Professional Learning Communities (PLC)
committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective
inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students
they serve. Professional learning communities operate under the
assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous
job-embedded learning for educators." Learning by Doing (2006)
What Are Professional Learning Communities?
has been interesting to observe the growing popularity of the term
professional learning community. In fact, the term has become so
commonplace and has been used so ambiguously to describe virtually any
loose coupling of individuals who share a common interest in education
that it is in danger of losing all meaning. This lack of precision is an
obstacle to implementing PLC concepts because, as Mike Schmoker
observes, "clarity precedes competence." Thus, we begin with an attempt
to clarify our meaning of the term. To those familiar with our past
work, this step may seem redundant, but we are convinced that redundancy
can be a powerful tool in effective communication, and we prefer
redundancy to ambiguity.
A Focus on Learning
very essence of a learning community is a focus on and a commitment to
the learning of each student. When a school or district functions as a
PLC, educators within the organization embrace high levels of learning
for all students as both the reason the organization exists and the
fundamental responsibility of those who work within it. In order to
achieve this purpose, the members of a PLC create and are guided by a
clear and compelling vision of what the organization must become in
order to help all students learn. They make collective commitments
clarifying what each member will do to create such an organization, and
they use results-oriented goals to mark their progress. Members work
together to clarify exactly what each student must learn, monitor each
student's learning on a timely basis, provide systematic interventions
that ensure students receive additional time and support for learning
when they struggle, and extend and enrich learning when students have
already mastered the intended outcomes.
A corollary assumption
is that if the organization is to become more effective in helping all
students learn, the adults in the organization must also be continually
learning. Therefore, structures are created to ensure staff members
engage in job-embedded learning as part of their routine work practices.
is no ambiguity or hedging regarding this commitment to learning.
Whereas many schools operate as if their primary purpose is to ensure
that children are taught, PLCs are dedicated to the idea that their
organization exists to ensure that all students learn essential
knowledge, skills, and dispositions. All the other characteristics of a
PLC flow directly from this epic shift in assumptions about the purpose
of the school.
A Collaborative Culture With a Focus on Learning for All
PLC is composed of collaborative teams whose members work
interdependently to achieve common goals linked to the purpose of
learning for all. The team is the engine that drives the PLC effort and
the fundamental building block of the organization. It is difficult to
overstate the importance of collaborative teams in the improvement
process. It is equally important, however, to emphasize that
collaboration does not lead to improved results unless people are
focused on the right issues. Collaboration is a means to an end, not the
end itself. In many schools, staff members are willing to collaborate
on a variety of topics as long as the focus of the conversation stops at
their classroom door. In a PLC, collaboration represents a systematic
process in which teachers work together interdependently in order to
impact their classroom practice in ways that will lead to better results
for their students, for their team, and for their school. Therefore
their collaboration centers around certain critical questions:
knowledge, skills, and disposition must each student acquire as a
result of this course, grade level, and/or unit of instruction?
- What evidence will we gather to monitor student learning on a timely basis?
will we provide students with additional time and support in a timely,
directive, and systematic way when they experience difficulty in their
- How will we enrich the learning of students who are already proficient?
- How can we use our SMART goals and evidence of student learning to inform and improve our practice?
Collective Inquiry Into Best Practice and Current Reality
teams in a PLC engage in collective inquiry into both best practices in
teaching and best practices in learning. They also inquire about their
current reality—including their present practices and the levels of
achievement of their students. They attempt to arrive at consensus on
vital questions by building shared knowledge rather than pooling
opinions. They have an acute sense of curiosity and openness to new
Collective inquiry enables team members to
develop new skills and capabilities that in turn lead to new experiences
and awareness. Gradually, this heightened awareness transforms into
fundamental shifts in attitudes, beliefs, and habits which, over time,
transform the culture of the school.
Working together to build
shared knowledge on the best way to achieve goals and meet the needs of
clients is exactly what professionals in any field are expected to do,
whether it is curing the patient, winning the lawsuit, or helping all
students learn. Members of a professional learning community are
expected to work and learn together.
Action Orientation: Learning by Doing
of PLCs are action oriented: They move quickly to turn aspirations into
actions and visions into reality. They understand that the most
powerful learning always occurs in a context of taking action, and they
value engagement and experience as the most effective teachers. In fact,
the very reason that teachers work together in teams and engage in
collective inquiry is to serve as catalysts for action.
of PLCs recognize that learning by doing develops a deeper and more
profound knowledge and greater commitment than learning by reading,
listening, planning, or thinking. Traditional schools have developed a
variety of strategies to resist taking meaningful actions, preferring
the comfort of the familiar. Professional learning communities recognize
that until members of the organization "do" differently, there is no
reason to anticipate different results. They avoid paralysis by analysis
and overcome inertia with action.
A Commitment to Continuous Improvement
to a PLC are a persistent disquiet with the status quo and a constant
search for a better way to achieve goals and accomplish the purpose of
Systematic processes engage each member of the organization in an ongoing cycle of:
- Gathering evidence of current levels of student learning
- Developing strategies and ideas to build on strengths and address weaknesses in that learning
- Implementing those strategies and ideas
- Analyzing the impact of the changes to discover what was effective and what was not
- Applying new knowledge in the next cycle of continuous improvement
goal is not simply to learn a new strategy, but instead to create
conditions for perpetual learning—an environment in which innovation and
experimentation are viewed not as tasks to be accomplished or projects
to be completed but as ways of conducting day-to-day business—forever.
Furthermore, participation in this process is not reserved for those
designated as leaders; rather, it is a responsibility of every member of
members of a PLC realize that all of their efforts in these areas—a
focus on learning, collaborative teams, collective inquiry, action
orientation, and continuous improvement—must be assessed on the basis of
results rather than intentions. Unless initiatives are subjected to
ongoing assessment on the basis of tangible results, they represent
random groping in the dark rather than purposeful improvement. As Peter
Senge and colleagues conclude, "The rationale for any strategy for
building a learning organization revolves around the premise that such
organizations will produce dramatically improved results."
focus on results leads each team to develop and pursue measurable
improvement goals that are aligned to school and district goals for
learning. It also drives teams to create a series of common formative
assessments that are administered to students multiple times throughout
the year to gather ongoing evidence of student learning. Team members
review the results from these assessments in an effort to identify and
address program concerns (areas of learning where many students are
experiencing difficulty). They also examine the results to discover
strengths and weaknesses in their individual teaching in order to learn
from one another. Most importantly, the assessments are used to identify
students who need additional time and support for learning. Frequent
common formative assessments represent one of the most powerful tools in
the PLC arsenal.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many
(2006). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning
Communities at Work™, pp. 2–4.
Learn more about the History of PLCs. (click link for more information)
For more information, read the article "What Is a Professional Learning Community?" (click link for more information)