Cultivating Learning Communities

by Lee Anne Sulzberger, M.Ed.

Senge and colleagues (2000) contend that "the safest prediction [for schools] is change; schools can no longer prepare people to fit in the world of twenty years ago, because that world will no longer exist" (p. 10). In order to meet the challenges of preparing students for the future, school mission statements commonly include a goal for students to become lifelong learners. According to Haberman (2004), however, "the frequently espoused goal of lifelong learning for our students is hollow rhetoric unless the school is also a learning community in which teachers demonstrate engagement in meaningful learning activities" (p. 52).

What can school personnel do to ensure that they are modeling the same type of behavior that they want their students to exhibit? First, teachers need to share their enthusiasm and love of learning with their students (Haberman, 2004). Second, schools should thoughtfully consider and review the core principles of professional learning communities (PLC) to ensure that the PLC model is being implemented with integrity.

At the heart of professional learning communities is the collaborative dialogue that takes place as teachers work together to analyze and improve their instructional practices (DuFour, 2004). Effective professional learning communities demonstrate the following seven characteristics (DuFour & Eaker, 1998):

  • Shared mission, vision, and values

  • Collective inquiry

  • Collaborative teams

  • Action orientation

  • Willingness to experiment

  • Commitment to continuous improvement

  • Focus on results

When seeking to create and sustain effective professional learning communities schools should be guided by the following three "big ideas" (DuFour, 2004).

Big Idea # 1: A Focus on Student Learning

Professional learning communities shift the focus from ensuring that students are taught to ensuring that students learn. DuFour (2004) identifies three questions that colleagues are continually engaged in answering as part of a PLC: "What do we want each student to learn? How will we know when each student has learned it? How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?" (p. 8).

In a PLC, students who are experiencing academic difficulty are identified quickly and a plan is in place to provide intervention as soon as students need additional support. In other words, a PLC does not wait for summer school, remedial courses, or retention before academic support is provided. In addition, a PLC does not invite students to ask for additional help. Instead, students are required to participate in the intervention.

Big Idea # 2: A Culture of Collaboration

Professional collaboration in a PLC is specifically targeted at analyzing and improving the teaching and learning process. Professional learning communities are determined to work together to improve student learning by sharing and improving upon all aspects of the instructional process.

Big Idea # 3: A Focus on Results

A PLC turns the multitude of data available in a school into meaningful information that enables educators to develop improvement goals that focus on student learning. The development of common assessments allows teachers to look at how individual students are performing in relation to essential content and skills as well as to one another. Once individual students who are having difficulty with a particular skill are identified, PLC members can share successful strategies and materials to meet the needs of these students.

In closing, professional learning communities provide the structure for teachers and administrators to focus on improving the teaching and learning process. Schmoker (2002) notes that improvement in school and student performance is inevitable when teachers:

  • Focus on the assessed learning standards;

  • Use student achievement data to set a small number of measurable goals in low-scoring areas; and
  • Regularly work in collaborative groups to design, adapt, and assess instructional strategies targeted at the identified low-scoring areas.

DuFour, R. (2004). What is a "professional learning community"? Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6-11.

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Haberman, M. (2004). Can star teachers create learning communities? Educational Leadership, 61(8), 52-56.

Schmoker, M. (2002). Up and away. Journal of Staff Development, 23(2), 10-13.

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents, and everyone who cares about education. New York: Doubleday.

Date: September/October 2004