School Improvement. Professional Learning Community


The concept of a “professional learning community,” perhaps most ubiquitously understood at present within the framework proposed by Richard Dufour and Robert Eaker (1998), has captured the collective imagination of North American educators with its promise of fundamentally altering teaching, learning, and the generally stifling bureaucracy and individualism that pervades most schools.

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Many current projects explicate plans to develop professional learning communities in individual schools and/or across districts. While the implementation and maturation of PLCs are fraught with complexities and challenges, there is agreement that a strong and purposeful community is critical to school effectiveness. Sergiovanni (2000) is representative when he states, “developing a community of practice may be the single most important way to improve a school” (p. 139).

Defining the PLC

While each word in the phrase “professional learning community” could be the subject of endless hermeneutic scrutiny, there also seems reasonable consensus in the field about what the words mean as a whole. A number of key concepts are consistently present in dialogue about PLCs. One is that the development of a professional learning community requires a fundamental reculturing of schools (Hawley& Valli, 1999; Zmuda, Kuklis & Kline, 2004).

The traditional independence and isolation of teachers must be replaced by collaboration and collegiality. Teachers must come to view themselves as part of the school’s collective greater cause rather than as “lone wolves.” Hierarchical leadership styles and bureaucracies must be replaced by more distributed and egalitarian forms of leadership (Leonard & Leonard, 1999; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006). Mitchell and Sackney (2001) position learning communities within a larger paradigmatic shift in our worldview from that of mechanistic to holistic or “ecological” (p. 5); learning communities thus emphasize interdependent relationships (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996).

Such interdependence can only work effectively if attitudes, beliefs, and actions are coordinated around a shared vision and commitment (Huffman, 2001). There is general agreement that learning communities are bound by a common goal or vision to improve the experiences and successes of students in schools (Dufour & Eaker, 1998; Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996; Louis, Marks & Kruse, 1996; Mitchell & Sackney, 2000; Sergiovanni, 2000).

The philosophies behind such an orientation are not always uniform. More pragmatic works like those of Dufour and Eaker (1998) or Schmoker (1993) lend themselves well to improvement efforts strongly tied to public accountability, whereas others – Thomas Sergiovanni (1994) or Nel Noddings (2005), for example – place more emphasis on humanistic motivations. Regardless, and in keeping with the notion of a common, binding purpose or morality, learning communities are ultimately successful when they result in student success, however that is to be defined in a given context.

A focus on student success requires that PLCs be highly intentional and inquiry-based. PLCs are results-oriented. Employing many of the principles of action research, teachers are asked to evaluate existing conditions and practices, research alternatives, and apply findings to continuously improving teaching (Dufour & Eaker, 1998; Sykes, 1999; Zmuda, Kuklis & Kline, 2004). Joyce and Showers (2000) emphasize that school staff must engage existing research on effective practices, noting that the most effective of change processes is moot if the content or direction of that change is not carefully selected and well-understood in theory.

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Teachers, they argue, are less likely to embed an effective practice if they lack knowledge of the theory and philosophy behind it. Thus PLCs require, both in their processes and content, that teachers become continuous, self-conscious, and self-directed learners (Cibulka & Nakayama, 2000). The cultivation of a professional learning community is believed to enhance staff’s sense – both individually and collectively – that they are responsible for student learning (Weller & Weller, 1997).

Many add that the professional learning community has a strong affective dynamic; simply put, the work of continuous improvement must be complemented and supported by warm, collegial relationships (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996; Mitchell & Sackney, 2000). If, as Sergiovanni (2000) suggests, the lifeworld of relationship should drive the success-oriented activities of the system world, then interpersonal bonds among staff must be in place for the task work of school improvement to be effective.

