Why is the spotlight on professional learning communities (PLCs)?
In Wales PLCs are a key element in the national approach to school improvement. The Welsh Government has sought to bring together professional standards, professional development and performance management within a new practice review and development model (PRD), and see PLCs as making a fundamental contribution. This is reflected in the Welsh Government definition of a PLC as:
. . . a group of practitioners working together using a structured process of enquiry to focus on a specific area of their teaching to improve outcomes and to raise school standards.
(Welsh Government, 2013; page 5)
PLCs have generated much interest because of their perceived potential to galvanise staff to bring about school improvement and gains in learner learning. Typical claims are that having a ’self-conscious professional community‘ is a clear characteristic of those schools which are most successful with students, and that developing PLCs is a crucial factor in sustaining school improvement over time.
Research on the concept of ‘professional community’ started in the USA in the 1980s. The development of PLCs was then given considerable momentum by a 2-year research project in England which identified the main characteristics of PLCs, processes by which they may be developed, and criteria by which they can be judged effective (Bolam et al, 2005).
What are the ingredients of a PLC?
This definition makes it clear that PLCs are focused on improving outcomes and this is echoed in the way others have portrayed PLCs as everyone coming together to bring about better learning for children:
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.
(Stoll et al, 2006; page 4).
The relationship between student learning and the professional learning community is fundamental. One of the early pioneers of PLC thinking and practice in the USA, Shirley Hord (2009), charts this inter-connected relationship by stating that the purpose of schools is student learning; the most significant factor in whether students learn is teaching quality; teacher quality is improved through continuous professional learning; the context most supportive of the learning of professionals is the professional learning community.
Hord (2009) defines the PLC in terms of its constituent words:
‘professional’ indicates responsibility to ensure students learn well
‘learning’ is the activity in which these professionals engage in order to enhance their knowledge and skills
‘community’ focuses on how colleagues come together, within a supportive community context, to learn deeply about an identified topic, and develop shared meaning and purposes.
Key characteristics of a PLC
At the heart of the promotion of PLCs is the belief that professional engagement that staff have outside the classroom can have as significant an effect as their activities within it. Professional learning, in collaboration with others within and beyond the school, is important and counts.
In a school where a PLC flourishes the staff collectively takes responsibility to learn new content, strategies, or approaches to increase its effectiveness in teaching, and work together towards a common understanding of concepts and practices (Hord, 2009 and Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007). From a review of all that has been written about PLCs they have been found to have the following range of characteristics.
- Shared values and vision.
- Collective responsibility for learners’ learning.
- Collaboration focused on learning.
- Group as well as individual professional learning.
- Reflective professional enquiry.
- Openness, networks and partnerships.
- Inclusive membership.
- Mutual trust, respect and support.
As well as teachers, including school leaders, the participation of other staff in PLCs is also critical. Indeed, many have come to see the inclusion of not only the full spectrum of colleagues with the school, but also a breadth of partners external to the school as bringing an important vitality to PLCs. So PLCs may comprise of:
- internal professionals – teachers and other staff
- internal non-professionals – learners, parents/carers and governors (non-employee members of the school organisation)
- external professionals – LA and university staff and consultants
- external non-professionals – representatives from the wider community, social services, health professionals, business and industry, etc.
Stoll et al (2003; page 4)
The contribution of leadership to both establishing and maintaining a PLC is crucial. Headteachers and other school leaders promote their PLC effectively through developing and spreading a learning vision and focus; building trust and collaboration; and promoting distributed leadership.
More than a sum of the parts
The shift in focus from individual learning to a community of learners owes much to the influence of PLCs. They have shown the potential for how ‘a range of people based inside and outside a school can mutually enhance each other’s and pupils’ learning as well as school development’ (Stoll et al. 2006b). PLCs are intended to maximise the talents and contribution that can flourish through collaborative learning. Within a professional learning community ‘there is a sense of the gains of such a group being more a sum of the parts’ (Handscomb, 2011) so that ‘what is held in common supplements, but does not supplant, what teachers learn individually and bring to the classroom’ (Stoll and Seashore Louis, 2007). PLCs are intended as a means to an end; the goal is not just to be a PLC. Rather, a key purpose of PLCs is to enhance staff effectiveness as professionals, to the ultimate benefit of learners.
How to create and develop a professional learning community
In working with the Welsh Government Alma Harris helped to create a seven stage model. Watch the following video in which she explains each of the stages (external link).
Look also at the Professional learning communities guidance (Welsh Government, 2013). Think of a school you know well and how it might develop a PLC. Reflecting on the video and the guidance, explain what you feel would be the most challenging stages/elements and how these might be overcome.