What is a professional learning community?

December 3, 2022

A professional learning community (PLC) is a group of educators who come together to collaborate, share, and learn together. PLCs are usually associated with schools but can also be found in universities, colleges, libraries, museums, and other organizations.

A PLC is a collaborative, problem-based, results-oriented environment that focuses on what students learn. It’s organized in a way that allows teachers to work together to improve the quality of their teaching practices.

PLCs started picking up steam in the 1980s when educators realized that schools needed to be more collaborative. For teachers to be successful, they needed to be able to work together as a team, and this was something that was lacking at the time.

Educators would often go into their classrooms with little knowledge of what was happening in other classrooms in their building or even on their floor. They weren’t receiving any training on how to deal with students who needed extra support, and they didn’t know what resources were available in their community or state.

Professional learning communities addressed this problem by bringing teachers together regularly so they could learn from each other’s experiences and support one another’s efforts toward improving student performance. PLCs are common in K–12 schools, but higher education organizations can also benefit from this model of student performance improvement.

How do PLCs differ from traditional teaching and learning environments?

PLCs differ from traditional teaching environments because they focus on what students learn rather than just how much time is spent in the classroom. They require teachers to spend time outside of class working on their areas of expertise so they can collaborate more efficiently in group settings when necessary. This creates a culture of collaboration where teachers feel supported by one another rather than threatened by each other’s successes or failures.

One of the purposes of a PLC is to try out new strategies. The group must strike a balance between each teacher’s autonomy and their shared expectations for student learning. 

Teachers in a learning community constantly engage in a cycle of learning. They analyze data, set goals, and learn both individually and collaboratively. The outcome is each teacher implementing practices that meet the needs of all learners. These cycles allow teachers to try new teaching methods and discover what works best for their students.

What are the components of a PLC?

Student learning, collaboration, and tangible results are at the heart of effective PLCs in K–12 schools, higher education institutions, and other educational organizations.

Focusing on what students learn

The primary focus of a PLC should be on what students learn. Every PLC should explore the fundamental questions of what they want the students to learn and how they can determine whether this learning has been achieved. The teachers in a learning community share their ideas and experiences, which helps them come up with new ways to teach their students to improve their understanding and achievement.

The educators discuss their lesson plans before they start teaching so they can learn from each other’s experience. Each teacher should be able to explain what the students should understand by the end of a lesson and why they need to understand it.

A strong focus on the fundamental questions should be reflected in the results. The PLC should create lists of essential outcomes, different kinds of student assessments, and strategies for improvement to ensure that the desired results are clear, measurable, and achievable.

Creating a culture of collaboration

Collaboration is the key to success in a professional learning community. The first thing you need to do to create a culture of collaboration is to make sure everyone on your team feels like their ideas and opinions are being heard. The last thing you want is for your educators to feel like they can’t speak up or ask questions.

To accomplish this, you need to encourage open communication by making sure that people are comfortable speaking their mind, even when they disagree with their colleagues. Be sure to offer praise when appropriate and constructive feedback when necessary.

You’ll also want to make sure that everyone on your team feels like they’re an important part of the process, which means giving them opportunities for growth and development along with the rest of their team members.

Although collaboration on operational procedures within the school is valuable, a deeper form of collaboration must be developed within the PLC. To improve their teaching practice, teachers need a systematic process in which they can analyze and share information with each other. They need to be allowed to reflect on what works best for their students and how these teaching strategies can be improved upon. They need a chance to learn from others who are experienced in experimenting with new approaches in the classroom.

The regular sharing of materials, strategies, pacing, concerns, questions, and results will improve teacher performance — both collectively and individually.

Focusing on results and outcomes

The goal of a PLC is not to raise the teachers’ approval ratings in the eyes of students and other observers. The ultimate aim is to achieve and improve student learning outcomes.

PLCs offer a space for educators to learn continuously, in part by encouraging them to examine what they’ve learned and how they’ve applied that knowledge to achieve results. The teachers participate in the ongoing process of identifying the current level of student achievement, setting a goal for improvement, and working together to achieve that goal.

All schools have initial data on student achievement. A PLC can use that data to set new goals and create plans by identifying practices that are working and those that are not. By sharing materials, resources, and best practices, the PLC can improve the performance of all students.

The best PLCs develop a clear vision of specific outcomes and results that they want to achieve as well as a plan for how they plan to accomplish those goals.

How PLCs can be structured in higher education

Professional learning communities are an important tool for higher education. They provide a way for faculty members to collaborate on teaching and learning, and they help ensure that students can access the resources they need to be successful.

But what makes a PLC successful? How can you make sure your PLC is structured in a way that will benefit everyone involved?

Before deciding on a structure for your PLC, you should be able to articulate what you hope to accomplish by creating this space for knowledge and idea sharing among your colleagues. These goals should be specific and measurable so that everyone will know when the goals have been met or exceeded. They should also be ambitious, but not impossible — you want to push each other toward excellence without setting yourself up for failure.

Once you have clear goals in mind, you can choose a structure that will best help you to meet those goals. Here are some structure suggestions for higher education institutions:

  • Within a university, by college 
  • By department
  • By subject
  • By course level
  • By grade level or year

The higher education setting offers more potential variety in PLC structure than what’s possible in most K–12 schools. Grade level and course level PLCs will need to think of broader goals and outcomes than the subject-based groups. For example, if your organization has a PLC structured by grade level, the goals will have to be geared to specific problems the whole grade is facing, such as low retention rates or difficulties adjusting to college life in the case of a new freshman class.