Citing an extensive study of positive staff relationships in five English primary schools, Fullan and Hargreaves touch on a similar vein when they talk about “the gestures, jokes, and glances that signal sympathy and understanding….birthdays, treat days and other little ceremonial celebrations… [and] the acceptance and intermixture of personal lives with professional ones” (1996, p. 48). While these authors and others (Achinstein, 2002; Little, 1990) also warn that good close relationships do not automatically translate to learning communities that improve schools, it is clear that they are an essential ingredient.

Tracing the Origins of the PLC

Curricular Herbert Kliebard has often lamented the failure of school and curriculum reform efforts to master self-knowledge. Of course, this begs the question: what is self-knowledge? Generally, because it is the “lack” of self-knowledge that is lamented, perhaps it is best, to begin with, the problem of making sense of the world without self-knowledge. Lack of self-knowledge causes the human being to act without a sense of where she is going or from whence she has come.

Without self-knowledge, she lacks the consciousness to locate herself in her own immediate experiences and lacks the reflective capacity required for growth and change. Such a person stumbles about in a perpetual state of amnesia, traveling an unknown country without a map.

Cartesian philosophy links consciousness with the ability to use language. And, one masters a language through thoughtful experience – always the connection of the current to both the past and, because we humans are dynamic and forward-moving, the future. Here we can make sense of Kliebard’s claim of a “singular lack of dialogue that exists between present-day practitioners in the field and their professional forebears:” (2000, p. 41).

It is through language – reflexive and dialogical – that we become conscious of ourselves as historical beings. Lacking knowledge of interpretive traditions, our language becomes self-referential, reified, and narrowing. Without reference to a considered past, our language and knowledge are useful only for our immediate purposes; for example, a professional learning community becomes a thing that is only about now and only about school activities as defined and presented by a handful of popular authors in the K-12 field.

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Perhaps such lack of connection is momentarily meaningful – like a good hand of solitaire – but it holds the chance of fading away to the bin of banal and fleeting memories that share the characteristic that they are hardly worth making an effort to recall. Such memory-less actions tell us little about our truest purposes because their foundations are sandy. We must converse with and seek out our own history to know ourselves.

Thus, here I examine a few threads of a temporal tapestry. The professional learning community emerges as an element of a pattern of contesting beliefs about our potential to find meaning in our paid work. I trace highlights of collaborative models in workplaces and find the PLC to be a moment in a lengthy conversation about tasks, relationships, and growth that does not need – perhaps does not want – a conclusion. While this is by no means an exhaustive history of ideas that inform the PLC model, a few key ideas, brought together, do serve to illustrate the point that our thinking about school change does come from somewhere.

The Learning Organization

Those unfamiliar with theories in management, practitioner learning, and organizational learning might be surprised to discover the extent to which these theories inform the characteristics of the professional learning community and the issues involved in its implementation. One key influence noted by Dufour and Eaker (1998) is the work of Peter Senge. Although many of the principles of “systems thinking” and organizational learning had previously been articulated by Argyris and Schon (1978), it was Senge’s Fifth Discipline that brought the notion of the learning organization into popular discourse (Flood, 1999).

In fact, Senge produced a later book that specifically applied his organizational learning principles to schools. Senge’s work was a response to still highly current observations that the world of work was increasingly complex and subject to continuous change. Systems thinking is applied by Senge to help organizations and their workers function in this environment by becoming more adaptive, flexible, and responsive. As Hargreave’s (2004) and others have pointed out, schools are no less subject to rapid and complex change and are perhaps doubly burdened: not only must teachers themselves learn to become skilled and flexible learners in response to change; they must also model and teach these same skills to their students (Cibulka & Nakayama, 2001).

Along with pointing to environments characterized by continuous change, Senge’s influence on professional learning communities can be located in emphases on collaborative learning and a shared vision for the organization. Like PLCs and other collaborative PD models that embody more distributed forms of school leadership, Senge (1990) emphasizes devolution of organizational hierarchy and an environment that encourages innovative, risk-taking behavior among staff.

