I read Professional Learning Communities by Richard Dufour and Robert Eaker several years ago and attended conferences about the concept. We implemented Professional Learning Communities (PLC) in our school with early, but unsustainable success.
Thesis: The authors proposed “the most promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement is developing the ability of school personnel to function as professional learning communities” (p. xi). Professionally, educators need awareness of emerging research to fuel personal learning and support student learning. Communities form and they foster “mutual cooperation, emotional support, and personal growth as [people] work together to achieve what they cannot accomplish alone” (p. xii). Teachers safely move from isolation and risks are taken extending personal and collective learning when a PLC is effectively implemented, integrated, and supported in a school.
Characteristics: This is an annotated version, but successful and sustainable PLCs have six characteristics:
- Shared mission or purpose, shared vision or what we hope to become, and shared values guiding the process. Shared mission advertises purpose outward. Shared vision energizes staff. Values are personal and community attitudes, behaviours, and commitments which are normalized over time.
- Collective inquiry fuels the process. What do we want to change? What ways are things as they are challenged? There is collective conversation and personal reflection. The latter is the oxygen that breathes new life into the dialogue and provides fuel through new questions.
- Collaborative teams provide renewal. Collaboration acknowledges the dysfunctional nature of communities. What do we do when there are dissenting voices and disagreement? What value will we name here?
- Action and experimentation are always in evidence. “Even seemingly chaotic activity is preferred to orderly, passive inaction” (p. 27). Teachers experiment with emergent ideas making innovation essential in a PLC.
- Everyone commits to continuous improvement. Questions emerge and are actively sought out, but there are touchstones principles such as “What is our fundamental purpose?”
- With continuous improvement and action orientation there is an iterative process in the form of quantitative, qualitative, or mixed research. The object is to shake up the status quo and find new ways of safely supporting both staff and students. What are we doing that we want to change? (pp. 25-29)
Questions: Who has had success in implementing a PLC in their school or jurisdiction? What were the important takeaways including what worked and what did not work? What did you do to overcome the bumps along the way? What can a school starting or restarting the process do to sustain energy and get early work done successfully while recognizing the achievements even when they are small?
Recommendation: The book is about 300 pages, but is an easy read. The authors synthesized leadership literature inside education i.e. Lezotte, Sergiovanni, and Fullan and outside education i.e. Bennis, Senge, and Deal and Kennedy and saved some reading.
I recommend the book for those ready, willing, and patient enough for a transformative journey. The process requires time and immediate classroom benefits to sustain it. Cultural change is messy and requires leadership, perhaps previously untapped in education. Effective support and communication are required for sustainable, successful results to emerge. Early conversations focused on mission, vision, values and normative behaviours are uncomfortable, but necessary. My questions attempt to flesh out these concerns, as we are embarking on this journey again.
I know schools in Canada, the USA, and internationally have successfully implemented PLCs and I want to draw on the experience and wisdom already in place. I am looking for process and product, but not a cookie cutter formula per se. I look forward to hearing from many of you.
Dufour, R. and Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington IN: National Educational Services.