pawns in a larger game of chess where school and district leaders are making decisions that cause problems for educators trying to do their jobs.[17]: 16  Barriers that can inhibit the development of PLCs include subject areas, because some educational subjects tend to naturally take precedence over others.[18]: 35  The physical layout of the school can be another obstacle.[18]: 35 

In the book Intentional Interruption: Breaking Down Learning Barriers to Professional Practice, Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack identified six mental barriers to learning in PLCs: "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".[19]: 51–68  Katz and Dack opt for a psychological definition of learning: "Learning is the process through which experience causes permanent change in knowledge or behaviour".[19]: 14  It is the characteristic of permanence which raises the bar for all professional learning, because learning as permanent change is not easy or natural to achieve.[19]: 15–17  Katz and Dack urge designers of professional learning to avoid the "activity trap" of assuming that participation in a protocol or process guarantees real learning has occurred or putting so much emphasis on the activity that learning is lost in the shuffle.[19]: 77–78 

Because of these difficulties many teachers are turning to the web for PLCs. Teachers are finding groups through Twitter, Facebook, and other social media websites that allow them to interact with teachers from across their country to brainstorm and exchange ideas.[20] These groups can be helpful for those with PLCs already at their current school and those without PLCs.

Staff as a community[edit]

A PLC can be seen as an effective staff development team approach and a strategy for school improvement. The PLC process aims to be a reflective process where both individual and community growth is achieved, connected with the school's shared vision for learning. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge commented on the importance of building shared vision:

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.

Creation of a shared vision involves sharing diverse ideas and making compromises so that all members are satisfied with the direction in which the organization is moving. Conflicting goals can become a source of positive development: "Top-down mandates and bottom-up energies need each other".[21]: 19 

Through this commitment and creation of a shared vision the team may become empowered to work together and achieve goals. As teachers' capacity increases and they develop a sense of professional growth, they may find they are able to reach goals they could not reach on their own.

In an educational setting, a PLC may include people from multiple levels of the organization who are collaboratively and continually working together for the betterment of the organization.[22] Peter Senge believes "it is no longer sufficient to have one person learning for the organization".[23]: 3  A major principle of PLCs is that people learn more together than if they were on their own, if conditions are right.[19] Teachers may promote the idea of team learning to students in their classrooms, but teachers may not practice team learning in their professional lives; PLCs aim to help teachers practice the team learning that they preach. Senge suggests that when teams learn together there are beneficial results for the organization.[23] Some school improvement evaluators have even claimed that "high-quality collaboration has become no less than an imperative".[24] However, considering te possible influence of interpersonal factors such as trust, status and everyday interaction, it can´t be assumed that putting colleagues together automatically results in sharing of knowledge, expertise, methods - interpersonal behaviour and individual choices impact on the actual dynamics in PLCs.[25]


