When most educators think of professional development, they picture an expert sharing instructional strategies or content knowledge from the front of the room while an audience of teachers quietly listen. But just as we wouldn’t expect our students to gain in-depth knowledge without opportunities to apply or discuss new concepts, the same is true for teachers. In fact, teachers describe the ideal PD experience as relevant to their teaching context, sustained over time, and interactive.
In recent years, research has highlighted the impact of teacher collaboration in improving teacher effectiveness. However, what happens during teacher collaboration meetings varies widely. Sometimes these meetings are used to discuss logistics, vent about challenging students, or plan specific lessons. So, if we believe that traditional forms of sit ’n’ get PDs are not very effective in transforming teacher practice, how can teacher collaboration be leveraged to promote purposeful professional learning?
Professional learning communities (PLCs) are a collaborative approach to professional development in which small groups of educators meet regularly to explore new concepts, share expertise and insights from their teaching experiences, and engage in collective problem solving. Unlike traditional PDs, inquiry and reflection are at the heart of effective PLCs. Participants frequently ask questions like -- How did this strategy impact students’ learning? What gaps in understanding are still present? What should I/we do differently next time? This structure promotes continued professional learning as teachers discuss ways they applied new practices, review student data, and offer each other feedback.
Without intentional effort, however, PLCs won’t necessarily lead to improved instructional practices and student outcomes. Here are some suggestions for helping teachers get the most out their PLC time:
1. Set clear objectives that are focused on student learning
The PLC model is grounded in the assumption that building teachers’ competencies will lead to improved academic, behavioral, or social outcomes for students. Consequently, student learning is both the foundation and evidence of an effective PLC. When initiating a new PLC cycle, encourage teachers to begin by asking, “What’s going on for our students?” Through teacher observations, conversations with students, and data analysis, teachers gain a better sense of what is happening for all learners. Based on this information, teachers can create an overarching PLC goal that is aligned to school or district goals. For example, a team of sixth grade teachers notice that students frequently get into arguments while working on collaborative projects. Several students have expressed frustration with group work because they feel like their ideas are not listened to or that the work isn't shared equally. Given that a school-wide focus for the year is building supportive learning environments, the team decides that their PLC objective will be to help students learn to collaborate with others and build communication skills.
PLCs are knowledge-building cycles. At each meeting teachers review what they have learned, evaluate the impact of strategies they have implemented, and determine what new learning is necessary to promote valued student outcomes. Individual meetings may have a specific objective that is tied to the overarching PLC goal. The sixth-grade teachers described in the previous example might decide during their first PLC meeting to explore approaches for teaching students to use “I-Messages” (e.g.,” I feel __ when ___. I would like ___.”) when they feel as if they are not being treated fairly in their group. At the next meeting, teachers share observational data related to the impact of this approach and determine whether further instruction is needed in this area or if they should revise their objective and focus on another strategy.
2. Provide structure and guidance for PLC time
Like students, teachers often need support when developing new habits of practice. While there are few cut-and-dried rules for PLCs, it is beneficial to provide guidance to help teachers best utilize their time together. Typically, PLC meetings include the following activities: 1) Reviewing student data, 2) setting learning goals, 3) reflecting on teaching practice, 4) exploring resources to learn about new practices, and 5) planning how to apply new learning. A PLC Facilitator’s Guide (like this one from Actively Learn) can equip teachers and coaches to lead PLC meetings.
The reflection and inquiry embedded within the PLC model encourages teachers to identify not only student learning needs, but also gaps in their own pedagogical and content knowledge. However, in the absence of an instructional coach or expert in the selected focus area, PLC members are then faced with the challenging task of determining what to learn and how to learn it. To mitigate this challenge, once a group has determined its PLC goal, point members toward relevant resources or knowledgeable staff members who can help them focus their learning.
For example, after reviewing recent test scores, a high-school biology team might discover that most of their ELLs struggled with a particular concept. Upon reflection, the teachers realize that most of the instruction in this unit involved reading research papers and supplemental texts. This data analysis and reflection leads the teachers to ask: How can we better support our ELLs in reading and understanding academic content? The principal, who knows that the history department chair recently completed a training on ELL strategies, encourages this teacher to share resources and expertise with the biology team. This approach not only allows the biology team to guide their own learning, but also increases collaboration across departments.
3. Foster a culture of collaboration
Successful PLCs promote distributed expertise and teachers recognize that their individual and collective goals are best met by working together. Building this kind of learning community isn’t easy. Many teachers are used to to working in isolation, which can make them reluctant to share their challenges and receive feedback from others.
One way to promote collaboration within PLCs is by providing opportunities for teachers to observe each other's classrooms and teach lessons together. Teachers sharing their understandings and instructional approaches with one another supports the learning of all members in the community. Every PLC meeting should include time for teachers to critically reflect on how specific teaching practices are impacting student learning outcomes.
Some teams also find it beneficial to develop specific norms and expectations regarding the roles, responsibilities, and relationships of group members to ensure that all members are active participants the PLC process. This may mean that the role of facilitator rotates among group members or that members agree to prepare certain materials (e.g., data analysis, instructional resources, etc.) for each session. Like most teams, PLCs are more likely to be successful when all members demonstrate their commitment to working toward a shared purpose.
4. Focus on results
Most teachers have had the experience of “bombing” a lesson. When this happens, teachers are faced with determining how to modify their instruction in order to achieve the desired learning outcomes. This process of trying out an instructional approach, evaluating its effectiveness, and determining next steps to further promote student learning is the core of the PLC process. Student results should guide all of a team’s activities, and these results should be used by PLC members to judge their group’s effectiveness.
PLCs should focus their efforts on addressing questions related to student learning and create products that reflect this focus, such as lists of desired student outcomes, types of assessment tools, analyses of student achievement, and instructional strategies. PLC members should also consider how they will know if students have adequately met the goals they have set and create criteria for assessing outcomes.
Throughout the PLC process, teachers are constantly returning to the question: “What’s going on for our students?” At each meeting, members evaluate relevant data to determine whether their practices are promoting student learning. Based on this information, the focus of a team’s goals shifts as teachers explore different ways to meet student needs. This cycle leads to ongoing teacher learning that is tied to what truly matters: addressing student challenges and promoting academic achievement for all students.
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Berry, B., Daughtrey, A. and Wieder, A. (2009). Collaboration: Closing the effective teaching gap [policy brief]. Center for Teaching Quality. Retrieved from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED509717.pdf
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Seattle, WA: Author.
DuFour, R. (2004). What is a Professional Learning Community? Schools as Learning Communities, 61 (8), 6-11.
Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (2005). How Teachers Learn and Develop. In Preparing Teachers for a Changing World (pp. 358-389). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Timperley, H. (2011). Realizing the Power of Professional Learning. New York, NY: Open University Press.
Timperley, H., Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Centre for Strategic Education (Seminar Series Paper No. 234). Melbourne, VA: Australia.