Introduction to Professional Learning Communities
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are one of the most powerful ways for teachers to share teaching strategies with each other. The fundamental characteristic of a PLC is that it encourages collaborative professional learning between members of your school or district’s community.
These are groups of both new and experienced educators who come together over time to gain new information, reconsider previous knowledge and beliefs, and build on their own and others’ ideas and experiences in order to improve their teaching practice. All of this is done to enhance their students’ learning.
Teachers reflect on their instructional practice in a PLC and implement insights gained to improve their teaching performance.
PLCs typically have between 4-6 teachers or administrators, meet regularly, and members work between meetings to accomplish shared goals. Shared goals could include increasing teacher knowledge, understanding and skills in differentiated instruction, or to increase student motivation and achievement. However, the term is often overused, leading to differing ideas of what a PLC can actually do for your school. In a PLC, teachers reflect on their instructional practice, consider the effect instruction has on their students, and implement insights gained from meetings to improve their teaching performance. Anything else is not a PLC.
When PLCs are first formed, there is often more work required by administrators in order to effectively communicate the benefit of meeting regularly, and establish ground rules for the group. Over time, you’ll find that members of PLCs begin to need less support from administrators as teachers begin adopting “open-door” policies, encouraging teachers to chat about teaching practices in a more casual setting.
Professional learning communities offer an effective, learning-focused process that can foster improvement in teaching and learning. PLCs are a method to connect teacher practice directly to student outcomes, leading to an improvement in both. This gives teachers the ability to adopt differentiated instruction, allowing for more engaging and demanding curriculum that recognizes and responds to student variance in interests, learning profiles, and readiness.
Creating a PLC takes careful planning and execution in order to effectively engage and educate its members. Without proper organization, professional learning communities will provide little, if any, benefit to its members. Instead of jumping in, take the time to ensure that your school community is ready for professional learning communities.
Why Create PLCs?
Every school has some form of professional development for their teachers. Professional learning communities (PLCs) take professional development to the next level. Instead of holding workshops or learning sessions for your teachers, a PLC allows teachers to learn directly from each other. This helps teachers not only develop their classroom repertoire, but also increase their student’s achievement and motivation. Traditional professional development is still encouraged, but adding PLCs to your school or district can add additional benefits.
The focus of every PLC should be to improve teaching and learning for the students in each teacher’s classroom. PLCs typically have specific teaching and learning goals that members wish to investigate. When a PLC functions well, the members will accomplish more than just these goals.
There is a strong correlation between the use of PLCs in schools and improved teacher learning and instruction.
PLCs within schools provide teachers with a method to engage in constructive dialogue, reflect on and improve instruction, and learn to become more effective in the classroom to improve student learning. Research indicates that there is a strong correlation between the use of PLCs in schools and improved teacher learning and instruction.
The following benefits have been seen in schools with strong professional learning communities:
- Teachers build and manage various kinds of knowledge, including content and pedagogy
- Teachers gain the skills to use this knowledge in practice
- Teachers and administrators develop shared standards of practice for differentiated instruction and student outcomes
Successfully implementing professional learning communities also has some significant impacts on the culture of your school or district:
- Learning together becomes a school-wide value
- Both mistakes and successes are opportunities to learn
- Learning becomes more about increasing student understanding of a topic than about the good grades that result
Create a Professional Learning Community
Many teachers leave workshops feeling inspired, excited, and eager to integrate the new ideas/ strategies into their classroom. Despite good intentions, the next day comes, and the material finds its way to a filing cabinet, or on the teacher’s desk. Days, weeks, and months pass, and the teacher has made no change in their classroom.
Creating a professional learning community (PLC) provides an ongoing collaboration system that increases time and space for teachers to debrief, collaborate, and discuss how to meaningfully integrate the workshop material in their practice. A PLC could be a fantastic way for teachers to feel supported in their integration of new technology.
Specifically for ICT integration, a PLC allows teachers to:
- Share tech resources
- Collaborate on best practices
- Practice and apply a new tool
- Read tech articles/blogs together and apply in their classrooms
- Use Pinterest to follow/read tech savvy teacher blogs – and discuss strategies
As an alternative to the face-to-face format, consider an ONLINE PLC, which allows teachers to:
- Take advantage of web based collaboration tools
- Work on their own time, and in their own space
- Collaborate with others beyond their own school
- Gain individualized professional development
Your teachers can also learn a lot from Twitter education chats and bring those to their school. Expanding the network beyond the walls of the school is a great way to highlight the power of technology and how it can help teachers in more ways than they expected.
How to Create a PLC
Creating a PLC can be very time consuming, so before putting a lot of resources into their development, consider some of these tips for creating effective professional learning communities:
- Teach participants how to collaborate – don’t assume this will come naturally; make sure that your teachers know that they will not be judged for their contributions and help them develop a process for running the PLC. Ask everyone for input rather than telling them how the PLC will be run.
- Create an atmosphere of trust – sharing information about techniques can be discomforting, so try engaging your teachers in something like a book club or a discussion group about a teaching topic. This helps them share opinions and trust each other before opening up about their teaching methods.
- Allow enough time – start out by meeting once a month for regular meetings and longer gatherings once a year. Over time, you’ll find that teachers meet informally with each other and you can guarantee designated time by including PLC hours during the week in your teachers’ contracts.
- Be broad and inclusive – many PLCs consist only of teachers, but a broader population can be brought in, including administrators, parents, and supportive community members. Ensure that everyone’s interests and expertise are aligned with the school’s vision and goals.
- Get Outside Help – Complex situations that can be difficult to deal with internally maybe helped by hiring a consultant with a broader perspective. Avoid allowing the learning community to turn into an interest-based study group by including an external person who is willing to bring up the harder conversations.
- Remember the “L” in PLC – Every conversation that occurs during a PLC is meant to teach members something. Allow your teachers to learn about their colleague’s approaches and their successes. Having healthy disagreements within a meeting is a good thing as this allows the best methods to surface.
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