Educators today are very familiar with the term, Professional Learning Communities or PLCs. In fact, many schools and school districts are utilizing the construct as a way to bring about school improvement. Although we are all familiar with the term ‘professional learning communities,’ we do not all share a common understanding of what a PLC is.
Depending on whom you ask, explanations of what a PLC is can range from the simple, such as ‘a group of teachers working together to plan lessons’ to a more specific description: A small group of educators who commit to their own learning in order to improve student learning. They meet regularly, form a trusting environment in which members openly discuss (their own and their students’) learning and teaching. Their work is self-directed and reflects the professional opinions of all members of the community about the unique challenges they face, individually and collectively.
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) shift the focus of school reform from restructuring to re-culturing (DuFour, 2006). A PLC is an ongoing process used to establish a school wide culture that requires teachers to learn and develop as leaders focused on increasing student learning. Through participation in PLCs, teachers enhance their leadership capacity while they work as members of ongoing, high-performing, collaborative teams that focus on improving student learning (Rentfro, 2007).
The hallmark of a PLC is long-term learning and collaboration. In some cases, leaders may find it necessary to explicitly direct and teach the skills teachers need to collaborate effectively. Organizations that encourage lifelong learning and collaboration have a common understanding of collegial behavior, share a common vocabulary and know how to engage in non-threatening conversations with peers. Within a PLC framework, teachers have an environment for assessing student work and intervening with individual students that need additional help. In this way academic interventions are timely and directive, so that students ‘catch up’ rather than fall behind. At the same time, teachers collaboratively decide, based on student performance, the need to change, adjust, and/or improve learning plans and classroom practices. DuFour asserts that in effective PLCs, teachers take ‘collective responsibility’ to make sure they are working together to analyze and improve their classroom practice. Moving beyond collegiality, PLC members analyze the best practices that generate the best results in terms of student learning. DuFour goes on to say, ‘Teachers work in teams, engaging in an ongoing cycle of questions that promote deep team learning. This process, in turn, leads to higher levels of student achievement.’
How does a school develop a professional learning community? Richard DuFour (2004) answers this question most best: ‘To create a professional learning community, focus on learning rather than teaching, work collaboratively, and hold yourself accountable for results.’ ).
Collaboration is a means to an end, not the end itself. Collaboration does not lead to improved results unless people are focused on the right issues. In many schools teachers are willing to collaborate on a variety of issues, but still insist on shutting the door to their own classroom practice. In a PLC, collaboration is the process by which teachers work together to impact their classroom practice.
For DuFour, and many other leading experts/practitioners, the purpose of a PLC is to provide educators an opportunity to work together to find ways to improve learning. Instead of focusing on the teacher and whether the unit or lesson has been properly developed and presented, the emphasis is on whether or not the students are learning what is being taught. A teacher may be wholeheartedly committed to teaching specific content, developing outstanding lessons and follow up assessments; however, if students are not learning, it does not matter how technically perfect the lessons may have been. As DuFour points out, ‘The relevant question in a PLC is not ‘Was it taught’? but rather, ‘Was it learned”? (2004)
Despite the attention to them in recent years, the model of professional learning communities is not new. Discussions relative to PLCs circulated in education circles in the 60’s as researchers attempted to identify strategies to help teachers work collaboratively to improve student learning. During the eighties, Rosenholtz (1989) brought workplace factors into the discussion surrounding the quality or instruction, asserting that teachers who were committed to their own lifelong learning and felt supported in their classroom practice were more effective than those who did not feel the same affirmation. Being connected and supported to a network of colleagues, cooperation among coworkers, and increased responsibility and leadership augmented teacher effectiveness in meeting their students’ needs. Further, Rosenholtz found that teachers with a high sense of efficacy were more likely to adopt innovative classroom practices and were also more likely to remain in the field of education.
