The power of professional learning communities

September 13, 2021 - 19 min read

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What are professional learning communities?

3 types of professional learning communities

An example of a professional learning community

What are the components of a professional learning community?

5 benefits of professional learning communities

Improve learning with continuous education in professional learning communities

In a fast-changing world, we know that we have to constantly learn. As individuals, we're told we need to be lifelong learners to stay relevant. In our organizations, we know that delighting customers and winning in the market requires our teams to get better at learning faster from changing conditions.

Learning comes with its own sets of challenges. 

This is especially true when you are learning while doing, in a work environment.

These challenges only become more difficult when tackled alone. Professionals who work alone may struggle to find new ways to use new tools or achieve better outcomes. They may not even be fully aware of new approaches or new requirements.

In isolation, any professional can become less effective, perceived as out-of-touch with a dated approach and obsolete skills. 

Professional learning communities exist to overcome these challenges. They provide a space for continual improvement and learning for all their members.

Let’s explore what professional learning communities (PLC) are and the six components of a PLC. Plus, you’ll learn how professional learning communities have been used in the field of education and the example of how educators and students benefit from them.

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What are professional learning communities?

In the 1980s, Donald Schon introduced the concept of a group of professionals forming a group to better understand their own work and up with changing knowledge. The idea really caught fire after Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline came out in 1990.

Sometime after that, the term became associated with educators and the field of education. But any field can have a professional learning community. The benefits generalize beyond educators.

For example, a PLC could be helpful for frontline managers or employees who also serve as internal trainers, coaches, or mentors.  

Professional learning communities are groups that work on improving their work practices and processes on an ongoing basis.   

Professionals work together in recurring cycles to develop better approaches and deliver better outcomes. They also work together to research and bring in new information and tools during these cycles. 

Professional learning communities are created with one assumption: that there is always a way that can deliver a better outcome.  In a training or coaching PLC, the assumption is that the trainer or coach could deliver a better learning experience. With better delivery, the students or coachees could apply more new knowledge or skill into sustained change in the way they work. 

That’s because the members of the learning community perform job-embedded learning and experimentation throughout.

In a professional learning community, the focus is on the outcome of the desired results. Members judge the community’s effectiveness based on shared objectives. For example, if the goal is to improve sales performance, they’ll measure sales performance to judge how effective their collective learning is.

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Teams of managers, coaches, and mentors identify current levels of achievement for their team members or coachees. Then, they establish a goal to improve this level. This can be via learning improvements or people management techniques.

During the process, the managers or coaches would come together to compare notes and develop new approaches. They talk through obstacles and challenges that emerge and share what is working or isn't. Rather than competing, they would work together to achieve goals across teams. Each manager or coach would periodically assess their own progress in implementing a new approach and the work or behavior outcomes  from their team or coachees.

The managers bring these results back to the community and compare data with each other. This helps provide evidence that the learners are moving in the right direction. The group can alter the approach if the data shows they are not moving in the right direction.

That’s because employee performance in a vacuum doesn’t have much meaning. Managers and trainers can help their team members improve by comparing outcome data to establish a baseline. 

In a professional learning community, each professional has access to the resources of the other managers, coaches, or trainers. They support each other in improving their in-person and virtual coaching and guiding skills.

3 types of professional learning communities

Organizations can organize professional learning communities in various ways. Here are three classifications and experiences professionals can use to create different types of PLCs:

1. Work teams

Coaches, trainers, or managers who work with work teams that share similar goals can come together to form a professional learning community. Because work teams share similar goals, managers may have shared challenges associated with these goals. They’ll also have shared milestones to reach.

2. Topics

Instead of grouping PLCs based on similar work teams, trainers and coaches can also group professional learning communities together by topics. For example, all coaches who develop leaders in the same organization can come together to form a PLC.

These coaches will have plenty in common, since they focus on the same or similar topics. Because of this, they’ll most likely run into similar roadblocks and will benefit from collaborating with like-minded individuals.

3. Departments

Finally, trainers or managers can also form professional learning communities based on departments.

Not all departments in an organization will have the same development needs. For example, poor performance in a marketing department won’t always have the same root cause as poor performance in a finance department. Similarly, cultivating creativity and curiosity and empowering team members may llo different in finance than in marketing.

At the same time, managers and coaches may find common trends between departments that could be related to company culture.

Trainers' professional learning community example

Members of an trainers' professional learning community meet regularly. During these meetings, members typically cover the following:

  • Analyze student data from all members
  • Set new learning goals
  • Reflect on their current teaching methods
  • Research and collaborate to find new best practices
  • Create a plan to apply new best practices

Here’s an example of a professional learning community:

Let’s say that a group of executive leadership development trainers in a tech company has formed a professional learning community to better develop new company leaders.

They discover that a majority of their "high-potential" students struggle to improve their soft skills. As a result, these emerging leaders make little progress improving their own work performance.

Together, they establish a goal to help their students develop a plan to improve their soft skills before the end of the quarter.

The trainers reflect on their current teaching practices. By doing this, they discover that most of their coaching methods are content-based and don’t allow students to practice soft skills thinking in real-life scenarios.

After discovering this, the trainers ask themselves:

“How can we better help our students become equipped to practice and develop their soft skills to improve their performance for this organization?”

One of the trainers recently attended a seminar on hands-on learning. They suggest implementing real strategic micro-projects in which the emerging leaders will form temporary teams and work together. They will need to use soft skills such as creative thinking and communication.

Another trainer raises the challenge of getting students to commit enough to really practice new skills. The group identifies a way to have an executive involved on each team to model behavior and reinforce the importance.

