When you think about the components that make up successful schools, there are many things that come to mind. Components such as quality professional development, clear data analysis, purposeful collaboration, and a sharp focus on student learning are prominent in schools that are chronically high performing. For years, the challenge for educators has been finding a way to successfully implement all of these components in such a way that it is part of school culture. That is until the arrival of the concept of professional learning communities.
What is a Professional Learning Community (PLC)?
It is unfortunate that over time the term PLC has been used to describe a variety of grouping of school staff such as: school committee, high school department, full school districts, grade-level teams, and even national organizations. This general use of the term has caused many to believe that simply because they are in a certain grouping configuration that they are indeed a PLC. It is important to note that the term PLC refers more to the function and routine practices of a group of professionals and less to the technical aspects of the group’s configuration.
A professional learning community is an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students that they serve; they operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous job-embedded learning for educators (Solution Tree, 2020). Educators can participate in the PLC process in a traditional face-to-face format or in an online format.
The PLC process involves a scheduled, strategic, and intentional analysis of student achievement data. It is considered scheduled because student data should be collected and analyzed on a regular basis. This is usually in the form of common formative assessments that the group of educators believe are viable ways to assess content standards.
This process is considered strategic because it involves the analysis of and instructional response to the student achievement data from the common formative assessments. PLCs are intentional because they are designed to answer four specific questions:
- What do we want all students to know and be able to do?
- How will we know if the students have learned it?
- How will we respond when some students do not learn it?
- How will we extend the learning for students who have already demonstrated proficiency?
What Do PLCs Cover?
While the PLC process can be applied to a variety of subject areas and have a broad or very specific focus, it is essential that at least one of the four following questions is covered in every session.
What do we want all students to know and be able to do?
Educators must identify the essential standards in which they want the students to demonstrate mastery. More than simply listing the pre-established grade level content standards, educators must prioritize content standards and distinguish those that are absolutely necessary for student success. Afterwards educators must plan and implement instructional material that the students need to master the standards.
This may sound easy, but it can be more difficult than it seems. When done correctly, educators should have multiple opportunities to unpack and show understanding of content standards. For this reason, it works well to also include instructional coaches in the PLC.
How do we know if the students have learned it?
Ways to appropriately assess whether the students have mastered the standards must be discussed and outlined. Because the assessment data will need to be used to inform instruction, short formative assessments should be used as opposed to more exhaustive summative assessments. Educators may create their own assessment from scratch, utilize a test bank of questions to create an assessment, or find a pre-made assessment that serves the purpose.
How will we respond when some students do not learn it?
During this part of the PLC process, educators analyze assessment results and determine which students have mastered the standards and which students have not. After completing this, the task shifts to one that is responsive to the data. PLC dialogue should center on instructional intervention, remediation, and re-teaching efforts.
Because the data will naturally reveal varying levels of student mastery, intervention will need to be tiered in order to effectively respond to the data. This allows for PLCs to organically fit into the Response to Intervention (RtI) and Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) frameworks. For this purpose, it would be advantageous to include instructional interventionists in the PLC.
How will we extend the learning for students who have already demonstrated proficiency?
Educators cannot forget about the students who have mastered the content standards and do not need remediation or re-teaching. When responding to this question during the PLC process, educators design instruction that provides a level of enrichment or acceleration for the students who have shown mastery. The same intensity and precision should be used in the PLC when designing instructional adjustments for this group of students.
What are the Benefits of Professional Learning Communities?
Focus on the Learning of Students
Professional learning communities provide a laser focus on the learning of students. Because of this intense focus, educators who commit to the work of PLCs inadvertently commit to seeing students learn and demonstrate mastery. The focus is no longer on whether or not the content was taught because it has shifted to whether or not the students have learned.
The amount of work that it takes to successfully participate in a PLC cannot be done alone. Luckily educators can share the work with their colleagues while gleaning and sharing useful tips and strategies.
Data and Result-Driven Practices
Although the teacher’s intuition is valuable, in PLCs it has to be put aside in favor of best practices that are data informed and yield proven results. Impacting the growth and achievement of students is the heart of PLCs.