George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ask Ellen: Collaboration Is at the Heart of PLCs

Professional learning communities enhance knowledge and teamwork.
By Ellen Moir
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Dear Ellen,

It seems as if everybody in education is talking about professional learning communities. How do you define "PLC," and how important do you think PLCs are to the future of education?


Dear Delia,

It does seem that the phrase "professional learning community" is on every educator's lips these days. Fortunately, this is one educational trend that has tremendous merit. Our challenge is to implement PLCs in a meaningful, rigorous way, and to ensure that they become deeply rooted in our school cultures. Trusting teachers' professional judgment is at the heart of professional learning communities.

In 1997, Shirley Hord and her colleagues at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory published a study that outlined the characteristics common to effective teacher PLCs. A precondition for the implementation of effective communities is capacity building; teachers need some basic training in PLC processes and protocols, and they need regular time to participate in PLC activities.

Credit: Bart Nagel

Effective PLCs are characterized by shared leadership; principals may participate in teacher PLCs, but teachers run the show. Also, PLCs focus on student learning in concrete terms; They are more likely to be analyzing student work than reading academic articles. PLCs also concentrate on specific issues of daily teaching practice.

Finally, and most importantly, Hord found that effective PLCs are characterized by "visitation and review of each teacher's classroom behaviors, and results by peers, with feedback directed at individual and community improvement." The bottom line: In effective PLCs, every professional shares his or her results and opens his or her classroom to peers.

A lot of schools claim to be implementing PLCs but never quite achieve the level of deprivatization of professional practice Hord describes. These are the schools that will look back on PLCs a few years from now as another educational fad that came and went. On the other hand, schools that are pushing through the discomfort that comes with sharing individual results and practice are experiencing important shifts in school culture and student outcomes that will endure.

The organization that I direct has helped schools build PLCs for teachers and school leaders in a variety of settings. In the process, we have been documenting case studies of schools and school districts that have used PLCs as the foundation of major school-improvement efforts.

In Springfield, Illinois, grade level and/or subject-matter teams are meeting daily to plan and evaluate lessons, review student work and formative assessment results, and share individual feedback based on regular peer visitations. In Oak Grove, California, every teacher and administrator analyzes and takes responsibility for instruction by deeply understanding the program and progress of "focal students" -- three to five at-risk pupils -- in a system designed to make the school-improvement process more concrete and specific.

Here, "Deprivatization of practice" is a mantra, as everyone, from the superintendent to the newest teacher to the head of maintenance, is expected to be forthcoming in sharing results and in soliciting feedback and advice. Districts like Springfield and Oak Grove are producing encouraging results and are transforming district and school cultures.

Delia, I applaud your interest in PLCs. Building a PLC at your own school is not rocket science. You don't need expensive outside consultants or years of study. What it takes is having the understanding and vision that we are all professionals and learners, and that our job is to support and assist everyone in moving forward.

I encourage you to seek out some of the many good resources that are out there to help you and your staff learn the simple protocols and systems that schools adopt in support of PLCs, and advise you and your staff to identify, visit, and observe a few schools that have implemented powerful PLCs.


Ellen Moir is a veteran bilingual teacher who is focused on the challenges faced by new teachers as well as on the needs of those with long careers in education. She is also the executive director of the New Teacher Center, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a resource for educator-induction research, policy, and practice.

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L Bailes's picture

I have been reading a lot of information on Professional Learning Communities. Through this research, I found that PLC are different in every state, district, and school. The way you implement PLC is not the problem. I think that the key to successful learning communities is to have a faculty that is committed to student learning. When everyone is committed and no "excuses" are accepted then student learning will occur.

Jamie Fortman's picture

You are absolutely right... teachers should be participating in collaborative groups in the name of students. I hate to say it, but there are many places in education where teachers are not doing those things. PLCs are not just another fad when done right, because it offers a means and a reason for teachers to meet and collaborate. And if the term PLC is a fad that will come and go just as quickly, I cannot imagine that teachers would let go of that collaborative network provided by a PLC. PLC means Professional Learning Community and it is an avenue for teachers to finally stop complaining and do something about the education of their students. I for one am proud to say that I am a member of a PLC and cannot imagine my teaching career without one- even after the fad fades! You should be proud of the thousands of teachers who are jumping on this bandwagon called Professional Learning Communities in the name of students!

Katie's picture

PLC could be extremely helpful if they are put to use and enacted in the correct ways. In my school we tend to share our successes and failures at the end of the day in casual conversation. Although I wouldn't specifically call that a time where a professional learning community meets, it is a time where 4 or 5 professionals come together to discuss what works and what doesn't. What's even more helpful is that 3 of us are in the same department. We tend to give suggestions to each other for improvement and pats on the back when someone succeeds. The problem we do find is getting administative support. Like Dan said, there are a few jobs within the public schools that cut into time we could be spending together learning and discussing our student's learning. We would need some commitment from their end in order to get the time necessary to further the informal chats and nurture them to become a professional learning community. Does anyone have any advice on how to get administrative support?

Ofelia Trinidad's picture

Although on my campus we do meet on a weekly basis as a team and then again with the Administration, I feel that we have a long way to go to becoming an effective learning community. We do compare data and we do discuss strategies however, most of the time is spent discussing school business. Such as, making plans for the upcoming events, or Spring Festival booths. I do not believe that PLC's can exist if you do not first have a strong leadership team that creates that culture.

TeacherGobin's picture

Thank you for mentioning that PLC's should be teacher lead. I think school's sometimes prevent teacher ownership which prevents success. When teachers are leading the PLC's they will be more likely to open up their room and welcome others in to see what they are doing.

Kay's picture

Thank you for this information. I believe my school district is well on its way to developing a professional learning community. Teachers meet on a regular basis to discuss data and move forward from there. It feels good to get together with other professionals to talk and plan for student success. I am confident that the collaboration I am included in will benefit our students.


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