Learning community in practice: Building PLCs in schools

Building a learning community is a primal catalyst of change. In the greater schema of interrelatedness, a change in a community creates a ripple effect on a particular system. Subsequently in this cycle, the changes in the system trickle down to the psyche of the individuals.

Hence, by applying these generalizations in the education system, individual learning stems from building a professional learning community (PLC).  This will then branch out to the idea of systems learning.

The question here is: How do we apply these conceptual ideas in the reality of the school system?

building a learning community

 The conception of a professional learning community

Although the concept of PLC’s has been in existence since the 1990’s, the studies of Harris and Jones from 2008-2014 refine the idea of PLCs.  Harris and Jones gave it a clearer and more feasible structure that any school could adapt as a groundwork for individual and systems learning.

A professional learning community may refer to a group of connected and engaged professionals.  These people are responsible for driving change and improvement within, between and across schools that will directly benefit learners’ (Harris and Jones, 2010).

In designing a PLC in school, Harris and Jones (2008) advise that the change agents should bear in mind that the main goal of staff learning is to support students’ learning through a ‘Disciplined Collaborative Inquiry’.

This collaborative inquiry requires a system that is inclusive in nature according to the goals set.

As a disciplined collaboration, teachers need to work together rigorously. In addition, they should focus on the aims of improving each other’s practices (Harris and Jones, 2012; Jones, 2013).

To be more specific in defining the structure of a PLC, Harris and Jones (2009) outline the seven phases of a PLC.  This starts with establishing one and ends with the sharing of outcomes, which could lead to another cycle of a PLC.

Thus, a disciplined professional collaboration stems out from a systematic analysis of data for evaluating and planning to increase staff’s capabilities to support students’ learning (Harris and Jones, 2009).

A PLC case study

In evaluating the PLC programs in place in a school, we need to identify certain practices like this case study from one IB school:

  1. The teaching staff is clustered according to three levels: PYP (Primary), MYP (Middle) and DP (Diploma).  Each level has subject groups/departments that are overlapping especially in the Languages, PE, Arts, and Humanities departments.   PLCs come in the form of grade levels and by subject groups.
  2. At the end of each grading period, teachers scrutinize their data and define learning issues. Then , they set target for the next quarter. They call this their ‘Action Plan’ that they work on collaboratively on Google Sheets.
  3. In their subject groups, they have video conferences with other campuses that are usually focused on housekeeping matters. They spend three meetings listening to talks by our colleagues on literary analysis and concept-based teaching-learning.
  4. On Wednesday afternoons, they have a level meeting (MYP).  In the past three weeks they are doing an experimental “PLC” of their principal. In this PLC, they sit in a group of five and collaboratively work on the structured online modules designed by their school’s leadership team.

 Evaluating a professional learning community

Based on the professional learning community overview suggested by Jones (2016), the PLC program and practices in this case study school is ripe in its implementation stage. However, it is totally lacking in the stages of innovation and impact.

To address the limitations of this PLC, we may consider the following action steps into practice:

1. Establishing PLC groups should be natural and purposeful.

The concept should be clearly introduced to the entire school community.  In addition,  the school needs to embrace the culture of professional collaboration as communicated by the school’s change agent/s.

In effect, this will address the learning of the teachers and the students. The school might want to have a PLC coordinator to serve as a facilitator or ‘traffic manager’ of discussions and collaboration.

Teacher’s timetable should have an allocation for PLC sessions happening simultaneously across all departments.

2. PLCs formed should have a clear focus based on issues from students’ data.  

This should go beyond quantitative data on Google Sheets. PLCs should be sharing qualitative information on the issues based on their experiences.

Since the PLC in the case school lacks innovation, the groups should have ample time during the allocated session to look for new, appropriate strategies from various sources.  Then, they may share these strategies among themselves instead of just referring to structured modules online.

3. From the sharing of strategies, the group should consensually adopt at least one strategy to address the desired learning outcomes.

The group must agree upon a timeframe. During the particular period, assessments for learning (formative assessments) should take place for immediate feedback on the strategies.

At the end of the grading period or the timeframe, the PLC group should look into an assessment of learning (summative assessment). This could give data on the learning issue in focus. From here, the community may adopt an evaluation of the strategies.  If a particular strategy works well, a member of the group can share this to the school community.  Later on, the leadership team may draft policies or practice guides on this.

As an IB school, this case school is expected to network with other IB schools in the region. They may plan a regular summit so that they may share the best practices on a larger scale.

 PLC and learning needs

Although Fullan (2007) believes that PLCs are not really bad to do, he expresses his doubts on the theory in use.  This is due to its premise of being superficial and school-centric.

In ironing out these doubts, PLCs should have a meaningful and specific design. In addition, it should give opportunities for the school to engage in a larger scale of collaboration through networking (Fullan, 2007, p. 6).

Thus, school leaders need to make PLCs more meaningful and authentic. They have to take the necessary actions to further its PLC program.  PLCs should continually support not just the teacher’s learning, but more importantly the students’ learning needs.

References

Fullan, M. (2007). Change theory as a force for school improvement (pp. 3-13). Springer Netherlands.

Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2010). Professional learning communities and system improvement. Improving schools, 13(2), 172-181.

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