These assertions began to be formalized in the early 90’s with the publication of Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline. Although Senge’s book was geared toward the business community, it garnered attention among educators when he suggested that learning organizations are places where people continually expand their capacity as they learn how to learn together. These ideas evolved into the construct of professional learning communities that we know today. (Senge, 2006)
In 1993, McLaughlin and Talbert assimilated these findings, suggesting that when teachers had opportunities for collaborative inquiry and the learning related to it, they were able to develop and share a body of wisdom gleaned from their experience. Adding to the discussion, Darling-Hammond (1996) cited shared decision making as a factor in curriculum reform and the transformation of teaching roles in some schools. In schools which provide teachers with structured time to work together in planning instruction, observing each other’s classrooms, and sharing feedback, teacher satisfaction and efficacy was ranked the highest. It is no coincidence that these are the very attributes that characterize professional learning communities.
Based upon the considerable amount of research that exists regarding PLCs, it is clear that PLCs work. The research also indicates that there is no single model of what the ideal PLC should ‘look like.’ Because the work of each PLC is aligned with each school’s mission and vision, and the needs of its own student body, teachers in the PLCs design strategies and classroom practice to fit their own school communities.
The literature on professional learning communities repeatedly gives attention to the attributes of such organizational arrangements: supportive and shared leadership, shared values and vision, supportive conditions, and shared personal practice. Additionally, the literature clearly recognizes the role and influence of the school leadership (principal, and sometimes assistant principal) as to whether change will occur within the school. Creating a culture of lifelong learning amongst teachers in a school requires the support of the leaders and the cultivating of the entire staff’s development as a learning community. We can look at schools wherein the staff is a professional learning community as a starting point for describing what learning communities look like and the role the principal play. In these school, the school leader “accepts a collegial relationship with teachers, to share leadership, power, and decision making.’ Carmichael goes on to recall the position of authority and power typically held by principals, in which the staff views them as all-wise and all-competent (1982). ‘Principals have internalized this omnicompetence. Others in the school reinforce it, making it difficult for principals to admit that they themselves can benefit from professional development opportunities, or to recognize the dynamic potential of staff contributions to decision making.’ This centralized control makes it difficult for the staff to feel safe in expressing divergent views on issues surrounding school change. Carmichael suggests that the perception of the principals’ omnicompetence be replaced with teachers’ ownership of and participation in their own learning. Kleine-Kracht (1993) agrees and expands on this to suggest that it is vital that school administrators be learners also, “questioning, investigating, and seeking solutions’ (p. 393) for school improvement. The established pattern that “teachers teach, students learn, and administrators manage is completely altered . . . [There is] no longer a hierarchy of who knows more than someone else, but rather the need for everyone to contribute” (p. 393). This new relationship between administrators and teachers leads to shared and collegial leadership in the school, where all grow professionally and learn to view themselves (to use an athletic metaphor) as “all playing on the same team and working toward the same goal: a better school.’ The supportive leadership of principals is one of the necessary human resources for restructuring staff into a school-based professional learning community. ‘These principals are “post-heroic leaders who do not view themselves as the architects of school effectiveness” (p. 234).’ She describes these principals as being willing to share authority, the capacity to facilitate the work of staff, and the ability to participate without dominating. Senge adds that the principal’s job is to create an environment in which the staff can learn continuously; “[t]hen in turn, . . . the job of the superintendent is to find principals and support [such] principals’ (p. 21) who create this environment. ‘This ‘suggests that no longer can leaders be thought of as top-down agents of change or seen as the visionaries of the corporation; instead leaders must be regarded as democratic teachers.’
Barber and Mourshed (2007) state the importance of widely dispersed leadership. ‘We did not find a single school which’turned around that did not possess committed and talented leadership.’ (P. 46) No one leader, though, has all the qualities, personal or professional, nor the vigor and vitality or expertise, to develop a process of improvement, while supporting the individuals within the organization to carry out the process. This can only be accomplished by building the capacity of others in the organization to share in the leadership of the organization.
