Professional Learning Communities

Pat Kornelis

In the wake of No Child Left Behind legislation, there is no doubt about a pressing and overwhelming need for school improvement. Local, state, and federal demands for quality in education make it ever more necessary for schools to re-evaluate the traditionally-held roles of teaching and learning. As administrators seek ways to raise the test scores of all students, one common theme becomes evident: teachers who are supported learners have students who are more successful. Roland Barth in his foreword to Educators as Learners: Creating a Professional Learning Community in Your School (2000) verifies this theme: "And when the adults come to take their own learning seriously, value and promote it, students take note. And when students see some of the most important role models in their lives learning, they too will learn, even achieve." So school administrators seeking successful students support the development of professional learning communities within their schools.

Professional learning communities exist where teachers and administrators seek and share ways to improve their teaching practice and the learning of their students. This learning is then acted upon in a collaborative, supportive environment (SEDC, 1997). Professional learning communities are characterized by a shared vision, a supportive and interactive leadership, a collaborative community, an empowered teacher role, and supportive conditions.

Peter Senge (1994) describes learning organizations as being transformative cultures in which all participants share a vision for the organization. Professional learning communities are the educational equivalent to Senge’s business model. In professional learning communities the culture of isolation and competition is transformed into one of shared risk-taking and problem-solving. By sharing a common vision for the fostering of student learning, teaching professionals commit to finding ways together of fulfilling the vision of their school. Because this shared vision is one that is reached by honoring the ideas, hopes, and dreams of all stakeholders rather than reaching compliance through fear and punishment, a culture of collegiality and collaboration is created.

The second characteristic of professional learning communities is supportive and interactive leadership. Successful professional learning communities have leaders who share decision-making power. The principal or administrator assumes a collegial role rather than a more traditional hierarchical position of dominance. All stakeholders in professional learning communities are committed to learning and growth –this includes the administrator. This shift in leadership requires the administrator to value the ability of his or her teachers to meet the needs of students. Successful leaders in schools that adopt professional learning communities develop an environment that supports the clearly articulated mission and vision, facilitate collaboration on best practices for fulfill the mission, and develop means for continuous improvement through data analysis and ongoing goal-setting (SEDC, 1997; Uchiyama, 2002).

Collaborative communities are another characteristic of professional learning communities. Teachers and administrators explore new ideas and new ways of examining issues together. Problem-solving is intensified as multiple perspectives provide a greater sense of the whole picture. Collaboration in professional learning communities can take many forms. Examples include collegial conversations about instruction and curriculum, active inquiry about best practices, peer coaching, mentoring, and teacher action research teams (Phillips, 2003). Collaboration does not imply evaluation by peers and administrators but rather constructive feedback to further the goal of improved student learning through better teaching practice.

Collaboration can only successfully and continually happen in environments that encourage teacher leadership. Professional learning communities not only result in a shift in the administrator role but they also shift the traditional teacher role. Teachers in professional learning communities are empowered to influence the practices of their schools, to take ownership of change and development in their schools, and to forge relationships with professional peers that result in mutual learning and growth (Harris, 2003). This shift in power results in teachers who have high self-efficacy and who see themselves as "team players" capable of excellent teaching. Teacher empowerment results in higher retention and greater job satisfaction (SEDC, 1997; Hausman, 2001).

Finally, effective professional learning communities are characterized by supportive conditions. Critical supportive conditions include adequate time, available resources, reduced teacher isolation, policies that encourage collaboration, and an organizational commitment to lifelong learning. Administrators who support professional learning communities skillfully negotiate existing conditions to transform them into caring, risk-taking environments that support a vision of student growth and development (DuFour, 2003).

The outcomes of organizations that support professional learning communities are very positive. Reduced teacher isolation, increased teacher commitment to the goals of the school and to positive change, collective responsibility for student success, powerful learning and teaching improvement, and greater job satisfaction are evident in these organizations. Rather than a collection of individuals working to meet their own needs, communities of learners committed to fostering student learning are created (Leonard, 2001).

With the clear connection to improved student learning, one wonders why professional learning communities are not the norm. But change is difficult and uncomfortable. One of the greatest barriers to professional learning communities is the issue of time. For teachers to collaborate together, we need to shift our traditional view of the teaching day. More time needs to be built into teachers’ schedules to afford them time to observe each other’s teaching, to discuss common curriculum issues, to team together to plan and engage in action research. Communal growth needs to be valued in ways that are tangible in order for professional learning communities to exist in more than a haphazard fashion.

A second significant barrier is tradition. (Leonard, 2001). Endorsing professional learning communities requires huge paradigm shifts in the way we view our roles as educators and administrators. Teachers are often hesitant to participate in professional learning communities (even though they recognize their validity) because they are afraid to trust each other. In our American educational system we have a long tradition of isolation and competition and that barrier is a difficult one to overcome. Administrators, too, often resist truly collaborative learning communities because they are not ready to relinquish their power and dominance (King, 2002). Clearly for professional learning communities to flourish, we need a paradigm shift in the way we view education (LaFee, 2003). With the increasing pressure of federally-mandated school improvement, the time is now.








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