Professional Learning Communities

I'm involved in some leadership and innovation initiatives at my school and am trying hard this summer to wrap my head around some things we want to tackle next year, especially forming our own Professional Learning Communities around 21st Century Learning. Here are some snippets I sent to my fellow Building Leadership Team members for them to ponder as we build our vision for 21st Century Learning and Professional Learning Communities and our Leadership Team for 09-10 [and beyond]. Our building staff has talked about PLC's and even went to some really great Richard DuFour's workshops (he's one of the leaders in the field) a few summers ago, but the concepts were never implemented once fall came around. So, we will try again.

I hope this information will serve as either a primer (or a review) about what PLC’s are and how they function. Only the fourth section is specifically geared toward technology integration. I have extracted [what I saw to be] the important points from some resources I found – which still makes for a long post! See if you can begin to catch the recurring themes of the different articles. [My own comments and questions appear in brackets.]

A. I think this first article from the ASCD’s Educational Leadership publication is great because it comes from Richard DuFour, and it shows how PLC’s fit nicely with Response To Intervention [a big push in many districts, including mine], although he doesn’t address RtI directly.

What Is a "Professional Learning Community"?

Big Idea #1: Ensuring That Students Learn

The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift—from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning—has profound implications for schools. Three crucial questions that drive the work of those within a professional learning community: [Response to Intervention?]

  • What do we want each student to learn?
  • How will we know when each student has learned it?
  • How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?

Big Idea #2: A Culture of Collaboration

Educators who are building a professional learning community recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture.

Collaborating for School Improvement

Collaborative conversations call on team members to make public what has traditionally been private—goals, strategies, materials, pacing, questions, concerns, and results. These discussions give every teacher someone to turn to and talk to, and they are explicitly structured to improve the classroom practice of teachers—individually and collectively. For teachers to participate in such a powerful process, the school must ensure that everyone belongs to a team that focuses on student learning. [How can we convey that the interaction among a PLC’s members is never to be supervisory or evaluative? How can we ensure that it never becomes so?

  • Each team must have time to meet during the workday and throughout the school year. [During the day, all year, common plan-how can we make this possible?]
  • Teams must focus their efforts on crucial questions related to learning and generate products that reflect that focus, such as lists of essential outcomes, different kinds of assessment, analyses of student achievement, and strategies for improving results.
  • Teams must develop norms or protocols to clarify expectations regarding roles, responsibilities, and relationships among team members. Teams must adopt student achievement goals linked with school and district goals.

Removing Barriers to Success

For meaningful collaboration to occur, a number of things must also stop happening.

  • Schools must stop pretending that merely presenting teachers with state standards or district curriculum guides will guarantee that all students have access to a common curriculum.
  • Schools must also give teachers time to analyze and discuss state and district curriculum documents.
  • More important, teacher conversations must quickly move beyond "What are we expected to teach?" to "How will we know when each student has learned?"
  • In addition, faculties must stop making excuses for failing to collaborate. [Does our present system value and support this kind of collaboration?]

Big Idea #3: A Focus on Results

  • Professional learning communities judge their effectiveness on the basis of results.
  • Working together to improve student achievement becomes the routine work of everyone in the school.
  • Every teacher team participates in an ongoing process of identifying the current level of student achievement, establishing a goal to improve the current level, working together to achieve that goal, and providing periodic evidence of progress.

Hard Work and Commitment

  • Initiating and sustaining the concept requires hard work. It 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.
  • When educators do the hard work necessary to implement these principles, their collective ability to help all students learn will rise.
  • If they fail to demonstrate the discipline to initiate and sustain this work, then their school is unlikely to become more effective, even if those within it claim to be a professional learning community.
  • The rise or fall of the professional learning community concept depends not on the merits of the concept itself, but on the most important element in the improvement of any school—the commitment and persistence of the educators within it.
What Is a "Professional Learning Community"?
EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP: May 2004 | Volume 61 | Number 8
Schools as Learning CommunitiesPages 6-11
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)

B. Here are some excerpts from Arapahoe High School's web page about their PLC adventures and their plan for going forward. AHS has been using PLC’s for two years.

A Professional Learning Community is a collegial group of administrators and school staff who are united in their commitment to student learning. They share a vision, work and learn collaboratively, visit and review other classrooms, and participate in decision making. The benefits to the staff and students include academicgains for students and better informed and more collaborative teachers.




The purpose of Professional Learning Communities is to improve student achievement through collaboration with colleagues.

* Engaging in Data Driven Dialogue

~ a 4 step process to look at common assessment data (steps are tied to the 4 questions listed above)

* Exploring the latest Research regarding best teaching practices

Where We Started

A Leadership Team, comprised of teachers, administrators and instructional coaches was created 2 years ago to:

· Help make decisions on behalf of the teachers in regard to PLC work

· Establish credibility for the PLCprocess

· Brainstorm ideas for future PLC work

· Communication link to the entire staff

· Simulate protocols to be used with entire staff

· Cultivate grassroots decision making

· Be a "sounding board" to assess the progress of the PLC process

What We've Accomplished

· Summer of 2007, entire staff read Rick Dufour's book Professional Learning Communities At Work, chapters 1-5

· With input from staff, students and parents,the AHS Mission Statement was created and approved in fall of 2007 and Vision Statement was created and approved in fall of 2008

· Every PLC team has identified at least oneEssential Learning to focus on during PLC's

· Every PLC team has administered a Common Formative Assessment aroundtheir Essential Learning

· Instructional Coaches trained a majority of the staff on Data Driven Dialogue process in the spring of 2008

· All PLC Facilitatorsarereceiving professional development training, led by the InstructionalCoaches

· Leadership Team continues to meet to provide valuable feedback and direction for the future

Where We're Going

· Begin goal settingin individual PLC's

· Continue to collaborate with colleagues

· Continue to have conversationsabout sustaining the PLC process and embeddingthe culture of change in AHS

· Continue to use the DuFour book Professional Learning Communities At Work to guide our work

· Continue to provide researchforthe staff and community on PLC's

· Continue to provide training and support for PLC Facilitators

· Continue to train staff on the Data Driven Dialogue process


C. The following excerpts are from a very long article from SEDL (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory). Some of its language that makes me think of the true purpose of Continuous Quality Improvement. For your convenience, because the piece is so long, I’ll start with the summary.