Creating and sustaining a learning community requires that leaders base their overarching strategies on building the capacity on those in the organization, creating an environment which enables and encourages (even demands) collaborative work, instruction, and ‘systemness.’ (Fullan defines systemness as the degree to which people identify and are committed to an entity larger than themselves. Systemness, he contends is not about getting others work to get the system right so that you will be better off. It is about everyone doing their part to be as good as they can be during individual and collaborative work, and being aware that everyone needs to make a contribution to improve the system.
Sergiovanni (according to Erickson, 2005) explains that “the sources of authority for leadership are embedded in shared ideas, not in the power of position, and contends that it is also important that the principal believe that teachers have the capacity to respond to the needs of students, that this belief provides moral strength for principals to meet difficult political and educational challenges along the way.” (Sergiovanni, 1994)
In a school which is a learning community people from various positions and levels within the school collaborate and work together . (Dyer, 2000) Their work is grounded in reflective dialogue about students and teaching and learning. Sergiovanni (1994, p. 154) refers to these activities as inquiry, and ‘believes that as principals and teachers ‘inquire’ together they create community. Inquiry helps them to overcome divides caused by various specializations of grade level and subject matter. Inquiry forces debate among teachers about what is important. Inquiry promotes understanding and appreciation for the work of others. . . . And inquiry helps principals and teachers create the ties that bind them together as a special group and that bond them to a shared set of ideas. Inquiry, in other words, helps principals and teachers become a community of learners.’ Having these conversations helps those involved learn to apply new ideas and information to problem solving and to create new environments for students. This is possible because members of the community share values and vision.
Sharing vision goes well beyond just agreeing with a good idea. It is a mind picture of what is important to and about an organization. It is important that members of a staff be involved in the process of developing the school vision, and then to use that vision as a compass when making decisions about teaching and learning in their school. One element of the vision must be an unwavering focus on student learning, and every student’s possible learning must be taken into consideration.
This dedication to student learning effects patterns of which behavior is and is not tolerated within the organization. In an effective learning community, there is no clear distinction between the organization and the individual. Individuals are responsible for their own actions and growth; however, the good of the group is as important as is the ‘good of any individual.’ ‘The individuals are the system’they wish to create.’ (Fullan, 2012) There is open communication amongst community members which is made possible by the caring relationships that are forged as a result of the trust built based on shared commitment.
Teachers in an effective learning community must have the ability to accept feedback and the commitment to personal growth. Additionally, respect and trust among colleagues at the school and district level, ‘possession of an appropriate cognitive and skill base that enables effective teaching and learning,’ supportive leadership from administrators and others in key roles, and ‘relatively intensive socialization processes’ were also cited as essential characteristics. (Louis, 1995)
Louis and Kruse identify the physical factors that support learning communities as being time within the work day to meet and talk, small school size and physical proximity of the staff to one another, interdependent teaching roles, well-developed communication structures, school autonomy, and teacher empowerment. Soliciting staff input in selecting teachers and administrators for the school, and even encouraging staff that are not in tune with the program to find work elsewhere were seen as important characteristics of effective professional learning communities. (Louis, 1995)
In 1994, Boyd discussed a similar list of physical factors that result in an environment conducive to school change and continuous learning as being the availability of resources; schedules and structures that reduce isolation; policies that encourage greater autonomy, foster collaboration, enhance effective communication, and provide for staff development. Time is clearly a resource: “Time, or more properly the lack of it, is one of the most difficult problems faced by schools and districts.” (Boyd, 1994) Time is a significant issue for faculties who wish to work together collegially, and it has been cited as both a barrier (when it is not available) and a supportive factor (when it is available) by staffs engaged in lifelong learning.
Erickson highlighted the connection between Boyd’s human factors: positive teacher attitudes toward schooling, students, and change; students’ heightened interest and engagement with learning; norms of ongoing inquiry and continuous learning and growth; shared vision or sense of purpose; involvement in decision making; collegial relationships among teachers; positive, caring student-teacher-administrator relationships; a sense of community in the school, with factors outside the school: supportive community attitudes and parents and community members as partners. She also suggested that physical and people factors impact each other, and arranged the factors under four broad categories which would build a climate favorable to change and improvement: reducing isolation, increasing capacity, a caring and productive environment, and quality of the school’s programs for students.
