Creating Effective Professional Learning Communities

If managed well, these teams can help teachers innovate in the classroom and improve student outcomes.


Many teachers work to guide students to take academic risks that will help them learn. Can schools apply that idea to teacher learning as well?

The answer may be found in the collaboration achieved in professional learning communities (PLCs). PLCs—which harness “an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve”—is a common and proven practice to promote teacher collaboration that increases student achievement.

However, it is possible to fall into collaborative work that stifles innovation. This can happen, for example, if PLCs focus too heavily on common assessments and a common understanding of what students are learning, leading to common everything—students getting the same lesson plan in each class. I’ve heard administrators use the

term “common experience” when setting expectations for teaching and learning. That strikes me as going too far.


Although this is grounded in wanting to ensure student success through consistency, it can stifle innovation, and one of the purposes of a PLC is to try out new strategies. The PLC is designed for teacher learning, and thus the team must balance risk-taking and teacher autonomy with shared expectations for student learning. It’s important that teachers in a team have that clear understanding of purpose so that everyone feels safe to take risks.

A learning team constantly engages in a cycle of learning: analyzing data, setting goals, and learning individually and collaboratively, as well as implementing and adjusting practices to meet the needs of all learners. This process allows teachers to try new teaching practices and discover what’s working and what isn’t.


In PLCs, the fundamental questions teachers explore are: “What do we want students to learn?” and “How will we know if they have learned it?” These questions are foundational to any PLC, as they require teachers to come to a common understanding of the learning as well as common assessments that check for understanding.

PLC make this happen by prioritizing standards using specific criteria and then unpacking those standards, analyzing the nouns and verbs in the standards to understand which skills and concepts students will need to learn in order to be successful. Teachers identify what is hard to teach and what is hard to learn in the standards so that they can anticipate interventions and extensions.

It’s important to note that parts of this process calls for tight alignment between teachers and don’t allow for the creativity and autonomy teachers may be used to. In order to achieve success for students, we do need some common practices. However, by agreeing as a team on what should be tightly aligned, we can set the stage for teacher autonomy and exploration of the art of teaching and instructional practice.

By Andrew Miller