What, Then, Are PLCs?
In the forward to the book, Demystifying Professional Learning Communities: School Leadership at It’s Best (Hipp & Huffman, 2010), Shirley Hord, our friend and mentor who has guided us since our work with Southwest Educational Development Laboratory during 1997-2000, describes the PLC framework as follows:
Professionals learning together in community is a powerful concept! As most education professionals seek improvement for their schools, they realize that school improvement is based on change: changing programs, processes, and practices. They know that maintaining the status quo – continuing to do what they are currently doing – will produce the same results. Improvement means obtaining desired results. Implementing change to achieve new results requires learning. This learning may focus on using new curriculum content, developing new instructional strategies, using data more effectively, or learning how to interact more effectively with students (p. ix).
Professional educators agree that the purpose of schools is student learning. They also acknowledge that the most critical factor in whether students learn well is quality teaching. Quality teaching is increased or enhanced through continuous professional learning that targets the needs of students. The most productive context for the continuous learning of professionals is the professional learning community (PLC). Many schools believe they have established PLCs, but in reality they have not.
PLCs: A Systemic Approach
While there are many ways to implement a professional learning community, we believe in a systemic approach that considers multiple components within the PLC framework. These components include professional learning teams, school-based professional learning communities, and district support.
Professional Learning Teams (PLTs)
Often teachers form teams organized by grade level, subject area, or other means to talk about their teaching, their learning, and student learning. They look at pertinent data, including student work, and plan instructional strategies to improve their teaching so students can learn better. These professional learning teams are important because they form the bedrock of improved student learning.
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)
While professional learning teams are essential, the focus of change is on the school. Thus, it is necessary for schools and districts to provide opportunities for small groups to intentionally learn together in professional learning community schools. This collective learning is often focused on identified district, school, and student needs, and seeks to support collaborative efforts to achieve common goals.
The professional learning community framework enables the professionals at the district, school, and classroom levels to learn and work collaboratively. It is critical for the district leadership to align its support to the needs in schools. For continuous progress to occur, information and support must be provided from the district to the principals and teachers so they can then address student needs. Also, the school teachers and leaders must provide feedback and reflection back to the district leaders so they can adjust and monitor their information and support.