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Building Strong Professional Learning Communities

What makes a professional learning community effective? Many districts have implemented professional learning community (PLC) models. Done right, PLCs can build a positive and collaborative school culture that translates to higher student achievement. But without a clear strategy, participation in a PLC can become just one more thing to do on a teacher’s very long list. Focusing on the purpose and goals of the PLC and creating an environment that is safe for collaboration and exploration can help schools get the most out of their PLCs.

The PLC: All Talk or Essential?

The PLC movement gained widespread traction in the early 2000s with the work of Rick DuFour, Rebecca DuFour and Robert Eaker. In a seminal 2002 paper, they defined a PLC as “an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” Since then, PLCs have been implemented in thousands of districts, taking a variety of forms. 

Most often, PLCs involve small groups of teachers (or other education professionals) who come together on a regular basis to support each other’s professional growth and address shared challenges. This may include analyzing student data together, identifying areas for growth, sharing strategies and resources, and completing professional development tied to student learning goals. Teachers are often grouped based on shared characteristics (e.g., department or grade level). They may meet regularly during a collaboration period during the school day or during dedicated times for professional learning throughout the year. 

Successful PLCs have been shown to have a strong impact on teacher practice and student learning. But many schools have struggled to foster PLCs that support teachers and have a meaningful impact on learning. Too often, a PLC initiative fizzles out as teachers return to using collaborative time to catch up on individual workloads. When this happens, it’s usually because teachers are not seeing the value in the PLC model. To get teacher buy-in and participation, educational leaders must provide sufficient time, support and infrastructure for PLCs. They must also foster a collaborative and supportive culture that empowers teachers to take ownership of the process. 

Five Tips for Successful PLCs

If you’re establishing a professional learning community model for the first time—or need to revitalize your existing program—there are steps you can take to ensure success.

1. Build consensus and ownership. 

While school leaders may be the first to initiate a PLC program, ultimately PLCs must be driven by the participants. That means giving teachers the power to choose how to self-organize around shared goals, student needs, or job commonalities. For example, in some schools, teachers may decide to organize by content-area departments, while others may organize around cross-curricular instructional teams that share groups of students. Each PLC should then be given ownership of the PLC process in terms of identifying professional learning goals and creating a plan for meeting them. 

2. Provide ample time and resources. 

When there is not adequate time built into the school day to support the PLC process, PLC participation becomes another source of stress instead of help and inspiration. It is up to school leaders to create the basic infrastructure (teacher schedules, space, student data, etc.) that ensures success. Also, consider what kind of resources—financial and otherwise—will be needed to support educators’ professional learning goals. Will teachers be able to attend professional development or conferences aligned with PLC goals? Is there a budget for purchasing books or online courses? 

3. Stay focused on student needs.

While PLCs are for educators, their activities should be guided by student learning needs. That means starting with student data. Rick DuFour outlined four essential questions for PLCs: What do we want students to know and be able to do? How will we know if they learn it? How will we respond when some students do not learn? And how will we extend learning for students who are already proficient? By starting with these questions, participants can define specific goals and areas of need that will help them create a professional learning plan.

4. Foster trust and collaboration. 

The most successful PLCs provide a space where educators can share new ideas freely, challenge each other, ask questions (even “stupid” questions), and share both successes and failures. Doing this requires a great deal of trust, as participants must feel safe to be vulnerable with each other. School leaders and instructional coaches can foster this environment by modeling a supportive and inclusive learning environment, keeping formal evaluation separate from PLC activities, and creating a culture that favors collaboration over competition.  

5. Create a culture of continuous learning. 

Remember that a PLC is an “ongoing process,” not a single learning event. Throughout the school year, PLCs should be continuously evaluating progress, defining needs, and identifying new areas for improvement. The Four-Part Learning Cycle (Learn, Plan, Apply, Assess) provides a model for continuous professional learning that is grounded in the Learning Forward standards for adult professional learning.

    Thinking Maps and the PLC

    Thinking Maps provides ample resources for PLCs, starting with our Virtual Training options. PLC members can attend a training together, or teacher leaders from each PLC in a school can attend training and take their learning back to their colleagues. Our “training of trainers” model is built around the needs of teacher leaders to support a sustainable Thinking Maps implementation. Check out the Training Calendar to see what’s coming up. The Language for Learning, Write from the Beginning…and Beyond, and Path to Proficiency teacher’s guides and trainer’s manuals have also been designed to support the needs of PLCs. 

    You’ll find many other resources in the Thinking Maps Learning Community (TMLC), including a robust set of online courses to extend and reinforce our Thinking Maps training. PLCs can choose the courses that fit their needs, including content-area courses like “Thinking Like a Mathematician,” “Academic Vocabulary,” and “Text Structures.” Taking these courses as part of a PLC fosters discussion and enables teachers to try out the strategies in their classrooms with the support of other PLC participants. PLCs will also find additional resources for discussion and learning in TMLC. 

    • Navigator is an ever-growing collection of articles focused on timely educational topics, many with links to Map Builder exercises. 
    • The Map Gallery is a searchable collection of expert-vetted Maps that can be sorted by subject area, grade level and Thinking Map type for classroom inspiration. 
    • Finally, PLCs can use the Map Builder collaborative online learning platform for shared lesson planning, student exercise creation, and PLC planning.

    Need some PLC inspiration? We can help you design a professional learning plan around your student achievement goals. Talk to your Thinking Maps representative to review your Plan of Action or get started with TMLC.

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