The goal of schools and other educational institutions is to provide high-quality education to students, which is typically measured through formal assessments, but also career success and professional development of students after school. Because of this, schools are constantly trying to enhance their teaching practice to allow all students to reach their full potential.
One common method for schools to achieve this is to act as a PLC (professional learning community). By organizing educators, parents, and even staff members more efficiently and providing opportunities for collaboration and teamwork, educational institutions can share experiences and identify opportunities for growth.
However, not everyone involved with the schools, including parents and students, is sold on the idea to invest time and effort in yet another meeting or school-related project. Even teachers might dread this idea and look at PLCs as an added responsibility, simply because it means getting out of their comfort zone.
Therefore, the question of whether PLCs are really worth it remains open. Today, we’ll try to shed light on the issue by looking at the benefits and potential risks or drawbacks associated with PLCs. This way, school leaders can make smarter decisions concerning the management of their institution.
What Exactly are Professional Learning Communities?
Professional Learning Communities (PLC) in education are based on two premises. The first refers to the notion that learning is a life-long process. Teachers should never stop improving their skills and investing in their professional development once they finish formal education. The second premise is the notion that schools provide better education when teachers collaborate closely with their colleagues.
Based on these two premises, we can easily conclude that setting up opportunities where educators can improve professionally and build a close support network with colleagues is not only a benefit, but also a responsibility of educational institutions. This is the idea behind professional learning communities.
Everything that we’ve stated so far defines the nature of PLCs, but we can sum it up as a method used to promote collaborative learning among colleagues within a specific field of work, such as education.
In other words, PLCs represent a way for educators to obtain practice-based professional learning, as opposed to classroom-based or theory-based learning. Instead of learning educational strategies and practices from a book, or engaging in a lecture focused on one individual’s theories and opinions, PLCs provide the opportunity for many participants to make contributions and share their experiences with the goal of finding ways to improve educational practices.
The Ontario Ministry of Education has provided a great definition for PLCs: “A professional learning community is exemplified by collaborative work that is grounded in reflective dialogue, in which staff have conversations about students, teaching, and learning, identifying related issues and problems and debating strategies that could bring about real change in the organizational culture.”
Key Characteristics of PLCs
To be fair, the concept and definitions of professional learning communities are very broad and vary. However, the essence behind all communities of learning is based on several key characteristics. The following characteristics can be applied to all PLCs found in practice, so review them.
- PLCs include everyone involved in the educational institution in any shape or form. This means that the community is represented by the school staff (teachers, administrative staff members, principal, and more), students, parents, and even external consultants who are engaged in projects or short-term activities. Everyone makes a contribution.
- A PLC’s goal is to provide better learning opportunities through collaboration and teamwork. Everyone associated with the school works together to create opportunities for growth that would be unachievable through individual work.
- PLCs are based on shared vision, values, and goals. These goals are transparent and clear so everyone can work toward them.
- PLCs are possible only if people believe that everyone is equal and deserves equal opportunities for learning, growth, and the realization of one’s full potential.
- PLCs thrive in a flexible and safe environment that promotes risk-taking, open communication, questioning current ways of doing things (status quo), and experimentation.
- PLCs are only sustainable when there’s shared responsibility among everyone involved. This includes success, but also failure. Staff members, teachers, parents, and students are all aware of their role in the outcome of a specific situation.
Benefits of Professional Learning Communities
Running a school based on the method of professional learning communities will require dramatic changes in the ways things are usually done. Therefore, a logical question that follows is, “Why would I promote a professional learning community?” We’ll try to answer this question by going over the most commonly associated advantages of PLCs.
Improving the Quality of Education
The advocates for PLCs say that learning communities improve the quality of education. Experts have conducted studies to investigate these claims. In 2018, Rilana Prenger looked at the effects of networked professional learning communities and concluded that they lead to: “positive effects on teachers’ perceived satisfaction; the knowledge, skills, and attitude developed; and their application to practice.”
With this in mind, it becomes clear how PLCs can improve the quality of education by improving teachers’ competencies, access to information, work satisfaction, and relations with students, parents, and other staff members.
Teachers will not only have access to the newest trends and findings in education, but they’ll also hear different experiences from colleagues, so they can freely discuss their methods and ways of handling things. Through debate, brainstorming, and constructive criticism, teachers will have an opportunity to reflect on their competencies, see other points of view, and adopt better teaching strategies.
Providing Better Access to Information
We’ve already touched upon this benefit, but let’s elaborate. PLCs allow teachers to establish a large network of colleagues, parents, and external consultants. All these participants can contribute and support students and teachers in different ways.
We’ve mentioned that access to information improves the quality of education, but that’s only one part of the story. Having a very well-interconnected network of experts and parents serves many purposes.
First, access to information allows teachers to understand and find better practices for children with special needs. Imagine a teacher with limited resources and no support nor access to information. How can they help special needs students? Quite often, their hands are tied even if they want to help. On the other hand, teachers with an army behind them can discuss the situation with colleagues and other staff members, such as special needs workers. They can utilize the school’s resources to reach out to professionals, but also find ways to engage parents, as well.
Second, PLCs form workgroups with teachers who teach students in the same grade, same subject, or deal with similar difficulties. Because of this, the access to information from others in the same position might be seen as psychological support and relief or comfort when dealing with complex tasks. This enhances a feeling of empowerment and work satisfaction.
Obtaining Unity of Educational Practices
Another benefit from PLCs is gaining unity or continuity of educational practices, skills, and knowledge. What we mean by this is that collaborating with other teachers and professionals leads to the creation of a so-called culture of collegiality. The principal and their teachers would feel that their strengths and skills are allied - that they work together as a family.
