Professional Learning Communities: 6 Guiding Principles
The District

Professional Learning Communities: 6 Guiding Principles

Cody Caudill
Jun 24, 2024

Professional learning communities have two main purposes. First, they work to improve student achievement and their educational goals. Next, they work to improve educators’ knowledge and skills. They fulfill these purposes through a clearly defined set of guiding principles. In this article, we’re breaking down these six hallmarks as identified by Solution Tree and Richard DuFour—a former superintendent and PLC expert.

  1. Value student learning

  2. Create a culture of collaboration

  3. Commit to collective inquiry

  4. Learn by doing

  5. Focus on results

  6. Commit to continuous improvement

1. Value student learning

One hallmark of a PLC is shifting education from teachers teaching to students learning. It’s the responsibility of PLC members to uphold this principle. They create and follow a clear vision of what their school or district needs to do to help all students learn. They’re committed to making learning—not teaching—the focus of every lesson.

Learning is a collaborative process. It involves both students and teachers and it’s essential for students to truly understand and apply what they learn beyond the classroom. Simply delivering a lesson on literacy skills or giving a Biology unit assessment isn’t sufficient for educational success. These are just tools for sharing information. If students aren’t retaining this information and can’t apply it in various contexts there’s a gap in the educational process.

PLCs are designed to address these gaps by making learning effective for all students. They ensure that teaching methods and educational strategies are refined continually to enhance student understanding and knowledge application.

To determine how to make learning the focus of education, PLCs ask questions like:

  • What do we want all students to know and be able to do? What concepts should we teach and what materials and resources should we use to teach them?

  • How will we know if they learn it? What tools will we use to assess their progress and mastery?

  • How will we respond when some students don’t learn? What accommodations can we make to ensure all students have support?

  • How will we extend the learning for students who are already proficient? What can we do to challenge them?

These questions guide PLCs and allow them to create and adopt best practices to ensure the focus—in every classroom and every lesson—is learning.

2. Create a culture of collaboration

As a community of educators, PLCs thrive on collaboration. Think of them like sports teams, where all members work toward common goals and outcomes. Everyone has a role in reaching team goals and winning a championship. For PLCs, that championship is helping every student in their school or district learn effectively.

When educators work together, they can use their collective knowledge and experience to create best practices, lessons, assessments, and strategies. In PLCs, collaboration is systematic. It’s built into the framework of how the group operates. When you’re part of a PLC, you work with fellow educators to analyze and improve how you run your classroom, school, and district.

Collaboration is a continuous cycle. You’re always evolving your best practices, frameworks, and assessments to keep up with the current culture or newest academic research. The dedication to this process leads to higher student achievement.

3. Commit to collective inquiry

PLC members are naturally curious about best practices and the current state of education. They’re committed to asking questions about why things happen in their schools, districts, and the field of education. 

From these curiosities, they work to build shared knowledge of topics and come to group conclusions about how that knowledge best informs collective practices rather than putting that knowledge to work individually. This collective inquiry helps all PLC members develop new skills and make fundamental shifts in habits, attitudes, and beliefs that change the culture of a school or district. 

For these reasons, PLC members do more than just collaborate. They fully immerse themselves in working and learning together, not just side by side.

4. Learn by doing

When PLC members come to a group conclusion about getting a new tool or finding a new best practice, they don’t hesitate to implement it. PLC members know that the most powerful learning results from taking action. Group members learn more from implementing change, not just talking about their goals or theoretical practices.

Many teachers in PLCs will take what they learn and discuss in group meetings back to their classrooms immediately. They want to test things out, see how they work, and be able to report back at the next PLC gathering with insights.

5. Focus on results

Goals, benchmarks, and trackable results are hallmarks of PLC culture. Collaboration and zeroing in on student learning are most effective when you track the results of your efforts. DuFour mentioned that schools can suffer from DRIP syndrome, which stands for data-rich/information-poor results.

Educators have a wealth of data at their fingertips. But that data isn’t helpful if there aren’t valuable insights behind them. Part of what PLCs do is make data collection actionable and meaningful in adapting instruction.

A data repository with analyzed results gives you a baseline for comparison. Common formative assessment is a way to track these results. The common portion means students take the same assessment, adapted to their individualized learning needs. The formative portion means you’re assessing them frequently, within the everyday classroom. You don’t save assessments for the end of a unit or a designated period in the school year.

The more common formative assessment data teachers can collect, the more often they can conclude if they should continue with a plan of action, change it for the whole class, or implement subtle changes for individual students or small groups.

6. Commit to continuous improvement

PLCs understand that programs, methods, and best practices can always improve. They strive to find the best methods or ways to accomplish their goals and know that only happens when they set their sights on innovation. For this reason, many PLCs work in cycles with the following steps:

  1. Gathering evidence about the current state of student learning, like test scores.

  2. Developing strategies and intentionally designing lessons and assessments to increase strengths and improve weaknesses based on this data.

  3. Implementing new strategies.

  4. Analyzing the impact of the new strategies to see what worked and what didn’t.

  5. Applying these insights to the next cycle.

PLC members are always trying to create the best learning environment possible. This requires experimentation and innovation paired with reputable data-collecting and analysis. When participating in a PLC process, educators use all the information and tools they have to improve and adapt to the specific needs of their schools or districts.

Use Formative with your professional learning community

When PLCs rely on the right data-tracking and collaboration tools that help them map student performance to their efforts, they can see the most impactful results. Streamlined, all-in-one tools allow your professional learning community to be more efficient and actionable when experimenting and setting best practices.

Formative gives you the data-collection tools you need for a results-oriented PLC. It allows for easy collaboration and helps you become action-oriented with lesson delivery, assessment, and data analysis all in one place. Formative also provides evidence for effective practice and a space for PLCs to reflect on that effectiveness. Other great features of Formative that help boost your PLC goals include:

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