Critiques of Collaborative Learning Models

The rationale for collaborative professional development is, on the surface, enormously compelling. Yet, like the score for a symphony, complexities and challenges are only fully appreciated and understood in the throes of performance. And, school staff, like an orchestra, are unlikely to coordinate and perform successfully without considerable practice.

Existing critiques of the professional learning community fall into two general categories. The first concerns the feasibility of the PLC. Authors point to various barriers to achieving the ideal of a sustainable learning community and its kindred goal of organizational leadership capacity. Critics note both the functions and dysfunctions of resistance, the complexities, power struggles, and politics that make difficult work of effective communication and the absence of resources required to sustain initiatives.

The second category is more critical, asking in what ways the professional learning community may be used to perpetuate the nagging plague of the industrial metaphor in education. This latter critique has received some attention in scholarly literature but is virtually absent in the professional development literature accessed by the school and district-level practitioners.

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Barriers to Successful Implementation

As experiences with PLCs – both positive and negative – have grown, so too has the breadth of discussion on the dynamics and challenges of successful implementation. Numerous barriers have been noted. Among the most obvious is the time required to enact major change. Lack of time is consistently reported as a major barrier to effective professional development (Abdal-Haqq, 1996). Many projects have been forced to slow down ambitious initiatives, recognizing that allotted planning time did not afford the scope of change sought (Taylor et al., 2006).

Given such poverty of time, Fullan and Hargreaves (1996) provide a pointed example of the sorts of conditions under which teachers may be expected to collaborate: Preparation time periods were usually fairly short – 40 minutes or less. Many minutes were often lost looking after classes until the covering teacher arrived, taking children to the gym and supervising them to get changed, walking across to the staffroom if the teacher’s own classroom was in use, and so on.

This time was commonly regarded as too short for sustained planning, be it collective or individual (p. 60). Most teachers would utter a sigh of recognition at this example of small daily hassles that interfere with the time and space required to tackle any in-depth or creative thinking. Yet, often, expectations of the quality of work that a PLC will generally appear to be premised on unrealistic perceptions of what can be accomplished in such small and fragmented working periods. The “messiness” illustrated by the authors above suggests that what looks good and efficient in the plan or schedule on paper may not, in practice, be feasible. Without adequate, regular, embedded time to collaborate, any PLC successes will be limited to isolated cases and/or be unsustainable.

A further critique of professional learning community models is their absolute dependence on school-wide “buy-in.” A positive, trusting, and collegial climate is considered critical to collaborative professional development, but this ideal standard can be very difficult to obtain in practice. Administrators may be tempted to implement PLCs as a new initiative, only to find their efforts dampened by cynicism, resistance, or indifference.

In this sense, professional learning community literature has not, to date, overcome the perception of the PLC model as “just another fad.” The hazard of prescriptive and (I would argue) somewhat over-simplified models like those presented in Eaker and Dufour (1998), Lambert (2003), or Zmuda, Kuklis, and Kline (2004) – all popular inservice resources for collaborative school improvement – rests in the illusions they inadvertently create.

Despite stated caveats in these works that change is a long-term process, accompanying checklists, charts, staff quizzes, and step-buy-steps resonate a reassuring message that staff resistance is a relatively simple problem to overcome. Professional literature (Achinstein, 2002; Leonard & Leonard, 1999; Rusch, 2005) certainly confirms the challenge of “buy-in,” yet it is noted as essential to successful school-wide collaboration.

Why is this “buy-in” so difficult to achieve? Neglected in much of the popular literature is a frank examination of the power and nature of micro-politics in schools. Theories of distributed and egalitarian forms of leadership – those required for collaborative learning – fail to take into account the reality that leadership roles are differently recognized through status, rewards, remunerations, and accountabilities (Harris, 2003).

These contextual factors create power differentials, reintroduce the idea of hierarchy, and bring with them a host of organizational complexities. These may take the form of small, competing pockets of power. Fullan and Hargreaves (1996) describe the “balkanization” that occurs when staff members define themselves and set goals only within the immediate contexts of their own departments.

