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
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