Armed with a thoughtful plan, every trainer in the professional learning community implements a version of this approach with their emerging leader students. They all can benefit from this exercise and the learners also benefit from a more effective approach to their development.

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What are the components of a professional learning community?

The term professional learning community tends to get overused. But not all groups are PLCs.

In the field of education, six components have come to distinguish a PLC from other groupings.

Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker defined these components in terms that apply to educators in their book: “Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement.”

They also expanded on these concepts in their more recent work: “Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities Work.”

Although DuFour and Eaker were writing specifically for educators, the six components can apply to other professionals as well.

Let’s break down these six components of a professional learning community.

1. A shared mission, vision, values, and goals

Every individual educator and organization in a professional learning community must function within the same mission.

Together, they establish their vision and values. Together, they also set common goals.

When one member struggles with the goal, other members can pool their resources to provide support. The entire PLC moves forward in the same direction.

Then, they can accomplish their goals and succeed in their mission more effectively.

2. Collaboration

Collaboration is intrinsic to professional learning communities. All members of a PLC must work together and nurture a culture of collaboration.

They stay focused on their collective goals. They also collaborate on their commitment to improving employee performance and organizational effectiveness.

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Through collaboration, members:

  • Share data with each other
  • Explore new ideas
  • Combine goals to achieve them more effectively

As a result, every member can grow from other members’ insights.

3. Collective inquiry to find best practices and measure current reality

Members of a professional learning community need to pool their resources.

This is so they can research the best practices in education and coaching. They identify their own understanding of teaching and learning compared to the newest best practices.

They also look at the current practices within their organization.

Members of a PLC come together to share their knowledge and develop best practices together. This can help them improve their teaching abilities and their students’ learning experience.

4. Action-oriented

Professional learning community members believe that action is what drives improvement. To that end, a PLC must be action-oriented.

PLC members use the data they have to act quickly and create positive change for their students or teams. PLC members can also share prior experiences and life lessons with each other. This, in turn, invites others in the community to take action to help their teaching methods evolve.

Students learn by doing, but so do the educators. A PLC requires action from all its members continuously.

5. Committed to continuous improvement

In a professional learning community, there’s no finish line. The PLC members dedicate themselves to continually improving their teaching and coaching methods. They’re also committed to improving results for employees and organizations.

This can help awaken the potential of employees and continually improve their learning experience.

Members of a professional learning community share their resources to help each other continually learn and improve.

6. Results-oriented

Professional learning communities care about and prioritize the results of their students and organization.

They assess the success of their PLC based on concrete employee improvement.

To do this, members of a PLC continually assess their efforts. They compare their results to the goals they set out to achieve.

If employees don’t improve, PLC educators and facilitators change their methods to make sure every learner can succeed. Ultimately, each member of a professional learning community must be held accountable for their goals.

5 benefits of professional learning communities

Why should managers or other professionals combine forces and form professional learning communities?

Both managers and individual contributors can benefit from being a part of a PLC. Here are five of these benefits:

1. Improves growth and performance for managers and coaches as well as for their teams or coachees

Members of a professional learning community create social connections with each other.

With time, they can learn to better trust each other. This can help them collaborate more effectively. It can also help with professional development.

Their social connection can help drive growth and performance for themselves and their students.

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Together, they brainstorm best practices to keep improving their methods. They can also work on organizational improvement.

2. Nurtures a safe place to ask questions

Research shows that professional learning communities create safe opportunities to open up a dialogue.

Managers and trainers can express their uncertainty and ask questions. That’s because uncertainty is valued and supported in the PLC process.

Professionals who are part of a PLC constantly question and reevaluate their work practices and coaching methods. They never assume that their current way of doing things is the best way.

This focus on learning how to learn helps them overcome ego. They can also better help their teams and model a learning and growth mindset.

3. Keeps professionals up to date with the latest research and technology

It can be easy to fall behind on the latest research and technology in training and coaching. But members of a professional learning community have an advantage with this.

They constantly strive to improve the team and individual outcomes of their direct reports. They also work to reassess their managing and development methods.

Because of this, they’re driven to seek out new research and emerging technology tools.

It’s easier for members of a professional learning community to keep up to date with everything and recognize the potential of new ideas and tools. That’s because they aren't working alone. They pool their resources and energy together.

A single manager in a PLC doesn’t have to keep up with everything on their own. Instead, they can perform some research. Then, they can share their findings with the community. They’ll also learn what others have found.

Together, they can test new technologies and methods more effectively. That’s because they have several groups of learners with their combined forces.

4. Helps managers, coaches, and trainers develop a reflective practice

Being a member of a professional learning community can help professionals become more adept at self-reflection. Self-reflection, in this instance, involves taking stock in a specific way of one’s own managing and coaching methods and paying attention to what is working or not working. Practicing reflection with others can help a manger or trainer better understand why something is or isn't working as well.

Coming together as a community can provide new perspectives and fresh ideas that help feed these self-reflections.

5. Provides a sense of purpose

Professional learning communities can provide managers, trainers, and coaches with a common sense of purpose, too.

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This is because PLCs need to operate based on common goals, values, and mission statements for their members. This shared vision can renew a professional's sense of purpose and sense of belonging.

Improve learning with continuous education in professional learning communities

Whether you’re an educator, a working professional, or at the head of an organization, professional learning communities can help.

Using the elements of professional learning communities can help you grow as a person and achieve your goals.

Try a demo of BetterUp’s virtual coaching for employees. You’ll see how continuous learning can drive whole-person growth and sustained organizational outcomes.

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Published September 13, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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