PLCs structured by subject or department can focus more on improving academic skills and outcomes. In higher education environments, it can be beneficial to have several PLCs with different structures and focuses because academic achievement is not always the only factor to affect student outcomes.

Characteristics of a successful PLC

Not all PLCs are designed with the best interests of the students in mind. Ineffective PLCs often have no clear goals and make no effort to translate what happens in the PLC meetings to the activities in the classroom. It may seem like the meetings are just another coffee break where you catch up with each other, because student achievement and improvement are never discussed.

Successful PLCs can be easily identified because they have some common characteristics.

Intervention rather than remediation

Using intervention rather than remediation to address student struggles can achieve better results. Remediation happens in response to failing to achieve a goal, often in the form of re-teaching a previously covered skill. By contrast, intervention is an ongoing self-adjustment process that happens before and during the initial instruction to make sure all students have the chance to achieve the desired learning outcomes.

An outcome-driven PLC will have a clear view of the learning outcomes they want to achieve and a full understanding of the content their students will be responsible for learning. By fully comprehending the specific skills and concepts students need to master, teachers can identify the concepts that are difficult to teach — and difficult for students to learn — and anticipate interventions and extensions to help struggling students the first time through the lesson. 

For example, if you notice that one of your students is having trouble with a particular skill, you might add an activity that helps them practice that skill. Or, if you see several students struggling with a particular concept, you might introduce a new group activity that builds on that concept.

A culture of collaboration

Individual teachers do amazing things in their classrooms every day. But their efforts are magnified when they collaborate with other teachers. The resulting accelerated learning builds the momentum to do even more, creating a positive feedback loop. 

In a PLC, educators are encouraged to share what they’ve learned with others, who then share their own ideas and experiences. This positive feedback loop builds on itself, resulting in greater knowledge and understanding for everyone involved.

Focus on removing barriers to learning

When done right, PLCs can be powerful tools for removing barriers to student achievement. Teachers gain knowledge of their students’ strengths and needs by sharing data, assessments, and other resources with their peers. The goal of the PLC is to improve student outcomes, and when the focus is on the students, teaching strategies improve.

Every student is unique and learns in different ways. Educators who focus on learning outcomes plan for these differences, using the collective resources, materials, and ideas of the PLC to address many of the barriers to their intended outcomes.

Commitment to continual improvement

A properly functioning PLC requires everyone involved to commit to the hard work necessary to maintain a focus on learning and to get in the habit of holding themselves accountable for the results. The commitment and persistence of the teachers within a PLC is the most important element in the success of the group’s improvement efforts.

Educators who commit to this continual improvement can build a learning environment that leads to success for all students. Through the exchange of ideas, best practices, and a host of other valuable resources, teachers can collectively improve their practices to ultimately improve learning outcomes for their students.

Results-driven practice

It’s easy to design a PLC based on your own interests and preferences. But if the aim of your PLC doesn’t reflect the needs of your school or educational institution, it won’t be as successful.

The key to designing an effective PLC is to make sure that it focuses on results. The purpose of a PLC is to help teachers improve student achievement and engagement in the classroom. Thus, your PLC should be based on an assessment of student needs and built around strategies that will help teachers meet those needs.

Adequate time investment

To gain the greatest benefit from PLCs, teachers need time to gather and review student work, analyze data, make decisions about instruction, affirm what works and discard the strategies that don’t.

When meetings are held inconsistently, or when members are distracted by other demands, the efficacy of the PLC decreases. Therefore, when creating a new PLC, it’s important to set aside enough time consistently to allow teachers to fully participate in the goal setting, analysis, and planning needed to improve student outcomes.

Not every organization can set aside daily 90-minute blocks for their educators to participate meaningfully in PLC meetings, but there are a few practical suggestions for making the most of the time you do have.

Limit the number of teams assigned to each teacher

More is not always better. Although collaboration can improve student achievement, having teachers constantly meet with different groups is just not effective. If they only have one team to work with, they can better focus on the work that needs to be done. This is especially true if your school is just starting to implement PLCs.

Utilize every spare minute on collective inquiry around student learning

There is more time already built into a teacher’s schedule that can be repurposed into collaborative working time focused on student learning. Many things addressed at faculty meetings are unconnected to student learning and can be addressed by emailing announcements. Teacher professional development days can also be restructured around collaborative teams working on improving student outcomes.

Start small

Instead of diving in headfirst by trying to do everything right when your PLC gets off the ground, keep it simple for the first few months of working together. Try picking a few key skills from one unit of study to focus your collective efforts on.

Develop a short common assessment to measure those skills and let the individual teachers create their own lessons. After administering the common assessment, make a list of the students that didn’t pass and take action together to help them master it. After a while, you’ll find that your team is ready for even more involved work.

Professional learning communities support student achievement

No matter what kind of school or institution you serve, PLCs can improve learning outcomes for all your students.

PLCs aim to improve student achievement above all else. Teaching is an art and science, but it also requires knowledge about the subject matter as well as teaching techniques and strategies. Educators need to know how to plan lessons, manage behavior, assess student progress, use data to make decisions, and collaborate with others at their institution.

PLCs provide opportunities for teachers to share what they know about teaching methods and strategies with one another so they can learn from each other’s experiences. They also give teachers opportunities to learn about new research findings or best practices related to teaching and school leadership and build relationships with their peers.

Because PLCs exist across content areas and grade levels, they allow teachers to work together to find solutions for the students in their classrooms. A community of teachers taking an active role in improving the schools they work in enriches those environments, ultimately empowering students and creating spaces where they can learn, grow, and thrive.

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