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Professional Learning Communities: The power of three

August 05, 2012

A few weeks back, I attended a seminar where a British speaker emphasised the importance of creating Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in schools and justified how PLCs in English schools were helping students, teachers and parents in coming closer, raising the bar and meaning of acquiring and disseminating education. Reflecting on its substance, I decided to assess the relevance of PLCs in our schools and analysed how well this model would work here.

I visited a number of private and public schools only to find that they all shared common problems — the teachers were hardly interacting with each other for planning lessons and marking them, the parents were only involved in the traditional parent-teacher meetings and the students were oblivious of collaborating with the wider community.

After piloting PLCs in a local school and witnessing amazing results, I now strongly believe that PLCs can play a pivotal role in helping teachers focus on improving students’ learning and they can work together to bring about a ‘cultural shift’ in schools. Instead of emphasising on restructuring, the schools concentrate on developing a culture that makes the best use of teacher’s talents and encourages them to learn from each other. It is also quite an effective way of engaging parents and community in continuous school improvement and providing them with an equal opportunity to participate in educating the generation of tomorrow.

Now, the questions arising in every educationist’s mind would be: What precisely are PLCs and how to create them in every school?

PLCs consist of staff members (teachers, principals, headmasters, librarians, etc.) who are constantly learning from each other and implementing new teaching methodologies in classrooms so that their students can benefit from them. These communities are often confused with the weekly planning meetings or grade-level meetings; however there is a subtle difference.

PLCs have three major and distinctive characteristics which renders them unique and symbolic as described by S.M. Hord in 1997. The first and the most significant characteristic represents ‘collaborative learning’ where teachers interact and learn from each other, develop professionally and enhance their leadership capacities. Teachers of a subject sit together and discuss four key questions: ‘What do we (the teachers) want students to know?’; ‘How will we assess the knowledge they have acquired?’; ‘What do we want them to do with that knowledge?’; ‘What if a student is unable to understand the knowledge we are imparting?’

These questions not only help teachers think of diverse pedagogies but also support students to actually learn and utilise knowledge effectively instead of indulging in baseless memorisation.

I observed that when all English teachers in the pilot PLCs project sat together, they learned that a particular topic could be taught in a number of ways. They discussed the areas they needed help in and how peer support could prove beneficial in the long term. They let their personal walls come down and started thinking of their students and their futures instead of promotions, designations and professional competition. Answering the four key questions assisted them in understanding that they wanted the students to learn something of a greater depth than what they had been teaching in their classrooms. Together they devised new assessment criteria and agreed to work differently with slow learners.

The second characteristic of a successful PLC encompasses ‘shared vision and values’ which enables teachers and administration to work closely on their school’s mission, vision, values and goals. Involving teachers in strategic planning means an institution is taking into consideration the feedback of its important stakeholders — the teachers.

Also, the teachers suggest the course of actions, which are realistic and achievable. Besides, it would nurture feelings of ownership and empowerment amongst the staff and make them feel valued, because of which they will invest more time and hard work in their jobs. I noticed that teachers in the pilot project brought forth unique ideas and raised concerns, which were close to their hearts. Many of them out rightly gleamed in strategy-development workshops and had absolute clarity about the values they wanted to inculcate in the students and aligned them perfectly well with the mission and vision statements.

I could also see that many young teachers were developing professionally and they had the potential to become competent principals and head teachers in the near future. Thus, forming a close relationship between the administration and staff brings out the best in both the parties as they get to learn a lot from each other.

The third characteristic of a PLC revolves around ‘shared best practices’ where a school engages with parents and community so that they too can actively participate in their child’s education and play an integral role in fostering responsible, accountable and active citizens. Connecting with the communities will give students a taste of real life and it serves as a great opportunity for them to do things practically instead of only learning them at school. For example, school administration of the pilot project observed a community cleaning day and invited people from their neighborhood to join in the cause. Middle-aged men and women and even a few senior citizens accompanied the young pupils in fixing new dustbins and clearing rubbish off the barren grounds.

This volunteer work has created a bond of love and liability among the students and community members where each believes that they have made a difference. Similarly, schools can have a career day where parents and community members can educate the youngsters about various professions and their perks. Community members can be invited to execute and lead a project with the students so that they experience and gain lifesaving competencies such as teamwork, flexibility and interpersonal skills.

PLCs are a powerful way of staff’s professional development and a fundamental step towards a better and happier school. Teachers feel empowered and committed with greater job satisfaction and learning becomes everyone’s top priority. Students take more interest in their studies and connect with the outer world in a positive fashion to transform into well-informed, devoted and active citizens of Pakistan.