Professional Learning Communities Hold Promise for Schools
Most teachers, students, and parents will agree that the quality of their school can be attributed to more than just the curriculum or any one particular teacher or classroom. The positive—or negative—feelings people have about a school are often formed by both tangible and intangible things.
Consider the following features that are typically observed in a high school, and ask yourself: If a visitor were to walk through my building or around the campus, what conclusions could be drawn about the school's culture based on what they see?
Many other factors exist that reveal something about a school. From cleanliness to course offerings, visitors can ascertain a sense of the climate of a school within minutes.
- Does a stroll through the building reveal teachers teaching and students engaged in learning?
- What evidence of learning exists in building displays?
- Is there equal representation of academic, athletic, and artistic excellence?
- Do students and adults walk through the building with a sense of purpose?
- Are students and adults in designated areas at designated times?
- Does someone greet visitors and register their presence in the building?
Some would say that the culture-or beliefs and behaviors exhibited by the people who teach and attend there-is one of the most important attributes of a school. If so, how can school culture be used to affect overall improvement in student learning and performance?
Schools as Learning Communities
Culture emerges from community. When people come together and work toward a common goal, a community is formed. In schools, that goal is learning. It seems almost trite to label schools as learning communities; of course schools bring groups of diverse people together with a common goal of student learning. Schools reflect the inherent characteristic of "community."
Some schools tend to be more successful learning communities than others, and everyone, from parents to researchers to policy makers, investigate the characteristics that distinguish one learning community from another.
Teachers Coming Together
Almost 15 years ago, Peter Senge explored the concept of learning communities in his seminal work The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990). He explained that while an assessment of school culture gives insight to the status of the learning community as a whole, it may not reveal the level to which professional learning communities (PLCs) are involved in the day-to-day formation of that culture.
Senge, an expert on how organizations can learn and grow, offered the concept of a school community where organized groups of teachers regularly collaborate to seek and share knowledge to benefit student learning.
While some might argue that teachers have always collaborated to benefit students, Senge warned against the "fad cycle" that catches the attention of educators and proves to be little more than experimentation in school improvement.
The goal of the professional learning community is not to provide a quick fix to problems; it is to provide school reculturing.
A Cultural Shift
In Getting Started: Reculturing Schools to Become Professional Learning Communities, authors Eaker, DuFour, and Dufour, emphasize the need to replace teacher isolation with a sense of connectedness and purpose.
|Teacher Characteristics in Professional Learning Communities
- Have a clear sense of mission
- Share a vision of the conditions they must create to achieve the mission
- Work together in collaborative teams to determine the best practice to achieve the mission
- Organize into groups, headed up by teacher-leaders
- Focus on student learning
- Are goal- and results-oriented
- Collaborate with each other
- Hold shared values and beliefs
- Commit themselves to continuous improvement
- See themselves as life-long learners
Professional Learning Communities in Action
One school that is incorporating the concept of professional learning communities is Louisa County High School in Louisa, Virginia. The school has a staff of 120 teachers who have formed 21 different learning communities, each with its own purpose to improve student learning.
While one group may be devising and sharing games that teachers can use to improve learning, another is researching ways to redirect physical education classes to promote better health. Teachers meet monthly during a two-hour period previously dedicated to mandated professional development activities.
If a visitor were to walk through the halls of Louisa County High School while the professional learning communities are meeting, the most noticeable shift would be from professional development activities that focused on how teachers teach to activities that focus on how students learn.
Research Underscores the Power of the Concept
Dr. Shirley Hord provides an interpretation of the results of four complementary studies conducted by the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools. The studies involved three- and four-year longitudinal research using approaches that varied from case study to collection of student data.
The results indicate that restructuring schools to "include decentralization, shared decision-making, schools within schools, teacher teaming, and/or professional communities of staff can improve student learning." Dr. Hord concludes that when professional learning communities are in place, student dropout and absenteeism rates, along with achievement gaps, decrease, and there are greater gains in core course achievement.
|Benefits of Professional Learning Communities
- Decreased teacher isolation
- Increased commitment to the mission
- Fosters shared responsibility
- Creates more powerful learning
- Leads to a higher likelihood of fundamental, systemic change
Research and commentary indicate that reculturing schools, rather than buying into the never-ending educational "fad cycle," holds promise for increased student achievement, as well as improvements in attendance and graduation rates.
Change Requires Time
However, the notion of reculturing schools, coupled with the pressure of outcome-based education and high-stakes testing, creates a seeming incongruence that leaders and educators who move to PLCs must address.
Often, time is a luxury not afforded schools; parents and communities want schools that "succeed" without the time it takes to reculture a school. Undoubtedly, if and as additional evidence is found to support the idea of PLCs, more and more schools will turn to professional learning communities to improve the deeply rooted problems that plague education.
Eaker, Robert, Dufour, R. and Dufour, R. (2002). Getting Started: Reculturing Schools to Become Professional Learning Communities. National Educational Service.
Hord, Shirley M. (1997). Outcomes of Professional Learning Communities for Students and Staffs. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Texas. Available:
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