The Benefits of Professional Learning Communities & How to Leverage Them
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) seem to be everywhere these days. You're probably already a member of one, especially considering that 83.5 percent of respondents to Schoology's 2018 Global State of Digital Learning Report agree that PLCs are effective tools for professional development.
That's not entirely surprising, given that PLCs have arisen at time when traditional professional development (PD) offerings—one-and-done lectures, a series of meetings on a new topic led by a consultant, etc.—may be fading away. A recent study by the nonprofit New Teacher Project (TNTP) found that even though districts spent an average of $18,000 per teacher and 19 days per year on professional development, only 30 percent of teachers actually improved their performance.
PLCs are attractive because they're nearly free, and they're incredibly flexible. Teachers, administrators and other staff members can design their work around their students' needs and work together to solve specific problems around achievement, school culture, and more. So, let’s take a look at what a PLC actually is and what some of the benefits of professional learning communities are.
What Is a PLC, Exactly?
Professional Learning Communities are groups of educators who work together to study learning standards and develop ways to improve student outcomes. These instructors work together to develop lessons and other initiatives, then they implement and test them to review how well they worked. Groups will use the information they gather during observation and discussion to adjust their instruction as needed. At their best, PLCs are collaborative and focus on inquiry and results. You may think of it as a laboratory approach to education: By observing problems and trying new solutions, educators experiment to find teaching methods that work best for their students.
4 Ways to Deepen Learning in Established PLCs
Though PLCs have the word "learning" right in their name, they tend to function as highly focused problem-solving groups. In their quest to find what teaching methods get the best results for students, group members may gloss quickly over some of the most important lessons to be gleaned from their work, putting their own professional development on the back burner as they focus on student outcomes. Of course student achievement is the priority, but there are ways to leverage your PLCs to provide excellent professional development, too.
1. Foster In-Person Collaboration
Unless your school is one of the few that has overhauled its schedule to provide robust common planning time and mentorship periods, opportunities for fruitful collaboration are hard to come by—there's just too much to do and not enough time to do it!
Your PLCs are already encouraging teachers to work together to solve specific problems, so take that work to the next level by making time for teachers to get creative with lesson planning, joint projects, and cross-curricular work that lets them partner with other professionals. The insights gained in this kind of work aren't just helpful in designing a new lesson, they also let teachers learn from each others' expertise and show new ways to approach issues. In-person collaboration also fosters positive morale and boosts school culture.
2. Squeeze More Learning Out of Observations
Good PLCs already have observation built into their work, as this is the only way to determine what methods are working and what needs to change. These observations rightly focus on the students' experience of a lesson, but watching other professionals in action is also a valuable learning experience for teachers.
When you're watching a lesson, take time to note other aspects of interest. Check out the classroom's layout, behavior management systems, routines, and even your colleague's personal style. Make notes about what you like or what you want to know more about, and reserve time at the end of PLC meetings for these "off the record" inquiries to build your arsenal of effective methods.
3. Model Successful Lessons
Once your PLCs already have a system or schedule in place to observe teachers trying new lessons, it's easy to use that infrastructure to give teachers time to observe other aspects of practice they'd like to improve. For example, if you've always wondered how a colleague is able to keep kids engaged in spelling lessons, make sure you get to see a tried-and-true lesson in action. Modeling what works is as essential as studying and evaluating new lessons—especially for educators who are new to the field. Once you've established an open-door culture of observation, allow teachers to use that time to get what need. Let them lead the way.
4. Get Better at Big Data
One major aspect of the work of PLCs is to use data to determine student needs and measure success of new teaching methods. By definition, staff will need to do a deep dive into test scores and other benchmarks to understand where their students are struggling. This is a great opportunity to provide important learning about exactly what all those numbers mean—and what they can and cannot reveal about students. Likewise, educators will have the opportunity to develop their own measures by which to judge the success of their initiatives, and they'll learn to analyze the results. This is all highly practical, hands-on learning that you can support with targeted education about how to work with data. Before assigning teachers to jump into analysis, offer a workshop, or model what it means to comb through the numbers. This is a great way to build a culture of curiosity and foster a no-fear embrace of data as a tool, not a torture device.
Your PLCs are an important way to train everyone's focus on student achievement, but they can also help teachers learn to become better at their jobs. Why not use the groups and systems you already have in place to make PLCs the center of your professional development as well? When you allow educators to take charge of their own learning, you empower them to do what's best for themselves and for your students.
What benefits of professional learning communities do you see in your school or district? Share with us on Twitter @Schoology.