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3 Principles for Authentic PLCs

Joellen Killion image
Joellen Killion

Research supports the value of educator collaboration. A recent report from the Rennie Center confirms that when teachers collaborate, students benefit. Too often, however, professional learning within communities of peers is merely a label.

Professional learning communities (PLCs) are hijacked in multiple ways, usually under the pretense of facilitating or supporting the collaboration. Administrators who dictate the content of collaboration are some of the biggest offenders. Teachers who fail to engage responsibly as professionals with colleagues in collaboration are also offenders. When educators at any level arrive late, break commitments, seek to maintain the status quo, or remain within their comfort zone, they are subverting the core principles of professional learning communities.

Within authentic professional learning communities, members determine their content and process for their continuous improvement. While they may benefit from skillful facilitators who offer processes and protocols, the community commits to learning as a means to improve practice and results. A key distinction exists between a community of professionals who engage in learning for continuous improvement and a gathering of professionals who conduct routine work together.

A learning community that fails to make learning its central focus violates a fundamental principle of a PLC -- the primary purpose of the community is to learn. The PLC intends to strengthen, refine, or expand its members' practice and the effects of their practice.

A professional learning community that has no decision-making authority is in violation of a second fundamental principle -- the community is responsible for successes and failures. Members embrace both responsibility and accountability for success of all of the community's members. Administrators must allow the community to exercise authority for their own learning. PLC members must assume the accountability that comes with authority. Both administrators and members can be in violation -- when administrators hijack the agenda or time or when community members fail to assume responsibility for each other's success and failure.

The third fundamental principle of a professional learning community is the professionalism of members at all levels -- engaging fully, keeping commitments, practicing civility, using dialogue to deepen understanding, challenging assumptions, communicating effectively.  

The term PLC too frequently is an inappropriate label for any convening of education professionals. Grade-level team or department meetings, faculty meetings, convocations, training, data presentations, curriculum writing, assessment scoring, or lesson planning are often mistakenly called PLCs. Each of these types of meetings has value, yet each often misses most of the principles of professional learning communities. To what degree, for example, do members of a faculty design the content and processes of their faculty meetings to advance professional learning and collective responsibility for educators' continuous improvement and student success?

Authentic professional learning communities support professional responsibility for peer and student success. More opportunity for educator collaboration is not only about creating the structures for collaboration, such as team norms or time within the school day, it also requires a commitment to and fierce preservation of the fundamental principles of professional learning communities that make them professional, learning-focused, and a true community. 

Joellen Killion
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward

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