Harris (2003) notes that schools may be divided along with subject and grade levels, making free-flowing distributed leadership difficult. Similar dynamics have occurred when staff has been broken into teams, resulting in a “spirit of disabling competitiveness” between teams and a tendency to identify with team goals and interests over those best for the school as a whole (Leonard & Leonard, 1999, 240.) More often than not, staff, and in turn, the school and its students, lack a common and unifying culture – especially one that focuses specifically on student learning – and the larger and more complex the school, the harder such unity is to achieve.

In some schools, such “small-p politics” may be fairly stable, at least unobtrusive, and at best even somewhat positive and functional. The result is an innocuous or even pleasant school climate. However, the potential for problems remains even where consensus is apparent. Staff members may enjoy a positive climate that is mistaken for congeniality. For Little (1990), true collaboration or “joint work” exists only once teachers have cultivated interdependence in their professional activities (Strong & Weak Ties Among Teachers subheading, ¶2). Woll (1984) suggests that conditions of strong agreement foster the potential for excessive control by leadership. Whether through the charisma of an individual, the lull of ideology, or the comfort of complacency, static cultures discourage change when it is called for.

Further, in some cases, stable cultures may be held together by a collective and unstated fear that any significant challenge to the status quo will irreparably damage relationships. In such cases, a spirit of collegiality may be perceived but is likely founded on surface consent that cannot withstand healthy dissent (Achinstein 2002; Little, 1990; Mitchell & Sackney, 2000). Staff may offer one another emotional support and share some resources, but choices of teaching strategies and practices remain autonomous, and little professional discourse takes place (Little, 1990).

Professional learning community models may also underestimate the power of contextual variables beyond the school walls. Authors like Dufour and Eaker (1998) and Lambert (2003) imply that the power of change rests within the school yet seem to make globalized assumptions about possibilities for other schools based on a limited number of case studies. It is tempting to draw wider prescriptions from successful cases and the empowering energy they generate.

And, while the advice is sound, it may fail to appropriately delimit what can be achieved. Largely uniform applications of an improvement model can fail to take into account the different demands and barriers posed by schools of differing socio-economic characteristics (Harris, 2002).

Mitchell and Sackney (2000) caution that new initiatives may not be understood or appreciated by the wider community, including parents. A goodly portion of public sentiment is (perhaps rightfully so) suspicious of school change and student-centered learning after years of faddish initiatives, and many may cling to tradition and a “back to basics” mentality (Darling-Hammond, 1997). Fink’s (2000) longitudinal study of the pinnacle and decline of an Ontario high school through changing leadership and political tides suggests that some important conditions for school effectiveness are beyond the control of the school’s staff. Bottery (2003) argues that current PLC literature fails to take into account broader contextual forces that create a climate of suspicion and unhappiness in schools. Where education policies are premised on a profound mistrust of teacher professionalism, argues Battery, it is unlikely that teachers, in turn, will be able to work in trusting relationships with one another.

Critical Perspectives: Collaborative Learning and the Same Old Ideologies?

The purpose of critical discourse is not to undermine or dismiss popular ideas like collaborative professional development models but to probe more deeply at the assumptions that underlie them and ask about their eventual consequences. Perhaps more than any other theoretical perspective, critical theory is unapologetically normative in its thrust, envisioning social institutions and practices that promote democracy, freedom from oppressive ideologies, and social justice (Biesta, 1998).

Thus critical perspectives examine public education for the extent to which it furthers these ends. Unfortunately, schools are often found to be sorely lacking, regarded instead as bastions of bureaucracy, Taylorism (factory model thinking) and scientism (Eisner, 1985; Kliebard, 2000; Leonard & Leonard, 2001) that promote education only in its narrowest sense – preparation for the workplace, and conformity to prevailing ideologies (Bottery, 2003; O’Sullivan, 2001).

