Fostering Development: Moving Towards A Professional Learning Community

-Diane Carver

Imagine a school where every member of the faculty is intimately involved in choosing the curriculum, where each teacher is part of the decision making process in adopting new strategies, where all teachers work together as colleagues to identify the needs of the students AND the staff, and then focus all their energies as a group to find and implement solutions to those needs. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of a professional learning community, a concept that is being promoted and espoused as the next new wave of innovation in education.

“Next new wave” may be a bit of a misnomer. Like most ‘new’ concepts that suddenly garner a great deal of attention, the concept of professional learning communities (or PLCs as they are often called) has been around for some time. In a 1997 paper, Dr. Shirley M. Hord traced the roots of the current PLC concept to several papers and studies in the early 1980s.(1) Those papers, based in both the business and the educational worlds, focused on implementing successful changes by including all concerned members of a community in the decision-making process and investing them in the success of a shared vision. In his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge described a learning community as a place where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they desire … and where people continually learn how to learn together. (2)

What is a PLC?
In the words of Larry Sackney and Coral Mitchell, two Canadian pioneers in the development of professional learning communities, “a learning community consists in a group of people who take an active, reflective, collaborative, learning-oriented and growth-promoting approach toward the mysteries, problems and perplexities of teaching and learning.” (3)

More succinctly, a professional learning community is a group in which the entire membership cooperates as a collaborative team to identify and address the learning needs of the students, and the professional development of the staff is focused on addressing those needs. It is an approach to school improvement that builds on the strengths of the team and uses a collaborative approach to identify and address the needs of the school as a whole.

What does a Professional Learning Community Look Like?
While this article has used ‘school’ as the focus of a professional learning community, in actual practice a PLC may be smaller or larger. “PLCs can be school-based, district-based, cross-district, or national; the membership in a particular PLC is determined by its focus.”(4)

There are, however, several key characteristics that are shared by professional learning communities, no matter what their focus or membership. These are:
* A leader who shares leadership responsibility and encourages group participation in the decision making process
* A shared vision that arises from a commitment to student learning
* Opportunities for teachers to watch each other work
* Opportunities for the staff to constantly assess, adjust and if necessary, discard non-working methods
* Sharing success stories and celebrating achievement (Hord 1997)

While this may sound a good deal like ‘team teaching’, there is one major difference. Unlike other forms of collaborative teaching, the focus in a PLC is as much on the professional development and capacity building of the staff as it is on the education of the students. In a teaching team, the group draws on the knowledge and capacity that the group has to provide for student needs. In a PLC, the group is empowered to acquire and share new knowledge and skills to address the needs of the students.

What are the benefits of professional learning communities?
* The identification of real needs in your school or community rather than the imposition of an agenda of change from above. The collaborative nature of a PLC gives a voice to those who are in the best position to identify needs and the power to set objectives and acquire the skills and tools to meet those needs – the teachers who work with the students each day.

* A more involved, enthusiastic faculty. In an article in Issues… about Change, Grace L. Fleming wrote, “(the teachers in a PLC) were affirmed in their individuality and the contribution that they made to the overall creativity of the group. They also expressed a willingness to work harder when they saw their colleagues actively pursuing a common goal”. (5)

Teachers are naturally more invested in the success of a strategy that they have “bought into”. The opportunity for sharing what they learn and being recognized for their strengths and successes encourages teachers to share with other teachers. Being given ‘ownership’ of a project increases the likelihood of succeeding in that project. In a nutshell, being treated as a valuable, contributing member of the community encourages teachers to be active and proactive in seeking and sharing solutions that work.

* A faculty that is willing to take measured risks to improve education.
The focus on assessment as a tool and a process rather than a final measure encourages teachers to examine their own teaching methods critically and offer supportive assistance and advice to other teachers. Because assessment and evaluation is not viewed as a basis for discipline, but rather as a tool for learning, teachers are more open to critique and to adopting suggestions that work for other teachers.

* A more engaged student body and lower dropout rates.
When teachers are focused as a cooperative community on fostering learning and respect for abilities, students benefit.

How to Implement PLC Techniques
Creating a professional learning community takes time, practice and commitment. Below are some specific steps you can take to move your school toward adopting and implementing the techniques of a professional learning community.

