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History of Professional Learning Communities

History of Professional Learning Communities

Author: Jody Waltman

In this lesson, students explore the history and importance of professional learning communities.

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There are many different types of communities of practice that can support site-based management. A professional learning community is one of the most common organizational models for teams that are engaging in school-level, site-based management efforts.

So in this tutorial, we'll talk about the basics of professional learning communities. I'll share with you their history. We'll discuss their importance. And finally, we'll explore who might be involved in a PLC. Let's get started.

Let's start with the basics. What is a PLC? A PLC, or a professional learning community, is a group of teachers and administrators who are organized for the purpose of school improvement and instructional support. Although PLCs can be a wonderful tool in supporting site-based management, it's important to note that not all site-based management teams are going to call themselves "PLCs" or follow all of the various protocols and the varying tenets that we'll find in the PLC structure.

A professional learning community might serve as the format for any number of different types of groups of people who share a vision and a mission and common goals. So this might be a model that is used for school improvement teams, collaborative teams, professional learning groups, critical friends groups, data teams-- again, any group of people who are sharing some common goals and have a common vision and mission that they are going to work towards.

PLCs usually work to fill a couple of different needs. First, they aim to improve content knowledge and instructional pedagogy for the teachers who are involved through collaborative work around a shared purpose. And they also aim to improve the educational experience for students, which thereby will result in improved student achievement.

That's the current concept of professional learning communities. But where did this all begin? Numerous different types of professional communities of practice have existed throughout the history of modern education.

And though the concept of a PLC became operationalized as an offshoot of site-based management in the 1960s, the idea was more widely implemented and became more research-based in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in large part due to the work of Rick DuFour. He was the one who formally defined this concept of a professional learning community. And he established PLCs as a research-based, highly effective tool that we can use in education today.

Since then, many other researchers in the field of education have joined in DuFour's efforts to promote PLCs and provide instruction on them. Perhaps most notably, his wife has been part of this effort, as well.

PLCs really have become an important fixture in today's educational world. First, PLCs can help to support school improvement and school reform. They don't just focus on a quick fix to an issue. Instead, a PLC helps create a research-based structure that supports continuous improvement efforts with a focus on teacher empowerment and emphasis on teacher ownership of the long-range improvement strategies that are being implemented.

PLCs will usually be engaged in action research that will help them improve teaching strategies and impact student achievement, and also impact school environment and school culture overall. This action research process involves defining the problems of practice and then setting goals to address those problems and regularly evaluating the attainment of the goals and refining your actions as a result of this constant monitoring. This process helps the team to move forward in meeting those continuous improvement goals.

A guiding concept for many PLCs is four essential questions about teaching and learning. Some documents actually refer to five essential questions. But the most commonly referenced list includes four.

First, what do we want students to know and be able to do? Next, how will we get them there? Note that this is the question that sometimes is not included separately, because in some interpretations of this list, this idea of how we're going to get students to the desired results is wrapped up in that first question, where we answer what we want students to know and be able to do.

Next, how will we know if students are there? What will we do if they are not there? And what will we do if they are already there?

By framing the decision-making process around these essential questions, PLCs can stay focused on their efforts to increase student achievement and improve instructional practices and support continuous improvement efforts in their school through this shared decision-making that happens as a part of their collaborative efforts.

In very in general terms, PLCs are educator-led collaborative teams. Since each PLC is goal-driven and mission-driven, the specific makeup of a PLC is going to vary according to that PLC's purpose. So sometimes you'll find that it's just teachers on a PLC. Sometimes it will be teachers and administrators working together. Other times, you'll find that parents and students and other members of the school personnel will be working in PLCs along with the teachers and administrators.

Also, it's important to note that in some schools, participation in a PLC is a voluntary effort. But in a lot of cases, every educator in a school is required to participate in at least one PLC, most often as a grade-level team or a content team.

A common arrangement that you'll see is that there is a school improvement team that is aligned as a site-based management team. And then the smaller PLCs in the school-- for example, content teams and grade-level teams and response-to-intervention teams-- those PLCs use will all report to the school improvement team and provide that larger team with the data that is necessary for them to inform their decisions about progress on goals and initiatives and about continuous improvement efforts. And then, in turn, that school improvement team will report to a team at the district level regarding their progress towards the goals that they're working on.

So here's a chance for you to stop and reflect. If your school uses the PLC structure, how are those teams made up? Who collaborates in the context of each PLC team?

For more information on how to apply what you learned in this video, please view the additional resources section that accompanies this video presentation. The additional resources section includes hyperlinks useful for applications of the course material, including a brief description of each resource. Thanks for joining me today. Have a great day.

Notes on "History of Professional Learning Communities"

(00:00 - 00:29) Introduction

(00:30 - 02:01) PLC Basics

(02:02 - 03:08) History of PLCs

(03:09 - 05:31) Importance of PLCs

(05:32 - 07:19) PLC Participants

(07:20 - 07:55) Stop and Reflect

Additional Resources

History of PLC

This page on the All Things PLC website outlines the history and important movements of the Professional Learning Community.​

Professional Learning Communities: What Are They And Why Are They Important?

This article provides a high level overview of the PLC and how it is connected to shared leadership.