Professional Learning Communities: What Are They And Why Are They Important?


Reports in the literature are quite clear about what successful professional learning communities look like and act like. The requirements necessary for such organizational arrangements include:

  • The collegial and facilitative participation of the principal, who shares leadership - and thus, power and authority - through inviting staff input in decision making. [Does our new Superintendent have a policy or strategy regarding PLC’s?]
  • A shared vision that is developed from staff's unswerving commitment to students' learning and that is consistently articulated and referenced for the staff's work. [CQI and RtI?]
  • Collective learning among staff and application of that learning to solutions that address students' needs. [How do we get resistors on the bus or find another bus a la Good to Great.] [How do we foster increased trust among staff or individual PLC members?]
  • The visitation and review of each teacher's classroom behavior by peers as a feedback and assistance activity to support individual and community improvement [How will we involve parents and community members in a meaningful way?] [How can we coordinate our PLC’s with our present model and schedule for professional development?]
  • Physical conditions and human capacities that support such an operation. [How will we arrange for common plan times during the school day in order for these PLC’s to be successful? How will the PLC's include electives, especially since they are on a different schedule?]

This paper focuses on what is labeled the professional community of learners, in which the teachers in a school and its administrators continuously seek and share learning and then act on what they learn.

The goal of their actions is to enhance their effectiveness as professionals so that students benefit. This arrangement has also been termed communities of continuous inquiry and improvement.

As an organizational arrangement, the professional learning community is seen as a powerful staff development approach and a potent strategy for school change and improvement.

Outcomes of PLC’s

For students:

  • decreased dropout rate and fewer classes "skipped"
  • lower rates of absenteeism
  • increased learning that is distributed more equitably in the smaller high schools
  • greater academic gains in math, science, history, and reading than in traditional schools and
  • smaller achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds (p. 28).

For staff:

  • reduction of isolation of teachers
  • increased commitment to the mission and goals of the school and increased vigor in working to strengthen the mission
  • shared responsibility for the total development of students and collective responsibility for students' success
  • powerful learning that defines good teaching and classroom practice and that creates new knowledge and beliefs about teaching and learners
  • increased meaning and understanding of the content that teachers teach and the roles they play in helping all students achieve expectations
  • higher likelihood that teachers will be well informed, professionally renewed, and inspired to inspire students
  • more satisfaction, higher morale, and lower rates of absenteeism
  • significant advances in adapting teaching to the students, accomplished more quickly than in traditional schools
  • commitment to making significant and lasting changes and
  • higher likelihood of undertaking fundamental systemic change (p. 27).

Professional Learning Communities: What Are They And Why Are They Important? Issues... about Change, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1997)

D. This final article about how emerging technologies are transforming PLC's into PLN's comes from the May, 2009 entry in Rob Jacobs’ blog. He is an administrator in California. The blog is: Education Innovation.

The New Professional Learning Community- The PNLC

Professional Learning Communities are going to change. The change will come in response to technology and the need to adopt it as a part of how a PLC functions.

Converged Networking denotes:

  • the ability to carry data, voice, and video over a single network

  • broadband to school sites, district offices, and wireless devic

  • will change how, where, and with whom Professional Learning Communities collaborate with

  • including different schools, experts at the district office, or consultants from across the globe

  • Teachers at other schools to share instructional strategies

  • district personnel to discuss data or potential Special Education issues

  • consultants via various collaborative technology platforms.

Imagine PLC meetings with:

PLCs will be able to leverage talent, expertise, and knowledge independent of geographic restrictions. This location independence or location non-dependence will increase the calls for Professional Learning Communities to operate with even greater collaboration because more people will be able to be potential members.

Just as communication technologies such as email or cell phones have created an expectation of immediacy, that is, and expectation for immediate response, so too collaborative technologies change the culture of Professional Learning Communities to expect real-time interaction.

Professional Learning Communities will move from “communities” to “networks.” [This has already happened among those in the educational technology field. We have been building PLN’s or Personal Learning Networks through blogging, Twitter, Nings, Second Life, etc. across the globe for a few years now.]

Additional Resources via SEDL:

· Leading Professional Learning Communities: Voices from Research and Practice

· Professional Learning Communities - Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement

· Professional Learning Communities - An Ongoing Exploration

· Multiple Mirrors: Reflections on the Creation of Professional Learning Communities

· Schools as Learning Communities - Issues About Change, Volume 4, Number 1

· Professional Learning Communities: What Are They and Why Are They Important? - Issues About Change, Volume 6, Number 1

· Creating a Professional Learning Community: Cottonwood Creek School - Issues About Change, Volume 6, Number 2

· Assessing a School Staff as a Community of Professional Learners - Issues About Change, Volume 7, Number 1

· Principals and Teachers: Continuous Learners - Issues About Change, Volume 7, Number 2

· Launching Professional Learning Communities: Beginning Actions - Issues About Change, Volume 8, Number 1

· Co-Developers: Partners in a Study of Professional Learning Communities - Issues About Change, Volume 8, Number 2