What is a professional learning community?

Is your school a learning community?

Schools are professional learning communities: professionals dedicated to promoting learning within the school and stakeholder community. However, in some schools the characteristics of a professional learning community are more developed than in others.

After exploring the culture of your school you will look in some depth at the characteristics of effective professional learning opportunity.

My school community

How would you describe the culture of learning in your school? In the culture of your school who are you as teachers as thinkers and learners?

Activity 1: Professional learning in my school

  • If you were an anthropologist and you had to pick three artifacts that represented learning in your school what would they be and what do they represent? 
  • Individually explain to the group how your artifact illustrates either personal or professional learning.
  • Reflect upon the opportunities for professional learning that you have undertaken, either in your current school or in a previous school. In your opinion what has been the most successful opportunity for professional learning? What made it successful? What success criteria are you using to make your evaluation?
  • As a group collate all of your individual professional learning experiences. Explore the ingredients of what made them successful? Which forms of professional learning had the greatest impact on student learning?
  • Think of a metaphor that characterizes your school and what it is like to be on the staff. What do they tell you about your schools commitment to establishing a culture of learning?  
  • Would all stakeholders in your school have the same perceptions about the priority of learning in your school? If not, why not?

Photo Montage

Give a group of pupils a camera and ask them to take and explain:

  • four photos that reflect things that are important to their learning
  • four photos that reflect things they think the staff believe are important to pupils' learning

Discuss the photos. What do the pupils' comparisons tell you about your focus on learning?

See | Hear | Feel

What else can you SEE | HEAR | FEEL in your PLC?

Activity 2: Audit of where we are

Audits and surveys have an important role in understanding different peoples' perceptions of where an organisation is. It is a useful self-evaluation tool.

The following audit asks staff to answer two questions. The first focuses on their perception of reality - what they see as happening in the school. The second focuses on their perception of their preferred future - what practice should and could be in the school.

It is a useful starting point for discussions.IThe following document also provides helpful prompts for analysing the findings.

Professional Learning Communities

“An effective professional learning community has the capacity to promote and sustain the learning of all professionals in the school community with the collective purpose of enhancing pupil learning.” (Creating and sustaining an effective professional learning community, NCSL, DfES 2006)

A professional learning community, within the school context, has come to mean a school environment in which teachers work collaboratively together in purposely designed groups to improve student achievement, within a structure supported by the school leadership. PLCs build on the natural strengths of schools and educators. A lot of schools have significant pockets of naturally occurring professional community. The challenge is how to create it where it is not already in place, or where its presence is scattered or weak. This requires a cultural challenge: how does a leader develop the culture of a school? Practice suggests that significant cultural change takes time and does not happen overnight.

“Learning can’t just be left to individuals. To succeed in a changing and increasingly complex world, whole school communities need to grow, develop, deal with and take charge of change so they can create a future of their own choosing and prepare students to play their own role as effective agents of change. It’s vital to find the best possible ways to enhance young people’s learning – through the actions of professionals – by enquiring into practice, learning new strategies, developing deeper understanding, sharing good practice and creating new knowledge about effective learning and teaching.” (Setting professional learning communities in an international context, NCSL, DfES, 2006)

Key characteristics of a professional learning community (PLC)

Through a video and a thought piece you will learn about the key characteristics of a professional learning community (PLCs).

PLCs have been described in a variety of ways. You may like to print out the following definitions to distribute and discuss with your leadership team.

What is a PLC?

"A professional learning community is about the synergy of collective action.... increased effectiveness and achievement are produced by combined action. Improved student achievement is one instance where research has demonstrated that educators who work collaboratively produce an effect omn student results that is greater than the sum of individual teacher effort." (The principal as professional learning community leader, Ontario Principals' Council, 2009)

"Teachers' professional communities operate with a sense of moral authority and moral responsibility for making a difference in the lives of students. Such purpose must be grounded in clearly articulated standards for both student and teacher performance." (The Adaptive School, Garmston & Wellman, 2013:15)

“An effective professional learning community has the capacity to promote and sustain the learning of all professionals in the school community with the collective purpose of enhancing pupil learning” (Bolam et al,Creating and sustaining an effective professional learning community, DfE, 2005).

“an inclusive group of people, motivated by a shared learning vision, who support and work with each other, finding ways inside and outside their immediate community, to enquire on their practice and together learn new and better approaches that will enhance all pupils’ learning." (Stoll et al, User guide: getting started and thinking about your journey, NCTL 2006).

