The Importance of Professional Learning Communities & How to Make Them Effective
We Have PLCs! (No, You Don't!)
The following scenario plays out daily in schools across the nation: A nice, generally competent administrator touts the school's professional learning community (PLC). When pressed further, they state that teachers meet weekly in their departments to talk about their students and how to help them.
While well-meaning and possibly good for kids, the above example is not a true PLC. In fact, those who coined the phrase have argued that "the term has become so commonplace and has been used so ambiguously to describe virtually any loose coupling of individuals who share a common interest in education that it is in danger of losing all meaning." That is a remarkable statement. How can you make sure that you actually have PLCs, are aware of the importance of professional learning communities, and how can you make your PLCs more effective? Here are six specific ways.
1. Ensure Fidelity to the PLC Model
Professional learning communities are not instructional frameworks, meeting times, or simply groups of people who care about students. PLCs are a continuous, collaborative process in which educators conduct "recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research" to improve outcomes for students. To make your school's PLCs more effective, they must first meet this standard of collective professional action.
2. Keep the Focus on Learning - For Both Students and Adults
We've all seen examples of what happens when a relentless focus on learning starts to drift: There was the third grade teacher who spent three weeks having her students make potato people. Heck, I had a colleague who spent two weeks on either side of winter break teaching the history of toys. That can't be the norm if your PLCs are to thrive.
3. Actively Define, Discuss, and Support Collaboration
In an effective PLC, the mission, vision, values, and goals are all shared. Teams work together and engage in collective inquiry to find what works in terms of teaching and learning. When collaboration is humming in your PLCs, teachers will possess a greater (shared) understanding of student data, be able to develop more creative lesson plans, and reduce their sense of professional isolation.
School leaders should support collaboration with both time and resources: Protect collaborative time, require a focus on best practices for student learning, and ask teams to share their results. Want your teachers to visit each other's classrooms and share ideas? They need time. Expect your teachers to create and share common assessments via your LMS? They need time.
Thriving PLCs collectively develop clear, student-centered objectives for student learning and ensure that students actually learn them. Also, adults in PLCs embody the ideal of lifelong learning, refusing to be "content with the status quo." True PLCs pursue this continuous cycle of learning at all times.
4. Establish and Continuously Refine Team Protocols and Norms
One PLC in Illinois meets to answer their "four essential questions" of PLC work: What do we expect students to learn, how will we know they are learning, how will we respond if they don't, and how will we respond if they already know it? These seem like simple questions, but how a team goes about answering them can play out in myriad ways. To be more effective, a PLC must make continuous refinements to their process.
Many schools in Ohio have used what is known as the five-step teacher-based team process as a guide. The teams develop norms that encourage on-task, professional conversations, maintain focus on student learning, and help hold each other accountable. West Virginia has provided a list of key items to consider when establishing group norms, including protocols for active listening, group participation, and decision-making. Having a meeting about student learning is good; establishing and refining a process for digging in to student learning data is better.
5. Embrace Educational Technology in the PLC Environment
The PLC setting represents a perfect opportunity to encourage educators to grow their personal learning networks (PLNs), especially online. It is very unlikely that every teacher in your school has common planning time with all the others. Your learning management system (LMS) can help bridge that gap, serving as a location where teachers can create and store common assessments, share resources, and maintain relevant pools of data.
Let's say a PLC meets to discuss recent results from an eighth grade English language arts common assessment. Based on the data, the team decides to intervene with students regarding a key aspect of the lesson using selected middle-level literacy strategies that they have shared on the school's LMS. Two teachers offer to record their lessons for future team discussion, thus facilitating asynchronous peer observation and feedback. Later, they share some of their experiences with colleagues around the country during a weekly Twitter chat. These are just a few quick examples of how edtech could take your PLCs to the next level.
6. The Importance of Trust
Teachers won't have the deep conversations that they need to have about student learning data or their own instructional practice until the system is structured to help breed that trust. One school leader worked to accomplish this by attending meetings only as a participant, listening and showing support for the work taking place between faculty members. Leaders must demonstrate institutional support for the PLC process, showing that it is not a passing fad, but part of a deep commitment to student learning.
Toward Better PLCs
You can lead the charge of making your PLCs more effective by understanding what they are and, more importantly, what they are not. They are not meetings. They are empowered professionals continuously collaborating on the work of improving student outcomes. As your PLCs become more effective, so will your school.
What did you learn about the importance of professional learning communities? Tell us on Twitter @Schoology