Drilling Deeper in a Professional Learning Community

The term professional learning communityhas become enormously popular, but the actual practices that form the framework of the professional learning community concept are much less evident in most schools. There are schools and school districts that adopt the term but never deeply embed the practices into the day-to-day culture of teaching and learning. Classrooms and students are the very heart of a school. Unless we are willing to affect what happens to students, the professional learning community concept will swirl around--but not within--classrooms.

This is more difficult than it might seem at first, given the aspects of teaching and learning that educators have been reluctant to address. Classroom practices such as homework and grading have traditionally been left to the discretion of individual teachers. Such practices often vary greatly from classroom to classroom, and can in fact have a negative effect on student learning.

How can a professional learning community approach emotionally charged issues that have been generally ignored? One important point to remember is: Above all, a professional learning community is a way of thinking. Regardless of the complexity of the issue, using the professional learning community way of thinking can increase the likelihood of success.

A Way of Thinking in a Professional Learning Community: Four Principles

Begin With Building a Guiding Coalition

Issues such as homework and grading are complex, with few simple answers. A professional learning community is characterized, in part, by a culture of continuous improvement. We are constantly asking the question, "Is there a better way?" On most issues, especially those that are emotionally laden such as homework and grading, it is virtually impossible for the entire faculty to initially engage in an effective dialogue. There are simply too many people involved, each with their own background, experiences and strong opinions. Typically, they end up talking at each other. On most issues a large group is ill-suited for building consensus.

It is usually preferable to start with a few staff members who can address the issue in a more professional and rational way. Creation of a guiding coalition is the first step that characterizes a way of thinking in a professional learning community. By beginning with a smaller group, the likelihood of building consensus later with the larger group is enhanced.

Build Shared Knowledge

The first step in addressing a problem or issue is to gain shared knowledge; nowhere is the phrase "a way of thinking" more applicable. The very term professional in a professional learning community implies that what we do will be based on the latest and best information available. Therefore, when a school, team, or group functions as a professional learning community, the approach should not be to average opinions. It should be to first build shared knowledge about best practice--with "best practice" being defined as those practices that have a positive impact on student success. A major cultural shift occurs when members of a professional learning community seek to learn together.

This doesn’t necessarily mean simply seeking out research findings, although research studies are obviously an important source of information. Best practices may be found right within a team, within our own school, or in another school or neighboring district. Best practices may also be found in articles or books. In professional learning communities, groups seek to learn, and they don’t limit their sources.

Engage in Experimentation

Gaining knowledge about effective practices does little to improve a school unless we are willing to try them out. A willingness to experiment with new approaches is a significant aspect of a way of thinking in a professional learning community. Through experimentation we develop a culture of continuous improvement. Through experimentation we try to close the knowing-doing gap by recognizing that we won’t know unless we try.

Experimentation involves a willingness to move beyond the status quo. However, be cautious. We must avoid the "Yeah, but" syndrome obsessing on the flaws of an idea. There are obvious downsides to any new initiative. If we refuse to try things simply because they are not perfect, we will never try anything. This goal is not a perfect approach, but rather, a more effective approach than our current practice.

A Focus on Results

How is "more effective" defined in a professional learning community? There is a tendency in more traditional schools to judge our efforts based on acceptability or how well staff like them, rather than on how a particular approach is affecting student learning. In a professional learning community there is a commitment to assess our practices based on their effect on student learning. We must recognize that every attempt at improvement will not be successful. The willingness to examine a failed attempt is a good thing if handled correctly. By thoroughly analyzing what happened and why it happened, we can learn many things. After all, this is the essence of a learning community.

An Example: Grading

There are few issues that elicit stronger emotions than grading and report cards. Yet, in most traditional schools, grading is left to the discretion of individual teachers. Grading practices range widely even within the same school, grade level, or course. Grading is an important component that affects student learning, and an area in most schools where there is potential for improved practice. How can we use the professional learning community way of thinking to improve grading practices?