The outcome of such culture is an educational practice that provides equal opportunities to all students. Moreover, the skills and knowledge that are being transferred to students will be aligned across grades and subjects because all the teachers work in allegiance.
For the school, this translates to improved educational outcomes and less variability in the quality of education between teachers, grades, or subjects.
Gaining Emotional and Intellectual Support
Professional learning communities are an excellent source of emotional and intellectual support - the main benefit according to many studies. More specifically, researchers have found that PLCs help participants feel like they have a natural system for mutual help which inspires and motivates them to do a better job. However, even beyond that, participants were each other's role model for prosocial behavior - especially when it came to accepting changes and new methods.
To sum up, PLCs enhance teachers’ sense of belonging, confidence when dealing with complex tasks, self-esteem, as well as feeling less isolated and even taking initiatives. All of this shows that PLCs are a great way for teachers to learn from one another in order to improve their competencies - both emotional and intellectual. This, in turn, benefits the students as they have better chances of realizing their full potential.
Promoting a Sense of Belonging
Through PLCs, not only do teachers feel a heightened sense of belonging, but so do other staff members, parents, and even students. Through collaboration and opportunities for mutual growth, everyone involved with the schools will feel like they’re part of a large group that works tirelessly to provide only the best for the students.
Thanks to PLCs, students may feel like they have a strong support system to rely on. Additionally, they’ll feel like the school is trustworthy and has their best interest at heart. Finally, because of PLCs, teachers communicate and work closely together with other teachers and parents to better respond to students’ needs. Students will feel as if they have a voice and increased control over their education.
For parents, the benefits are similar. Being more involved in their child’s education and witnessing how everything comes together improves the feeling of confidence that they’ve made the right choice for their children. Moreover, working together with teachers allows parents to provide a better and safer environment for growth at home.
Stimulating Innovation and Creativity
Lastly, professional learning communities are a catalyst for change and innovation. The culture that’s associated with PLCs is one that’s based on mutual interests, shared ideas, commitment, and flexibility. Not seeing other points of view and being stubborn or stuck in certain ways has no room within the PLC setting.
Teamwork is based on clear and transparent communication that promotes debate, constructive criticism, and brainstorming for new, more effective solutions to common and shared problems. The result of this is a recipe for innovation and creativity that spreads and affects everyone involved. Just as we’ve mentioned before, teachers become role models that inspire action-taking behavior.
Is Your School Ready to Become a Professional Learning Community?
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect method, and even professional learning communities are bound to involve certain risks or disadvantages. If you’re thinking about running a professional learning community, the following explanation might help you see this method realistically and make a smarter decision for your educational institution.
The first thing you should be aware of is that establishing a PLCs is a difficult task, which means that schools need help and a strong conceptual framework to rely on while walking the complex path toward becoming a professional learning community. Embarking on this journey without being properly prepared is a recipe for disaster and chaos. So how can you be sure that you’re prepared?
There are many factors to evaluate when deciding whether you’re ready to begin a PLC. Some of them include:
- organizational structure;
- nature of professional relationships;
- culture and collective identity;
- planning process;
- values and personal views on education.
Based on all these factors, we can say that schools or educational institutions are not ready to become PLC if they:
- have an inflexible working organization where everyone wants to keep to their own routine. In other words, there’s no willingness to leave one’s comfort zone for improving the overall educational practice.
- have very individualistic relations by nature. If everyone keeps to themselves and doesn't share many details with others about their educational practices, it’s hard to impose a drastically different framework with fundamentally different values and beliefs.
- see their job as a set of responsibilities that need to be done instead of seeing it as a place where people solve problems together through reflection and open discussion.
- have a very strict hierarchy where one person has all or a lot of decision-making power. In such organizations, the principal usually makes a decision alone - based on an authoritarian model.
- have little or no regard for the school as an educational institution. In other words, you should ask the question: “Are teachers interested and dedicated to the school’s future and reputation? Do teachers feel like they’re part of the school’s history?” If not, then you’re not ready to become a PLC.
The Role of The Principal
We can talk about changes all we want, but teachers, students, and parents can’t establish a professional learning community without the help of the decision-makers within the school.
Because of this, the success of a professional learning community is strongly associated with the role of the principal and their leadership style. We already mentioned that a strict hierarchy where the principal makes all or most of the decisions alone is not a suitable environment for the development of a PLC. So, what can principals do?
Administration should exercise a more flexible leadership style that gives teachers more control over their educational practices. Principals should encourage a school culture where everyone is concerned and cares about students and colleagues. Teachers and other staff members need to support each other’s progress.
Moreover, principals should prioritize collaboration and clear and open communication where teachers will feel safe to express themselves. Their role is one of support for teachers’ individual and collective needs. In other words, they should be there to provide all the resources needed for success, but still take a step back and let teachers be in the saddle.
It seems like PLCs are indeed a vital part of the future of educational institutions or at least a valuable tool for improvement and growth. The origin of the concept behind PLCs can be traced back to Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline published in the 1990s when the term learning organizations was popularized. Ever since, a large body of literature has been dedicated to PLCs, as well as the careers of many researchers who try to investigate the evolution and improvement of education.
Thanks to the combined effort of many experts, we now know the impact of PLCs on educational practices.
Nevertheless, our goal is to be objective and realistic, which is why it’s important to note the risks associated with implementing PLCs in your institutions. Knowing whether your school is ready to take this step and act as a professional learning community is vital to making the right decision.