January 21, 2019
How Professional Learning Communities Can Help Educators Succeed
At its core, a professional learning community for educators is more than just a teaching team, a school committee, a department or even an entire district. In a general sense, it's about bringing educators together in a way that not only allows them to better focus on their continuous improvement but in a way that also helps make sure that students are learning both what and how they need to succeed themselves.
In many ways, it's designed as an alternative to the traditional "professional development sessions" of an era that has officially come to a close. In those environments, teachers are essentially themselves "taught" by outsiders. They may pick up helpful tips and insight, but the issue is that those outsiders have very little in the way of accountability with regards to staff members applying the fruits of that learning on an ongoing basis.
The professional learning community model, on the other hand, looks inward instead of outward. It brings together educators in a way that allows them to reflect not only on what they're doing and how effective it is, but that also allows them to monitor outcomes and contextualize student benchmarks as well.
In other words, it turns educators into a real community in every sense of the term. Educators have always had a feeling of fellowship with others - they've always shared common characteristics, interests, and goals. Professional learning communities make it official in a meaningful way, putting them in a better position to succeed in a wide range of different ways that are indeed worth examining.
The Power of Professional Learning Communities
One of the significant challenges that teachers often spend entire careers trying to overcome is the fact that no two students are created equally. Everybody learns in their unique way and often how one student achieves success will vary wildly from the next. The problem is that average classroom sizes are increasing, which often requires educators to execute lessons in a more general, "one size fits all" way.
This leads directly into the significant advantage of professional learning communities for educators: it helps to cut through that noise, allowing them to focus less on how they teach and more on how students learn, even as individuals.
In a CLP, educators will come together and ask three simple-yet-critical questions of themselves:
- What, precisely, do we want each student to learn?
- What are the signs that we should be looking for that will tell us when each student has learned it?
- If a student has a hard time with a particular topic or subject, what do we have to do in response?
All of this may seem straightforward, but it represents a potentially massive shift in the way most schools and other educational institutions are run. In a more traditional environment, if a student falls behind in a topic, a "solution" is almost always left up to the discretion of a lone educator. Their technique will undoubtedly be very, very different from others - even in their district or department. However, in a professional learning community, things are different. All parties have already come together to create a response too this type of situation that is A) timely, B) based on intervention rather than a penalty, and that C) is consistent across the board.
Not only does it make it easier for educators to deal with these types of situations in a direct, sympathetic way by providing a repeatable template to follow, but for the student, it also makes it far more comfortable (and more likely) for them to get back on track. Everybody wins.
It All Comes Back to Structure
Again, one of the reasons why professional learning communities are so popular (and remarkably successful) has to do with how they enable the creation of a more massive structure within a school where one probably didn't exist until that point.
The efforts of teachers no longer exist in a vacuum. Instead, they work in collaborative planning teams to both critically examine what they're doing and to help develop standards-based learning routines and expectations for the kids under their care. The types of strategies being developed are evidence-based - they creating new opportunities to see whether their efforts are succeeding or failing.
They're also able to continuously improve these efforts on a long-term basis, creating a momentum that builds upon itself over time. When teachers get together to form a planned lesson and record successes and failures along the way, suddenly you have a considerable amount of evidence-based insight to draw from. Educators can discuss student work and visualize whether or not the kids understand those standards. They can reflect on the implications and potential results to proposed modifications to those strategies.
In a way, it's not too dissimilar to the types of data analysis and analytics that huge corporations have been using for years. If you make sure all of the accurate, relevant and insightful information is in the hands of the people making decisions, they can then use it to make the best decisions possible at all times.
A professional learning community is about finally uncovering the actual narrative that has been hidden beneath the efforts of individual educators for far too long.
Helping Educators Help Students: The Most Critical Advantage of All
In the end, the essential benefit that professional learning communities bring to the table for educators is one of empowerment. This, too, is not necessarily as straightforward as it seems.
By bringing together educators in a way that allows them to form an actual, functioning community - one that is focused less on "teaching" in a literal sense and more on learning - they're putting themselves in a better position to address the needs of their students in a more organic way, both as individuals and as a collective. They're consolidating all of their insight and expertise into a single pool that they all get to draw from. They've got more visibility over the process - they can see what's working and what isn't, and why something falls into one category as opposed to the other. This, in turn, allows them to make positive, meaningful changes to what they're doing - almost in real-time.
However, by putting themselves in this position and empowering each other, they're creating the most important benefit of all: they're enabling their students at the same time. Teachers and students tend to have a symbiotic relationship. When one is successful, the same is usually true of the other. By bringing together people in a way that creates shared knowledge and focused common ground, professional learning communities are helping to build the best possible situation for everyone involved - which, when that school bell rings at the end of the day, is all that matters.