For a school to be fully committed to implementing PLCs, the school's leadership must help establish and maintain PLCs.[8] Successful PLCs will require a shift in the traditional leadership structure from leader-centered (top-down) to shared leadership.[8] Sue C. Thompson and her colleagues pointed 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.[2]: 4  In a PLC, the view of the principal as the instructional leader changes to a view that reflects the principal as a member of a community of learners and leaders.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Senge, Peter M. (2006) [1990]. The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization (Revised ed.). New York: Currency/Doubleday. ISBN 0385517254. OCLC 65166960.
  2. ^ a b Thompson, Sue C.; Gregg, Larry; Niska, John M. (January 2004). "Professional learning communities, leadership, and student learning" (PDF). RMLE Online. 28 (1): 1–15. doi:10.1080/19404476.2004.11658173.
  3. ^ Schön, Donald A., ed. (1991). The reflective turn: case studies in and on educational practice. New York: Teachers College Press. ISBN 0807730467. OCLC 22110784.
  4. ^ Lieberman, Ann (April 1995). "Practices that support teacher development: transforming conceptions of professional learning". Phi Delta Kappan. 76 (8): 591–596.
  5. ^ Myers, Charles B.; Myers, Lynn K. (1995). The professional educator: a new introduction to teaching and schools. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 0534205747. OCLC 31009967. See also: Myers, Charles B.; Simpson, Douglas J. (1998). Re-creating schools: places where everyone learns and likes it. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. ISBN 0803964250. OCLC 37353705.
  6. ^ Myers, Charles B. (April 1996). "Beyond the PDS: schools as professional learning communities: a proposal based on an analysis of PDS efforts of the 1990s" (PDF). Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York City, April 8–12, 1996. Retrieved 27 October 2016.
  7. ^ a b c Hord, Shirley M. (1997). "Professional learning communities: communities of continuous inquiry and improvement" (PDF). White paper issued by Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, Austin, TX and funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, United States Department of Education. Retrieved 27 October 2016. A summary of the white paper was published as: Hord, Shirley M. (1997). "Professional learning communities: what are they and why are they important?". Issues About Change. 6 (1).
  8. ^ a b c d e DuFour, Richard; Eaker, Robert E. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington; Alexandria, VA: National Educational Service; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. ISBN 1879639602. OCLC 39040733.
  9. ^ A search for the phrase on Google Scholar on 27 October 2016 returned over 17,000 results.
  10. ^ DuFour, Richard (May 2004). "What is a 'professional learning community'?". Educational Leadership. 61 (8): 6–11.
  11. ^ a b Education for all: the report of the expert panel on literacy and numeracy instruction for students with special education needs, kindergarten to grade 6 (PDF). Toronto: Ministry of Education (Ontario). 2005. ISBN 0779480600. OCLC 225161136. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 October 2006. Retrieved 16 November 2006.
  12. ^ a b Fullan, Michael (2016) [1982]. "Enter change". The NEW meaning of educational change (5th ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. pp. 107–120. ISBN 9780807756805. OCLC 921102633.
  13. ^ Stoll, Louise; Bolam, Ray; McMahon, Agnes; Wallace, Mike; Thomas, Sally (December 2006). "Professional learning communities: a review of the literature". Journal of Educational Change. 7 (4): 221–258. doi:10.1007/s10833-006-0001-8. S2CID 50731927.
  14. ^ a b c d Kruse, Sharon; Louis, Karen Seashore; Bryk, Anthony (Spring 1994). "Building professional community in schools" (PDF). Issues in Restructuring Schools (6): 3–6.
  15. ^ Anfara, Vincent A.; Caskey, Micki M.; Carpenter, Jan (August 2015). "Organizational models for teacher learning". Middle School Journal. 43 (5): 52–62. doi:10.1080/00940771.2012.11461830. S2CID 145752331.
  16. ^ a b c d Brasel, Jason; Garner, Brette; Kane, Britnie; Horn, Ilana (November 2015). "Getting to the why and how: what kinds of conversations about data bring about the greatest improvements in math teaching and learning?". Education Leadership. 73 (3).
  17. ^ Buffum, Austin; Hinman, Charles (May 2006). "Professional learning communities: reigniting passion and purpose". Leadership. 35 (5): 16–19.
  18. ^ a b Riley, Kathryn; Stoll, Louise (Winter 2004). "Inside-out and outside-in: why schools need to think about communities in new ways". Education Review. 18 (1): 34–41.
  19. ^ a b c d e Katz, Steven; Dack, Lisa A. (2015). Intentional interruption: breaking down learning barriers to transform professional practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. ISBN 9781412998796. OCLC 795172349.
  20. ^ Holmes, Kathryn; Preston, Greg; Shaw, Kylie; Buchanan, Rachel (December 2013). "'Follow' me: networked professional learning for teachers". Australian Journal of Teacher Education. 38 (12): 55–65. doi:10.14221/ajte.2013v38n12.4.
  21. ^ Fullan, Michael (1999). Change forces: the sequel. London; Philadelphia: Falmer Press. ISBN 0750707569. OCLC 41363236.
  22. ^ Darling-Hammond, Linda; Wei, Ruth Chung; Andree, Alethea; Richardson, Nikole; Orphanos, Stelios (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: a status report on teacher development in the U.S. and abroad: technical report (PDF). Dallas, TX; Stanford, CA: National Staff Development Council; School Redesign Network. OCLC 912261565.
  23. ^ a b Senge, Peter M. (2013) [2000]. "Give me a lever long enough... and single-handed I can move the world". In Grogan, Margaret (ed.). The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 3–16. ISBN 9781118456217. OCLC 829055889.
  24. ^ Gajda, Rebecca; Koliba, Christopher (March 2007). "Evaluating the imperative of intraorganizational collaboration: a school improvement perspective". American Journal of Evaluation. 28 (1): 26–44. doi:10.1177/1098214006296198. S2CID 38333256.
  25. ^ van Houten, Maarten M (2023). "Interpersonal issues in knowledge sharing: the impact of professional discretion in knowledge sharing and learning communities". Teacher Development. 27: 116–132. doi:10.1080/13664530.2022.2156590. S2CID 254769033.

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