A report of staff and student outcomes in schools where staff are engaged together in professional learning communities indicate the following impact'(learning communities) have: 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 reflects good teaching and classroom practice and that creates new knowledge and beliefs about teaching and learners, increased understanding of the content taught the roles teachers play in helping all students achieve expectations, high level of communication, higher morale, lower rates of absenteeism, increased likelihood that teachers will differentiate to meet the needs of students , goals are accomplished more quickly and results are sustained, and the change is systemic and ongoing. (Hord, 1997)
For students, the results include decreased dropout rate and fewer classes “skipped,’ lower rates of absenteeism, increased learning amongst all students groups, greater academic gains in math, science, history, and reading than in traditional schools and smaller achievement gaps between students from different backgrounds (p. 28). Mindset is more important than policy. Leaders must create and nurture a share mindset amongst all members of the staff In order for professionals to learn collaboratively, the focus must move away from the structural elements, such as when, where, how often are we meeting, to changing the culture of the organization and creating coherence. Sharing leadership and communicating purpose and priorities clearly and consistently facilitate building coherence. (Fullan, 2003)
As discussed, simply making structural changes in a school will not sustain a culture of lifelong learning within a school. Leaders must create coherence inside their school. Many school leaders make the mistake of pursuing too many initiatives and implementing yet another new program, rather than implementing a process of and sustaining the focus on continuous learning, and making student learning the school agenda.
According to Fullan, professional learning communities are action oriented, and are not grounded in good intentions. ‘Dreams become reality, because words become actions.’ Learning occurs as a result of doing, which develops a deeper and more profound knowledge and greater commitment than learning passively, by reading or listening. The best teachers are engagement and experience. But, members don’t continue to ‘do’ what is familiar if it proves ineffective. (Fullan, 2003)
However well-spoken a leader is, he must be able to translate his pronouncements of intentions into action and a plan for action that people can follow to bring about the desired change. These pronouncements must go beyond eloquence to clarity. ‘They must move beyond talking about change’to engaging people in the change.’ Leaders cannot and must not wait for all circumstances to be perfect or for every individual to ‘buy-in’ before moving forward. Effective and consistent communication requires that leaders ‘walk the talk and talk with walk.’ They must align their own behavior and the processes of the organization they lead with its goals and priorities. One strategy to The use of focus groups, surveys, small group discussions and informal ‘spur of the moment conversations ensure the leader is effectively communicating with and seeking information from people across the organization. DuFour and Fullan recommend a simple strategy to help leaders know if they have communicated effectively. They recommend that a leader simply ‘ask.’ (DuFour R. F., 2013)
School leaders should ensure that the purpose and vision of their organization is aligned with actionable steps. Engaging in these steps with others in the organization will sustain the energy and efforts of the group as they learn together. ‘The deepest learning occurs through doing’seeing what works and what doesn’t, and trying again.’ (DuFour R. F., 2013)
Leaders must maintain a laser-like focus on a few key priorities, develop capacity in individuals across all areas of the organization, make small adjustments as they move ahead, learn from both their successes and failures and, most importantly, ‘stay the course.’ (Reeves, 2006)
Keeping in mind that lifelong learning is a way of work and life, there are various principles that can guide a leader as they design opportunities for their teachers to continue to grow and learn. ‘The most promising strategy for helping all students learn is to develop a teacher. (DuFour R. , 2001) PLCs are about people, practices and processes. It is an ongoing endeavor rather than a program to be implemented. (DuFour R. F., 2013) Developing and nurturing a professional learning community takes time, patience, and perseverance. The PLC process is specifically intended to impact the traditional culture of schooling in profound ways. ‘Whereas many schools operate as if their primary purpose is to ensure that children as taught, PLCs are dedicated to the idea that the organization exists to ensure that all students learn.’ (Schmoker, 2005) Making PLCs systemic requires people throughout the system to act in new ways and to contribute to the collective effort to make schools a better place for both student and adult learning. People must be willing to look in the mirror for solutions, rather than out of the window while waiting for others in the system to save them.’ PLCs are fundamentally a change in culture”the way we do work around here.’ (DuFour R. D., 2006)
Leaders must recognize this and understand that this process is a cycle. Reeves illustrated the cycle of organizational improvement as vision, action, communicate, action, buy-in, more action” (2006, p. 96). This process generates more ownership as the cycle continues.
