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Great teaching knowledge dies every day. It retires. It leaves. Perhaps the secret of saving this knowledge lies in a unique melding of two professional learning practices that teachers use today: the professional learning community (PLC) and the professional learning network (PLN). Someone must pass along the knowledge. Someone must "build the craft." Excellent craftsmanship throughout history often happened in places where large professional networks grew.

The same is true today.

The Professional Learning Community

The PLC has long been a mainstay of excellent schools. Jonathon Saphier (PDF) found:

The reason professional learning communities increase student learning is that they produce more good teaching by more teachers more of the time. Put simply, PLCs improve teaching, which improves student results, especially for the least advantaged students.

Typically a Professional Learning Community is "a group of educators that meets regularly, shares expertise, and works collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students."

But this isn't a "book group." A PLC is made up of "a school's professional staff members who continuously seek to find answers through inquiry and act on their learning to improve student learning." (Huffman and Hipp 2003)

Why PLCs Are Effective

But, there’s a new element of PLCs and their ability to improve teaching. Matthew Kraft and John Papay (PDF) found:

Teachers who work in more supportive environments become more effective at raising student achievement on standardized tests over time than do teachers who work in less supportive environments.

After their first few years of teaching, those teachers who continue to improve are those in more supportive environments. PLCs can provide that support.

So, to summarize, a PLC is typically:

  • Face to face
  • High accountability
  • Comprised of colleagues from a face-to-face or daily environment
  • Comprised of peers with similar professional responsibilities

And educators who work in highly supportive environments (including the collaboration in PLCs) tend to improve more over time than those who do not.

Struggles of the PLC

Sometimes PLCs can experience challenges such as:

  • A limited inflow of ideas
  • Being a closed network including only those at the school
  • Limited in real conversations about real problems by school politics
  • An unwillingness to try new things or accept new ideas

The Personal Learning Network

Torrey Trust defines the PLN (PDF) as "a system of interpersonal connections and resources that support informal learning." The PLN is a cornerstone of modern connectivist theories of learning as advocated by George Siemens and Stephen Downes.

Open networks like the PLN are profoundly impactful in the success of the modern professional. When Forbes reported on a study of the impact of learning in open versus closed networks, they said:

. . . according to multiple, peer reviewed studies, simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success . . . the further . . . you go towards a closed network, the more you repeatedly hear the same ideas, which reaffirm what you already believe. The further you go towards an open network, the more you're exposed to new ideas . . . in fact . . . half of the predicted difference in career success (i.e. promotion, compensation, industry recognition) is due to this one variable.

Before Twitter, the RSS reader was a primary PLN-building method. Now, PLNs are different for each person. They've become profoundly personal. Some educators log into Twitter and talk about their topic using hashtags. Some teachers love private Facebook groups, others use Pinterest, and still others use Voxer.

PLNs are typically:

  • Online and open
  • More informal
  • Open to a free flow of ideas
  • Often welcoming to newcomers

Many educators are finding a supportive environment in online spaces. PLN support could explain why some teachers in non-supportive schools may be innovating anyway.

PLNs' weaknesses are:

  • Teachers get excited about an idea but meet resistance in their local school.
  • Teachers have no way to share and discuss ideas with their local school.
  • Some educators use their PLN inconsistently and have no accountability to keep learning.
  • PLNs can be overwhelming because it seems like too much, or users can't focus.
  • Authentic conversations can become dominated by a few loud voices.
  • Some hashtag founders exhibit territorial behavior that limits conversation.
  • Trolls and spammers can derail hashtag conversations.

5 Ways to Connect your PLN and PLC for Greater Learning and Legacy

Creating tighter connections between the PLN's open flow of ideas and the PLC's accountability is not a new idea. In 2009, Barbara Bray wrote an article entitled "Your PLN helps your PLC become a CoP."

Here are five ways to make it happen:

1. Intentionally connect face to face and online.

In his book, What Great College Teachers Do, author Ken Bain found that the best teachers are "part of a larger learning environment. They worked on major curricular objectives and contributed to public conversations about improving teaching in their organizations." (p 20)

Booker T. Washington, the great post-Civil War educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute said in Up From Slavery:

The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women. (loc 639)

Great teachers should be part of a PLC and a PLN.

2. Keep it simple.

"Blend" your school's PLC by creating an online space for it. Make this a simple place to share resources and ideas gleaned from participants' PLNs. Many teachers don't collaborate online because it's just one more thing to do. Make it simple to share. Give the less social-media-savvy educators simple options such as an email subscription to a few blogs.

3. Know your purpose.

"He that is everywhere is nowhere," said Thomas Fuller, chaplain to Charles II of England. Knowing what outcome you want helps your organizers and teachers focus on what matters. Otherwise, you may have a flurry of activity that accomplishes nothing but noise.

Encourage educators to share ideas. Set specific goals. You can't be everywhere and do everything. Focus can achieve incredible results if you're all searching your PLNs for new ideas to tackle a troubling issue in your PLC.

4. Encourage new habit creation.

Some schools struggle with PLC and PLN creation because teachers must create new habits. Former Harvard researcher Shawn Achor says, "If you can make the positive habits 3 to 20 seconds easier to start, your likelihood of doing it rises dramatically."

Forming a new habit might be as simple as putting a shortcut on teacher desktops or setting your browser start page to an online PLC or PLN. You might include a PLN/PLC daily challenge and give rewards for those who accept it.

5. Link the online and face-to-face worlds.

Administrators and others should mention the online spaces in staff meetings. Likewise, an online reflection of something said at the PLC helps show continuity. Educators should see both the online and face-to-face spaces as substantial parts of their PLC.

PLCs and PLNs Are Vital Conduits for the Craft of Teaching

Joining a PLC and PLN isn't an either-or choice. I would argue that the best educators have powerful PLCs, but they also bring ideas from their PLN to the conversation.

These two professional development modalities can become even stronger as we link them together in blended learning spaces. Let's get serious about using our networks in even more powerful ways. Let's supercharge our PLCs with our PLNs today!

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Kn3412's picture

What a wonderful read.
As teachers, we are aware of change. We are also aware that we must adapt and make the best out of changing times. In today's world, almost anything can be found on the internet. This can have a positive or negative effect, depending on the topic. When referring to professional development, the internet is a valuable resource, although, I do believe that our face-to-face interaction is also crucial. I really enjoyed the five ideas regarding the blend of PLC and PLN. Participating in this blend allows for us to become effective teachers which later leads to student success.

Joleen M.'s picture

What a powerful reading. I sometimes lose the purpose of the true meaning of PLCs. The advantages are to create, collaborate and communicate as a staff to meet the needs of students. However, there are times when the true reason for PLCs get lost, and in turn just becomes another "mandatory meeting." The idea of integrating PLNs with PLCs help with creating a sense of urgency when meeting together. I often read articles and ideas on social media sites, which helps me create new ideas and research things in regards to my professional development. The notion of infusing the two really creates a powerful purpose for coming together and collaborating as a staff.

Crystal Branagan's picture

I enjoyed your comparisons between the learning communities and the learning networks. Before I was unsure of the differences that were between the two and now I have a better more clear understanding. Thank you for your thoughts.

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