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Professional Learning Communities: The great divide in perspectives

There is clearly something of a gulf in determining what constitutes an effective professional learning community (PLC). In the USA there appear to be some very regulated and prescribed versions of PLCs. Consider the following set of questions re. PLCs which has been posted on Learning Forward’s website: 

  1. Is our PLC committed to fostering collective responsibility for improved student performance?
  2. Is our PLC aligned with rigorous state student academic achievement standards as well as related local educational agency and school improvement goals;
  3. Is the PLC facilitated by well-prepared school principals and/or school-based professional development coaches, mentors, master teachers, or other teacher leaders?
  4. Do the communities convene several times per week or the equivalent of several hours?
  5. Do the professionals organize into teams of teachers, principals, as well as other instructional staff members?
  6. Is the PLC engaging in a defined continuous cycle of improvement?
  7. Is the PLC evaluating student, teacher, and school learning needs through a thorough review of data on teacher and student performance?
  8. Is the learning based on the rigorous analysis of the data and a definition of clear educator learning goals?
  9. Is the learning characterized by implementing coherent, sustained, and evidenced-based learning strategies, such as lesson study and the development of formative assessments, that improve instructional effectiveness and student achievement?
  10. Is the learning supported by job-embedded coaching or other forms of assistance to promote the transfer of new knowledge and skills to the classroom?
  11. Is the PLC assessing regularly the effectiveness of the professional development in achieving identified learning goals, improving teaching, and assisting all students in meeting challenging state academic achievement standards?
  12. Is the PLC using assessment findings to inform ongoing improvements in teaching and student learning?
  13. Is the PLC tapping external assistance when it finds it does not have the internal expertise to achieve its goals?

Starting every question with the word “is” invites simplistic “yes” or “no” answers, and it takes little guessing which response is assumed correct, or what to do if your answer is “wrong”. In some of these questions, replacing “is” with “should” might generate a very different discussion. Might “student performance” be replaced with “student learning” in the first question, to change the focus from test scores to a wider view of considering student progress? The litany of often-tedious and controlling questions starkly contrasts with more-enabling views of PLCs, such as those articulated in Hargreaves and Fullan’s (2012) book Professional Capital. Hargreaves and Fullan constructively challenge the thinking of teachers, administrators, school districts, teacher unions, and governments, but reserve some of their harshest attacks for those trying to force inappropriate forms of Professional Learning Communities onto teachers:

But the new expectation that professional cultures have to be ones of collective autonomy, transparency and responsibility, that have to be deliberately arranged and structured around these principles, should not be a license for administrative bullying and abuse, or enforced contrivance either. Professional Learning Communities are not professional data communities or professional test score communities. They are not places for administrators to impose questionable district agendas that gather teachers together after busy days in class to pore over spreadsheets simply so they can come up with a quick intervention that will raise test scores in a few weeks or less. They are not places where overloaded literacy coaches convene hurried meetings with harried teachers who scarcely have time to refocus from the previous class before they have to rush off to the next one. Nor are they places where principals and superintendents convert challenging conversations into hectoring harangues, and where all the challenges come from above, with no comeback or reciprocal challenges allowed from teachers themselves. (p. 144) 

BC has seen numerous attempts to establish top-down, mandated versions of PLCs, and has also seen many positive, engaging, and challenging learning communities. What philosophy and approach to PLCs exists in your school, local, district? What would you like to see as appropriate approaches to building more collaborative cultures for professional learning?


Learning Forward,

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers’ College Press. 

Submitted by Charlie Naylor,
September 19, 2012

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