The Ontario Ministry of Education defines a professional learning community ( PLC ) as “a shared vision or running a school in which everyone can make a contribution, and staff are encouraged to collectively undertake activities and reflection in order to constantly improve their students’ performance.” In a PLC there is a shift of focus from teaching to learning that is so profound, that even teachers can be considered as reflective learners in the instructional process. Professional learning communities promote staff development, enhance student attainment and accelerate school change and improvement. More and more schools are adopting this development model. The following characteristics are typical of most PLCs.
Professional learning communities work well in schools in which there is a practice of shared leadership. Their main goal is the achievement of high levels of learning for all students. The strengths and weaknesses of all students are identified and the weaker students are given additional academic assistance. Instruction is individualized and students are more motivated. There is a feeling of mutual respect and trust among staff and students which leads to greater engagement.
The role of the principal is to create the learning community and monitor, evaluate and facilitate its operations. He or she explains the process to all participants, assists in the creation of various departmental and special interest teams, and establishes the kind of cultural environment which would allow the PLC to flourish. The principal sets up the vision, mission, values and goals of the PLC. She also communicates the shared understandings relative to the attainment of the vision and goals. She must organize the timetable or structure certain school days in a way that allows teams of teachers to meet to discuss topics, teaching units, methodology, assessment strategy, best practices, priorities, problems and solutions. In a professional learning community teachers work and learn collaboratively and make decisions collaboratively. They also visit each other’s classrooms in order to share best practices and help each other to improve instructional skills. They meet to reflect on their practice and critique each other. The principal brings in resource persons from outside the school from time to time.
There are certain characteristics that differentiate a professional learning community from a traditional school. There is more collective planning and experimentation with instruction. There is more teamwork and collaboration instead of competition. Teachers ask each other and answer hard questions without becoming defensive because of the existing high levels of trust and the commonality of purpose and values. The focus is squarely on curriculum development and student learning. The teachers study the instructional units together and decide how to teach and assess them at the different year levels. The principal monitors the proceedings. Teachers are less isolated and ask each other for help if necessary. They display higher levels of commitment and accountability. As teachers use the results of student assessment and reflection on their own performance to fine tune their teaching, learning increases. They discover what works, what does not work, and why.
The value of professional learning communities lies in their capacity to unite staff, administration, students and parents, in a productive, collegial, trusting environment which leads to problem solution and improved student and school performance.