The term professional learning community (PLC) first emerged among researchers as early as the 1960s when they offered the concept as an alternative to the isolation endemic to the teaching profession in the United States. The research began to become more explicit in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1989 Susan Rosenholtz’s study of 78 schools found “learning-enriched schools” were characterized by “collective commitments to student learning in collaborative settings,” . . . “where it is assumed improvement of teaching is a collective rather than individual enterprise, and that analysis, evaluation, and experimentation in concert with colleagues are conditions under which teachers improve.” Teacher collaboration linked to shared goals focused on student achievement led to improved teacher learning, greater certainty about what was effective, higher levels of teacher commitment and ultimately, greater gains in student achievement.

In 1993, Judith Warren Little and Milbrey McLaughlin reported their research that concluded the most effective schools and the most effective departments within schools operated as strong professional communities characterized by:

  • Shared norms and beliefs
  • Collegial relations
  • Collaborative cultures
  • Reflective practice
  • Ongoing technical inquiry regarding effective practice
  • Professional growth
  • Mutual support and mutual obligation

Two years later, an excited McLaughlin addressed the annual conference of the National Staff Development Council to report, “We are closer to the truth about school improvement than ever before. The most promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement is developing the capacity of school personnel to function as a professional learning community.”

In 1995, Fred Newmann and Gary Wehlage reported on research of over 1,200 schools. Much of the research was limited to quantitative studies (test scores and surveys) but included intensive, in-depth case studies as well. They reported that “The most successful schools were those that used restructuring tools to help them function as professional learning communities.” They clarified that in these schools, educators:

  • Engaged in a collective effort to achieve a clear, commonly shared purpose for student learning
  • Created a collaborative culture to achieve the purpose
  • Took collective—rather than individual—responsibility for the learning of all students

That same year, Sharon Kruse, Karen Seashore Louis, and Anthony Bryk reported their findings that schools most effective in terms of student achievement operated as professional learning communities characterized by:

  • Reflective dialogue
  • Deprivatization of practice
  • Collective focus on student learning
  • Collaboration
  • Shared norms and values

In 1998, Kruse teamed with Helen Marks for an intensive study of 24 schools (eight elementary, eight middle, and eight high schools) to reaffirm that schools operating as professional learning communities had a significant impact on both the classroom practice of teachers and student achievement.

Despite the consistent findings of the researchers regarding the power of the professional learning community concept to benefit schools, teachers, and students, the research was not having a significant impact on practitioners. As Kruse and her colleagues wrote in 1995, “Professional community within schools has been a minor theme in many educational reform efforts since the 1960s. Perhaps it is time it became a major rallying cry among reformers, rather than a secondary whisper.”

An important step in converting the professional learning community concept from a “secondary whisper” to “a major rallying cry” was the publication of Professional Learning Communities at Work™: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement by Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker (Solution Tree Press, 1998). According to Professional Learning Communities at Work™, when a school functions as a professional learning community, its members:

  • Collectively pursue a shared mission, vision, values, and goals.
  • Work interdependently in collaborative teams focused on learning.
  • Engage in ongoing collective inquiry into best practice and the “current reality” of student achievement and the prevailing practices of the school.
  • Demonstrate an action orientation and experimentation.
  • Participate in systematic processes to promote continuous improvement.
  • Maintain an unrelenting focus on results.

In their subsequent work Dr. DuFour, Dr. Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour argue that these characteristics are driven by three big ideas that guide the daily work of educators in a professional learning community:

  1. The fundamental purpose of the school is to ensure high levels of learning for all students, and the extent to which the school is successful in achieving that purpose will have a profound effect on the short- and long-term success of students. The relevant question in a professional learning community is not “Was it taught?” but rather, “Was it learned?” The shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning underpins the work of a professional learning community.
  2. Educators cannot fulfill the fundamental purpose of learning for all if they work in isolation. Therefore, they must work together collaboratively to address those issues that have the greatest impact on student learning and must take collective responsibility to ensure the learning takes place.
  3. Educators will not know the extent to which students are learning unless they have a results orientation, constantly seeking evidence and indicators of student learning. They will use that evidence to identify students who need additional time and support for learning and to inform and improve their own practice in the classroom.

Michael Fullan, a student of school reform efforts for more than a quarter of a century, reports that interest in professional learning communities has moved beyond the “whisper” of researchers to a growing “rallying cry” among practitioners themselves. He cautions that the term has traveled faster than the concept, and that many schools are engaged in superficial activities under the banner of professional learning communities that will have little effect on student achievement. He also cautions that professional learning communities will be difficult to sustain in individual schools without support from the central office and state and provincial systems of education. But he has lauded the work of DuFour, Eaker, and DuFour as the “gold standard” for fostering the development of professional learning communities, describing it as “especially powerful” because of the explicit resources and tools it provides educators for beginning the work and learning by doing.

Harvard researchers Robert Kagen and Lisa Laskow Lahey have found that changing the way we talk can change the way we work. The professional learning community concept has helped to change the conversations in schools and districts. Much work remains to be done if professional learning communities are to become the norm rather than an aberration in public education, but educators can take heart in Malcolm Gladwell’s conclusion that a small close-knit group can champion an idea or proposal until it reaches a “tipping point” and spreads throughout the organization. Perhaps we can reach a tipping point in public education to create school cultures that are more conducive to both adult and student learning.

See proof of how well PLCs are working.