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Professional Learning Communities

Collective Responsibility for Student Learning

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are teams of educators who take collective responsibility for designing instruction that enables all students to become successful learners. They are distinguished from other working groups of educators by their focus on student data and shared peer review of instructional practice. Team members engage in a systematic, ongoing process of collective analysis that promotes deep team learning and higher levels of student achievement.1

Assessment For Learning

Professional Learning Communities may be uniquely adapted to the needs of a particular department, school, or district; however they share a common focus on assessment. Team members track student performance to assess students’ learning needs and the effectiveness of instruction. The ongoing use of student data to adapt and drive instruction is a markedly different practice from traditional assessment practice, such as the use of state standardized test results and summative report cards [See 'Ongoing Monitoring of Student Learning'].

Educators as Continuing Learners

When team members have established the essential knowledge and skills, [See 'RVM Curriculum'], they develop common assessments that will allow team members to collectively analyze current levels of student achievement, and to share strategies for instruction designed to improve upon these levels.2. Sharing instructional strategies is intended in part, to identify successful practice that others can replicate in their own instruction. Shared practice reflects team members’ perspective on themselves as lifelong learners and resources for each other. PLC’s are founded upon the belief that teachers have the internal capacity to improve instructional practice and student learning. Professional Learning Communities are a way of capitalizing on the collective expertise of team members.

Opening Classroom Doors

Professional Learning Communities are challenging a longstanding norm of independent and isolated classroom practice by opening classrooms and instructional practice to peer review. PLC’s collaborative ethos and use of data to assess the effectiveness of instruction differs dramatically from traditional practice. Whereas traditional practice has used summative assessment as an indicator of student learning, PLC’s use common, formative assessments to guide instruction prospectively, as well as to provide timely feedback to students.

Shared Leadership

Structurally, PLC’s are based on a shared leadership model in which team members partner in decision-making, regardless of the role they play in traditionally hierarchical school settings. Teachers are just as likely as principals to function in facilitative roles. PLC teams include school principals, superintendents, classroom aids, curriculum directors, classroom teachers, and experts in Special Education and English Second Language learning. It is the collaborative ethos guiding the work that has the potential to catalyze larger scale, system-wide change.

Building Reform Momentum

As an educational initiative, Professional Learning Communities share several features associated with successful reform movements*. Team members reflect a depth of commitment to students and to each other akin to stewardship; they take personal and collective responsibility to safeguard successful learning opportunities for students. Successful reforms are representative of key stakeholders at the leadership level, as well as 'on the ground' doing the work. PLC teams include 'central office' staff as well as classroom teachers. Participants in reform initiatives understand that change is a long term process. They typically share an unwavering belief in the work they are doing and expect change to come in 'small steps'.


A Common Language

The most essential characteristic of a successful reform is the development of a 'common language' that reflects a mutual understanding of the work*. The 'common language' serves to orient members toward a common goal, as well as to reinforce the mission in the face of anticipated resistance. It also serves as 'shorthand' to expedite team communication. Participants know that they are 'on the same page'.

PLC’s share a 'common language' reflecting the belief that collaborative practice is the most successful strategy for achieving student learning. They collectively determine the Priority Standards based upon the needs of their students and then develop shared lessons, assessments, and scoring rubrics for improving student performance. However, given the conditions in which they function, PLC’s badly need tools to facilitate their collaborative practice.

The Need for Supportive Conditions

Schools are not designed to support teacher collaboration. PLC team members are often working on personal time to analyze student data and then negotiating differing team member schedules to meet. These conditions are not likely to sustain the initiative in the longer term. Technology holds both the promise and challenge for promoting, fostering and sustaining the PLC model.

The Promise and Challenge of Tech Software

The 'explosion' in educational products around the Common Core Standards mandate has resulted in schools and districts purchasing time saving programs that can free teachers to focus on instruction. The downside is that schools continue to function as silos in purchasing programs that cannot be easily shared across a district. A PLC could also be limited from viably sharing their work with other PLC’s. The use of programs that cannot be aligned with each other is antithetical to expanding the PLC movement because their use impedes easily shared practice—seminal to sustaining PLC initiatives.

Critical Juncture

Professional Learning Communities are modeling and practicing a collaborative ethos found to be most effective in impacting student learning. In that way, they are a promising reform movement for improving student learning in the U.S. However, they are teetering between adoption as a new norm of practice, and passing reference as another failed initiative. A tool supporting their work could create the conditions necessary to tip the balance.


References

Stoll, C. and Giddings, G. (2012) Reawakening the Learner: Creating Learner-Centric, Standards-Driven Schools. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Education

Ambrose, S.A. et al (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Hoboken: Jossey-Bass

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