Erickson reflected on her own experience as a leader of change within her district and offered advice to aspiring school and district leaders, ‘Yes, it was often hard to maintain focus on the priorities I had (or we had) identified, and I learned how important it was to choose those priorities carefully. There were many times, I thought about trying something else, especially when others would suggest that we were focusing on the wrong things (or weren’t focusing on the right things) and that we weren’t getting results. And yes, many times, simply putting one foot in front of the other seemed uninspired and boring. In the long run though, my team would always return to working our plan and staying the course. We had committed to the plan and to each other. It did not always appear to others that we were innovators, and the tedium was not glamorous. But glamor and headlines will never replace the benefits you reap from patience and perseverance when you are trying to move a large barge up a small creek.’
If literature continues to indicate that strong results are linked to teachers and administrators working in professional learning communities, what is needed to increase the existence of learning communities in schools? ‘A paradigm shift is needed both by the public and by teachers themselves, about’the role of teacher’. Many in the public and in the profession believe that the only legitimate use of teachers’ time is standing in front of the class, working directly with students.’ In studies comparing how teachers around the globe spend their time, it was indicated that in other countries, including Japan, teachers teach fewer classes and spend a larger portion of their time to plan, collaborate with colleagues, work with students individually, visit other classrooms, and engage in other professional development activities. (Darling-Hammond, 1996) Bringing about changes in perspective that will enable the public and the profession to understand and value teachers’ professional development will require focused and concerted effort.
The essence of a professional learning community is a focus on learning and a unified commitment to doing the work necessary to achieve the results desired. PLCs are collaborative teams working interdependently toward a common goal’every child will learn, and with the knowledge that adult learning must lead to children learning. (DuFour R. , 2001) In a PLC teachers develop new skills and capacities in terms of their teaching, and build shared knowledge about best practice in student learning. The team is curious about promising research and open to exploring possibilities. They expect to work and learn together.
The focus for an effective PLC is on the ‘why’ of change, not the ‘how.’ Roland Barth said, ‘always complexity, never a checklist.’ The work of a PLC is complex and ongoing, and not something to be rushed through and checked off a list as complete. The work is never really ‘done.’
Many school successfully the practice of Professional Learning Communities, but their efforts fizzled over time. So, how Does a Leader Sustain a PLC Culture at Her School? First, it is important that the leader be willing to lead. You cannot wait for it to happen. And implementing an effective PLC practice will require more than an invitation. Leaders must actively support the effort and apply pressure (when needed) to ensure it happen. Keep the work moving forward, and maintain a results orientation. It’s important that the school leader clearly identify priorities, and that indicators of success are identified and measured. (Marzano, 2003)
In order to encourage teachers to continue to learn and grow in their profession school leaders must Walk the Talk, model their own willingness to learning and ensure the idea of continuous improvement is embedded across all organizational activities. Our words and actions must be aligned. Leaders must accept that they are going to make mistakes, learn from them, and keep going. Celebrate the little victories along the way, set new goals, and remember that teachers need to see that confidence in them and their work remains constant. (DuFour, 2001)
Rumi, a Persian poet during the 13th century said, ‘Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself (Goodreads, 2013). Changing the world of education will require us to be wise. As Lucianne Carmichael has said, “Teachers are the first learners.” Through their participation in a professional learning community, teachers become more effective, and student outcomes increase – a goal upon which we can all agree. (Carmichael, 2013)
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