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Building Professional Learning Communities

What is a professional learning community?

A teacher can never truly teach unless she is learning herself. A lamp can never light another flame unless it continues to burn its own flame. --Rabindranath Tragore (1861-1941)

Professional learning communities derive from the understandings suggested by Astuto and colleagues, in which the teachers in a school and its administrators continuously seek and share learning and then act on what they learn. The goal of their actions is to enhance their effectiveness as professionals so that students benefit. This arrangement has also been termed communities of continuous inquiry and improvement. (Astuto et al.)

Why is this important?

There is an increasing understanding that the change process inherent in transforming schools centers on people, and relationships between people. For this reason we take heed from Michael Fullan (2002):

It is one of life's great ironies: schools are in the business of teaching and learning, yet they are terrible at learning from each other. If they ever discover how to do this, their future is assured.

Facilitating this learning from each other requires a new model in our schools, a model of a professional learning community. Fullan cites the work of Newman et al. (2000) who make the assertion that:

knowledge, skills, dispositions of teachers as individuals is obviously important and can make a difference in individual schools...this is not sufficient, because the organization must change along with the individuals...For this reason schools must focus on creating school wide professional learning communities. (Fullan, 64)

What does the research tell us?

Michael Fullan argues that 'when teachers are working alone, not learning together, they are not as confident about what they are doing...By contrast professional learning communities not only build confidence and competence, but they also make teachers and principals realize that they can't go the distance alone.' (Fullan, 44) If learning is a social process and change is complex, we do not want teachers going it alone.

The literature on professional learning communities repeatedly gives attention to five attributes of such organizational arrangements: supportive and shared leadership, collective creativity, shared values and vision, supportive conditions, and shared personal practice.

An added dimension to these need for community in the learning agenda for teachers is articulated by Becker and Riel (1998) as they contrast private practice, in which teachers have little time for meetings, conferences, or other forms of professional engagement...[and] employ the textbooks and other teaching resources which they are given or which they gather themselves...' with professional practice in which teaching is seen 'as a collective endeavor...Their concern about what happens in other classrooms becomes part of their own definition of being successful.' (Becker & Riel, 3)

Key Questions

1. What structures and strategies would you need to put in place in order to build a professional learning community in your school or district?

2. How can technology assist in the development of shared, collaborative learning?


Astuto, T.A., et al. Challenges to Dominant Assumptions Controlling Educational Reform. Andover, Massachusetts: Regional Laboratory for the Educational Improvement of the Northeast and Islands, 1993.

Becker, H., and M. Riel. Teacher Professional Engagement and Constructivist-Compatible Computer Use. Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations University of California, Irvine and University of Minnesota, 1998.

DuFour, R., and R. Eaker. Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington: National Educational Service, 1998.

Fullan, M. Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2001.

Fullan, M. "The Change Leader." Educational Leadership 59.8 (2002): 16-20.

Fullan, M. Change Forces with a Vengeance. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003.

Wald, P., and M. Castleberry, eds. Educators as Learners. Creating a Professional Learning Community in Your School. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2000.