“a group of connected and engaged professionals who are responsible for driving change and improvement within, between and across schools that will directly benefit learners.” Harris and Jones,  Professional Learning Communities in Action, 2010; see also Harris and Jones, Connecting professional learning: leading effective collaborative enquiry across teaching school alliances, NCTL, 2012)

“By using the term professional learning community we signify our interest not only in discrete acts of teacher sharing, but in the establishment of a school-wide culture that makes collaboration expected, inclusive, genuine, ongoing, and focused on critically examining practice to improve student outcomes. . . . The hypothesis is that what teachers do together outside of the classroom can be as important as what they do inside in affecting school restructuring, teachers’ professional development, and student learning.” (Seashore et al, Professional Learning Communities: A review of the literature, 2006; see also Seashore, Creating and Sustaining Professional Communities, 2008).

However, it is also worth taking note of the following reflections:

People use [the term PLC] to describe every imaginable combination of individuals with an interest in education—a grade-level teaching team, a school committee, a high school department, an entire school district, a state department of education, a national professional organization and so on. In fact, the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.(Du Four, R., What is a professional learning community? Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6-11; see also DuFour, What is a Professional Learning Community?)

The term [PLC] travels faster and better than the concept. Thus, we have many examples of superficial PLCs—people call what they are doing [a PLC] without going very deep into learning, and without realizing [it]” (Fullan, 2006,cited in Matthew J Taylor, et al 2014  Formative assessment of collaborative teams (FACT): Development of a grade-level instructional team checklistNASSP Bulletin volume 98 number 1, pages 26–52.)

PLCs: Core characteristics

  • focus on the learning and achievement of students
  • shared purpose - a shared belief that they can achieve more together
  • shared values and norms (e.g. consensus about teaching practice)
  • collaborative teamwork - organized around collaborative problem-solving
  • led by collective teacher and leader inquiry - action research - process of reflective inquiry into classroom processes
  • constant questioning and probing of ideas by everyone
  • time to think, respond and develop ideas
  • creation and dissemination of (new) knowledge, about what works through examination of shared practice
  • focus on continuous improvement
  • data-based decision making
  • sharing leadership and responsibility for student learning
  • feedback on instructional strengths and weaknesses
  • frequent dialogue - to generate involvement and build commitment
  • investment of all - members care about each others' success
  • shared leadership - i.e. all participants play all the roles, and the school leader is also an engaged learner
  • safe to take risks and make mistakes - it is even expected as part of the process

Reasons to develop a PLC

  • To keep up: With so many challenges in a fast-changing and increasingly complex world, continuous and sustainable learning by everyone in the school community becomes an imperative. "In a fast-changing world, if you can’t learn, unlearn and relearn, you’re lost." (Stoll, L, Fink, D & Earl, L, 2003, It’s About Learning (and It’s About Time),London, Routledge Falmer).
  • Best form of professional development: one-shot
    workshops has very little impact either on their practice or on bringing about more positive change throughout their schools. The school workplace as a site for teacher learning has been shown to offer much greater opportunity for development. (Smylie, M, 1995, Teacher learning in the workplace. In Guskey, T R & Huberman, M (eds), Professional Development in Education: New paradigms and practices, New York, Teachers College Press).
  • Networks foster creativity and innovation: It is increasingly important to be open to ideas from elsewhere, drawing on skills and experiences of colleagues in other schools nationally, and internationally, as well as a wide range of community partners who have a vital stake in helping improve pupils’ life chances.
  • Networks provide challenge and discipline to
    teachers’ learning.“We need the informed help of professionals beyond our parish… because they share our goal, understand our context, but are not blinkered by our assumptions about our immediate settings.” (Desforges, C, 2004, Collaboration for transformation – why bother?, Nexus, 3, Summer, 6-7). As a result, teachers are no longer left to tinker with their practice based exclusively on their own experience, but are able to take decisions based on a wealth of professional knowledge drawn from a wider context.

Activity 2: What is a learning organization?

As you watch the following video consider the following:

  • What are the common features of learning communities? Think in terms of characteristics, processes and outcomes.
  • To what extent do these resonate with schools that you have worked in?
  • Would you describe your current school as a professional learning community? If so, why? If not, why?

Activity 3: The nature of professional learning communities

Use the  Jigsaw a document or book protocol to reflect on the following seminal piece of research on Creating and sustaining an effective professional learning community.

  • All should read the introduction.
  • Individual groups read one of the following sections:
  1. What is a professional learning community and how would you recognize one?
  2. How do you create and develop a professional learning community?
  3. Do PLCs go through different stages of development?
  4. How can you assess the effectiveness of a PLC?
  • Allow groups appropriate time to read the think piece in silence. A facilitator is the time keeper.
  • Within each groups individuals should have the opportunity to say what resonated with them.
  • As a group provide a short paragraph explaining the BIG IDEA; select a SENTENCE that was meaningful to you and developed your understanding; record a PHRASE  that stood out; and a WORD that struck you as powerful.
  • As a group summarize the key points that have been raised ready to feedback to the facilitator or whole group.

Professional Learning Communities

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