If You Are A Principal:
1. Introduce the idea.
One of the best ways to introduce the idea of operating as a professional learning community – and start implementing it at the same time – is to identify a staff member or team of teachers that you believe will be supportive of the idea. Discuss the concept with them, ask them to research it and then present what they learn to you and the faculty as a whole. You’ll already be fostering the key concepts of shared learning and open communication among staff.
2. Lead from the center.
In a study of schools that had successfully implemented PLC methods, researchers pointed out the value of principals who positioned themselves at the center of the school, rather than at the ‘head’. In two schools that had been particularly successful, the concept was made physical by principals who moved their desks/offices into central locations so that staff could easily access them at any time. (6)
3. Engage faculty in a study of student needs and encourage them to develop goals and objectives to meet those needs. Be ready to accept it if their view of student needs doesn’t match yours. This development of vision, goals and objectives by the entire faculty is central to creating a professional learning community.
4. Restructure the school day to provide time and space for collaboration, planning and observation
If a PLC is to succeed, teachers and staff will need supports in place that make it easy for them to investigate, collaborate and assess – in other words, they NEED structured time built into their schedules to meet and talk about their learning and teaching, and share ideas and suggestions with each other. It may mean covering classes yourself to free up teachers for meetings, or juggling schedules to accommodate a twice-monthly all-staff meeting or any number of other solutions. Make use of your staff’s creativity and ASK them for suggestions on where to carve out time for meeting and planning. The strength of a professional learning community is the consensus of its members.
5. Make a point of honoring and recognizing teacher achievements. The more value you place on their success, the more value they will place on it.
6. Be open to physically rearranging your school to promote teacher interaction. One school, for instance, moved all classes of one grade level into the same hallway. Teachers with congruent interests found it easier to work together and support each other when they shared the same physical space.
7. Allocate funds for professional development, and provide time for teachers to share what they’ve learned.
8. Foster an atmosphere that supports measured risk-taking. Teachers who feel supported are more willing to try new methods of teaching and sharing.
9. Foster a sense of community. Practice sharing isn’t confined to classrooms and meetings. By promoting more social interactions as well as professional ones (a monthly volleyball game, for instance) you’ll be fostering an atmosphere of trust and familiarity that makes sharing easier.

Five Things You Can Do As A Teacher
1. Join a professional community and bring what you learn back to your school. Whether you share new information formally in presentations or informally over the lunch table, you’ll be promoting the atmosphere of shared development that makes PLCs successful.
2. Talk to other teachers informally about teaching methods, strategies and meeting student needs. In one study, researchers observed, “The intensive emphasis on educational matters kept teaching and learning at the top of the conversational agenda… we noted teachers in hallways, in classrooms and in various locations throughout the school talking, meeting and planning.” (7)
3. Approach teachers whose skills you respect and ask them to observe your teaching and offer constructive commentary on your methods.
4. Approach a teacher whose skills you respect and ask their permission to sit in on one of their classes to learn from their methods. The key to either of those approaches is sincerity. Something as simple as saying, “I can’t help noticing that the students leaving your class are often still discussing what you taught. I’d love to see how you instill that level of excitement in them. Do you mind if I sit in on one of your classes to observe?” can start paving the way for active collaboration between teachers.
5. Be an active supporter of your colleagues. Ask them about conferences that they’ve attended, and listen enthusiastically. Mention an article you’ve read that they may find interesting. Offer a brochure on a professional development seminar in another teacher’s area of expertise.

(1)Hord, S., (1997). Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement

(2) Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization

(3)Mitchell, C., & Sackney, L. (2000). Profound improvement: Building capacity for a learning community. Lisse,The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.

(4)Annenberg Institute for School Reform (2004). Professional Learning Communities: Professional Development Strategies That Improve Instruction

(5)Fleming, G. (1999). Principals and Teachers: Continuous Learners; published in Issues … about Change, Volume 7, Issue 2

(6) Louis, K.S. & Kruse, S.D. (1995). Professionalism and community: Perspectives on reforming urban schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Quoted in Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement

(7)Sackney et al (2005). Building Capacity for Learning Communities: Schools That Work

– Staff Writer (copyright 2005) news(AT)


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