Assuming these charges have some validity, challenges from a critical perspective take the form of asking whether the professional learning community represents any significant shift away from the limited and limiting beliefs and practices that presently govern the content and processes of public education. The essential argument here is that the professional learning community model – and other collaborative professional development models – simply place a more collegial spin on professional development that continues to reinforce biases toward instrumentalism, standardization, and conformity in education (Bottery, 2003).

For example, there is a great deal of common sense appeal in Dufour’s essential question of what we want students to be able to know and do (1998, p. 151), yet such questions – especially when asked in a context of accountability and high-stakes testing – may have the effect of reducing complex curricular questions to a checklist of tasks.

Focused on data instead of discourse and in the absence of any dissent, a by-most-measures (irony noted) successful professional learning community can lack a critical voice. Caught up in what are still largely instrumental tasks of mapping curriculum, developing assessment rubrics, and coaching one another on effective pedagogical strategies, teachers may be reduced to “worker bees” (Hargreaves, Earl, Moore & Manning, 2001, p. 6), never afforded the tools nor the professional autonomy to question the assumptions behind what they are asked to do. Teachers may not ask, for example, about the feasibility of such slogans as “No Child Left Behind.”

They may not be given the space to challenge the content or purpose of the curriculum. They may not have opportunities to engage in any deep discourse about the quality of the society for which we are preparing children to be successful. Processes of assessment and measurement -where “data-driven decision making” is core to the professional learning community model (Schmoker, 1999) – may, as observed by Elliot Eisner (1985), be mistaken for the more significant acts of evaluating and judging the worth of what is being measured.

Critical pedagogy proposes that teachers cannot effect significant change in students’ learning and lives unless their pedagogical choices and professional voices are informed by broader social and political contexts (Biesta, 1998). These broader social and political contexts include an understanding of the role of schools to promote social justice and of the political origins and ideologies behind policies. Westheimer (1999) argues that community rhetoric of the “feels good” variety can mask significant systemic inequalities, and Hatcher (1998) criticizes school improvement efforts that seek to raise standards overall while failing to acknowledge or address systemic discrimination. Inequality, he believes, actually increases under such conditions.

Critical perspectives suggest that true leadership rests in our ability to deeply examine the status quo and imagine new possibilities (Cibalka & Nakayama, 2000; Mitchell & Sackney, 2000). All else, suggests Foster (1989), is mere management and maintenance. From a critical pedagogy perspective, so long as professional learning community models are aligned with the accountability movement, and teachers are required to focus their collaborative efforts on improving what already is, PLCs and other collaborative professional development models cannot be said to represent a fundamental shift in our leadership practices, nor in the way we “do school.”

If the relative rarity with which I have encountered explicitly stated links between the professional learning community to both contemporary and historical influences is any indication, we have made little progress with the predicament Kliebard spoke of more than thirty years ago. The professional learning community model appears to be a new idea in education, but forays into organizational behavior, industrial psychology, and workplace learning outside of the contexts of education reveal the extent to which this seemingly new idea is not so new at all.

Yet, relatively little reform and change literature in education make links to this broader tradition. The absence of this context means that in-school professional development, we are rarely able to contextualize teacher professional development and to learn within much larger questions of professional workers’ growth and learning in general. We may be able to identify the role of teacher professional development as it pertains to the work of schools but, lacking more historical and hermeneutic approaches to the school improvement genre generally, we are able to make only limited meaning of teacher-as-learner.

In short, there is nothing remarkable or new about the idea of the professional learning community. PLCs have a clear and definite origin that can be traced by those who are afforded the time for this sort of investigation. Once the PLC has been given a historical context, it becomes less easy to embrace the model in a simple and straightforward manner. On the other hand, cynics may be hard-pressed to dismiss the idea in an equally simplistic manner as a flash-in-the-pan.

The endurance of many principles in organizational learning – systems thinking, the contextualized and social nature of practitioner learning, and the importance of a community bound by common goals, for example – suggests that the professional learning community has something to offer for teachers and schools if we are willing to engage both its promises and its perils fully.


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