Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have become a hot topic lately as building in-school capacity is increasingly viewed as a major lever for improving student outcomes. PLCs have been found to contribute to instructional improvement of teachers,1 increase the sense of collective responsibility throughout the school,2 improve teacher motivation & work satisfaction3 and improve student motivation & performance4.
PLCs are also strongly aligned to the evidence on what constitutes effective professional learning; they are collaborative, engaging teachers in real practice-related content over an extended period of time with a focus on how to better support student learning.5
So what is a PLC?
While there are many different definitions of what constitutes a professional learning community, the definition is commonly used to describe groups of teachers and other faculty ‘sharing and critically interrogating their practice in an ongoing, reflective, collaborative, inclusive, learning-oriented and growth promoting way’.6 Sometimes schools will also refer to these groups as professional learning teams or networks.
PLCs usually operate within schools with groups of teachers who teach the same year level and subject area but can also operate across networks of schools. These are often labelled networked learning communities and broadly function in the same way as traditional PLCs.7
What are the features of effective PLCs
The literature lists the following key attributes of effective PLCs:
- Shared values and vision – PLCs need to be driven by an ‘undeviating focus on student learning’8. It is important that staff share a belief that it is their role to help all students reach their full potential and that through working together they are more likely to achieve this aim.
- Collective responsibility and collaboration– As part of their shared values, staff should feel a collective responsibility for the learning of all students. This way when a staff member brings an issue relating to one of their students, it immediately becomes the group’s issue and the responsibility of all members to help find a solution.
- Reflective professional inquiry – PLCs need a structure based around professional inquiry. Without a focus on collective professional inquiry, PLCs become just another staff meeting. Conversations should follow an inquiry approach ideally with a focus on key instructional issues (see British Columbia example below).
- Promotion of group and individual learning – The main purpose of PLCs is as an internal capacity building tool so it is important that this is how they are primarily thought of and used. Effective PLCs encourage and share research into new pedagogical practices, seek external expertise when necessary and cultivate a culture whereby teachers are open to giving and receiving feedback from one another.
- Supportive leadership and school environment: In order to run effectively PLCs need to be supported by their school leaders and provided with the necessary structures for effective collaboration. Seemingly simple organisational issues like effectively siphoning off time for teachers to work exclusively in PLCs can derail the entire PLC process if not done properly.
Links between PLCs and inquiry practices – an example from British Columbia (Canada)
In her summary of the PLC literature Shirley Hord notes that professional learning communities could also be termed ‘communities of continuous inquiry and improvement’.9 This is how PLCs are viewed in British Columbia. British Columbia have used PLCs as their main form of professional learning since the early 2000s alongside a structured inquiry process they call the ‘spirals of inquiry approach’.
Source: Timperley, Kaser &, Halbert (2014)
The approach involves six action-oriented stages:
- Scanning: Asking carefully crafted questions of learners that help us to understand their perspectives on how and what they are learning.
- Focusing: Exploring the issues raised by learners to identify priority areas for further enquiry.
- Developing a hunch: Exposing the beliefs and practices that have a bearing on this issue: what am I doing that’s contributing positively and negatively?
- New professional learning: Seeking out fresh ideas and developing new practice by engaging with colleagues, other schools and with research evidence.
- Taking action: Applying new learning and practice with a clear sense of the impact we expect to have for learners as we do so.
- Checking: Making sure we had the impact we expected. Have we made the difference we hoped for? If not, why not? What else do we need to do?
Notably PLCs in British Columbia are not just a time for unstructured teacher collaboration; they are used as an opportunity for analysis of student needs, reflection on practice and ongoing professional development.
As part of the scanning phase, teachers are encouraged to ask their students four questions about their learning and experience at the school:
- Can you name two people in this school/setting who believe you can be a success in life?
- What is the purpose of what you are learning and why is it important?
- How are you doing with your learning?
- Where are you going next with your learning?
Answers to these questions as well as student assessment data helps the PLC team determine a focus area for the year.
More details on the spiral of inquiry steps can be found here including details on what each step does and (importantly) does not entail.
Other international examples of PLCs
Many other high performing systems use PLCs as part of their professional learning. A comparative analysis of high performing systems by Jensen et al (2016) found commonalities between the approaches of PLCs in British Columbia, Singapore and Shanghai (all top performers on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
PLCs in each system begin by assessing student needs, developing new approaches based on research and external professional learning and then testing and evaluating those new approaches.
The full report can be found here and additional professional learning resources used by the high performing systems can be found here.
Andrews, D. & Lewis, M. (2007). Transforming practice from within: The power of the professional learning community. In L. Stoll & K.S. Louis (eds) Professional learning communities: Divergence, depth and dilemmas. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Blank, R. K., & de las Alas, N. (2009) Effects of teacher professional development on gains in student achievement: How meta-analysis provides scientific evidence useful to education leaders. The Council of Chief State School Officers.
Cordingley, P., Bell, M., Rundell, B. & Evans, D. (2003). The impact of collaborative CPD on classroom teaching and learning. In: Research evidence in education library. version 1.1. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.
Hargreaves, A. & Giles, C. (2003). The knowledge society school: An endangered entity. In Hargreaves, A. Teaching in the knowledge society: Education in the age of insecurity. Maidenhead and Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Hord, S.M. (1997). Professional learning communities: Communities of continuous inquiry and improvement. Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Roberts-Hull, K. & Hunter, A. (2016) ‘Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems’, Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy.
Louis, K.S. & Kruse, S.D (1995). Professionalism and community: Perspectives on reforming urban schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press Inc.
Mitchell, C. & Sackney, L. (2000). Profound improvement: Building capacity for a learning community. Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.
Stoll, L. Bolam, R., McMahan, A., Wallace, M. & Thomas, S. (2006). ‘Professional Learning Communities: A Review of the Literature’, Journal of Educational Change (2006) 7:221–258.
Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007) Teacher professional learning and development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration. Auckland: Ministry of Education.
Timperley, H., Kaser, L., Halbert, J. (2014) ‘A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry’, Seminar series 234, Centre for Strategic Education, East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Toole, J.C. & Louis, K.S. (2002). The role of professional learning communities in international education. In K. Leithwood & P. Hallinger (eds), Second international handbook of educational leadership and administration. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Whole Education (nd.) ‘Spirals of Enquiry: Narrowing the gap in a sustainable way’, Whole Education, London. Retrieved from http://www.wholeeducation.org/download,619
Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W.-Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. L. (2007) Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement. Issues & Answers. Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest (NJ1). Retrieved from http://eric. ed.gov/?id=ED498548