Having the entire faculty address the topic of grading will prove problematic at best. It will be more effective to have a smaller task force tackle the issue first. Their charge should be clearly defined and the core of this charge is that they must first gain shared knowledge about effective grading practices. (Of course, these will vary depending on grade level, areas of study, etc. We must also recognize that there is no one best grading practice.)

After learning together, analyzing, and discussing, the task force should periodically update the entire faculty on their work, sharing what they are learning, engaging in a deep, professional dialogue and, most importantly, listening deeply to faculty concerns, points of view, and questions.

As a result of thoughtful analysis, discussion, and reflection, the group can recommend a different approach to grading that might be tried, perhaps by one or two teams at first. (Notice that we used the word "tried" here rather than "adopted." Initially, we are simply experimenting with a different approach.) After experimenting with various grading practices, the group or groups will analyze the effects of the new approaches, and may adapt them and try again. It is important to constantly share with the larger group so we are moving the whole faculty towards a willingness to try a new and proven approach. However, we are also making the commitment to monitor new approaches and make adjustments as needed.


If schools are to function as true professional learning communities, they cannot avoid difficult and complex issues. Recognizing that a professional learning community involves a way of thinking will increase the likelihood of success when addressing such topics--topics that impact student learning. This way of thinking will prove effective on most issues, especially emotional ones such as homework practices or grading. Keep in mind that the quality of what we do will be determined, to a great extent, by the quality of how we think!



I, too, have wondered what makes the difference between schools that appear to be doing genuine, student-focused collaborative work and those that are simply going through the motions? It seems to me that oftentimes school communities grab onto the "PLC" concept, but then lack depth in the way the ideas are implemented. I would be interested in hearing other thoughts about this?

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Professional Learning Communities « Educational Explorations

[...] to engage in these groups because it is hard work.  And it is!  However, in their blog entry on AllThingsPLC, Robert Eaker and Janel Keating remind us that, “If schools are to function as true [...]

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I find it difficult to create a truly PLC cultuture with a school of limited resources. I only have one core teacher per subject per grade level - and part time elective teachers which limits planning time for teachers. We meet occasionally after school but not every week because our staff is so tired at the end of the day. Any suggestions on how to implement a schedule so that PLC's can take place during the day?

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Becky DuFour

Task forces are usually convened to study and make improvement recommendations on topics that impact the majority of folks within the school or district, such as: attendance, grading, homework, systematic interventions, scheduling, parent/community involvement.

We advocate the task force is not a decision-making body, but rather the group that:
studies the "current reality" of the topic,
seeks out "best practice" as it applies to the topic,
presents findings to the larger group
makes a recommendation to the larger group, and
attempts to clarify questions and build consensus for the recommendation.

Once a decision is made by the larger group (i.e. full faculty, district staff) the task force usually disbands, but could stay in tact for a time to monitor implementation of the decision and the results inspired by the decision.

Hope this helps!

All the Best,
Becky DuFour

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I am curious to learn more about how you select the topics for task forces; any ideas out there?

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I love the idea of developing a "task force" to tackle school concerns. I also like the idea of experimenting withing 2-3 teams prior to introducing new ideas to the entire staff. We don't yet have task forces at Parkway Central, but can see the idea making our learning community teams even stronger.

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Becky, Rick, and Bob

Thanks so much for this positive feedback on the PLC concept! Please stay in touch so we can support and celebrate your PLC journey in North Branford Schools!

Wishing you and yours a GREAT school year,
Becky, Rick, and Bob

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I am so motivated by the post here in addition to just returning from the Boston Institute. Although my staff engaged in PLC last year it was only scratching the surface. I agree that it is learning by doing but we were ready to have a "shot" in the arm in some specifics of this and this is what this post and the Boston Institute did for us. We are about to embark on a year of focusing on essential learning at the team level in math and literacy coupled with the elementary implementation within the district of RTI. What could be more suited together? I see this as a perfect fit and can't wait to monitor the results. We have done smart goals and this year we will tweak them a bit more with our new knowledge. We have a guiding coalition and have a task force group that is ready to tackle the hard issues that come up. Thanks for your realistic approach to improving our school.

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