Vertical Learning
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Vertical Learning

Designing a Functional Professional Learning Community

An early influence in my development as an educator was the idea of school as learning organization as outlined by Peter Senge in Schools That Learn. In order to adapt to ever-changing conditions, a learning organization builds the capacity of its members to learn and work together so they can identify if the organization is poorly designed for achieving a desired outcome—and then redesign the organization as necessary.

In reality, the schools I worked in for much of my career were nothing like learning organizations. Either we were being micromanaged and told what to do by the administration or we were largely left alone and free to act autonomously. There was little collaboration or shared decision-making, except around mundane issues, such as bathroom policies or where to store the spare toner cartridges for the copy machines.

Therefore, encountering professional learning communities (PLCs) for the first time in 2007, I was naturally excited. I had just been hired to join the leadership team for a middle school focused on continuous improvement, and my role was to build the capacity of the staff and to facilitate the work of restructuring the curriculum and exploring new instructional strategies.

Professional learning communities grew straight out of Peter Senge’s work on learning organizations, and the phrase was popularized by Richard Dufour and Robert E. Eaker in Professional Learning Communities at Work. In 1998, Dufour and Eaker wrote:

If schools are to be significantly more effective, they must break from the industrial model upon which they were created and embrace a new model that enables them to function as learning organizations. We prefer characterizing learning organizations as “professional learning communities” for several vital reasons. While the term “organization” suggests a partnership enhanced by efficiency, expediency, and mutual interests, “community” places greater emphasis on relationships, shared ideals, and a strong culture — all factors that are critical to school improvement. The challenge for educators is to create a community of commitment — a professional learning community.

Professional learning communities were going mainstream in 2007. Heavily promoted in educational journals and conferences, they were widely adopted by schools in my area. But by the time I had left public education in 2011, it seemed as though the growth of PLCs had already peaked. Many teachers were beginning to view them simply as another fad whose time had come and gone, another cynical move by an education-industrial complex to sell books and employ consultants.

All of the PLCs I’ve participated in over the last decade have mostly focused on implementing a handful of key processes: establishing shared norms and values, using protocols to encourage inquiry and reflection and to ensure open and honest conversations, and making shared decisions based on data and evidence. If those processes are in place, it’s generally assumed the PLC is healthy and operational.

Among my colleagues at the time, we described these processes as PLC-like behaviors—enabling organizations to walk and talk like a PLC without necessarily being an actual PLC. Dufour acknowledges the issue in What Is a Professional Learning Community? in 2004:

The professional learning community model has now reached a critical juncture, one well known to those who have witnessed the fate of other well-intentioned school reform efforts. In this all-too-familiar cycle, initial enthusiasm gives way to confusion about the fundamental concepts driving the initiative, followed by inevitable implementation problems, the conclusion that the reform has failed to bring about the desired results, abandonment of the reform, and the launch of a new search for the next promising initiative. Another reform movement has come and gone, reinforcing the conventional education wisdom that promises, “This too shall pass.”

Understanding PLCs

In my experience, most PLCs fail because school leadership teams do not understand what a PLC is designed to do. In the typical school improvement model, the leadership team selects a goal and strategy, and the staff then implements that strategy in an effort to raise student performance. This is an example of single-loop learning—the staff uses data from student results to revise and improve their implementation over time.

In a typical school improvement model, student results are used to revise the implementation of the strategy selected to achieve the goal over time.

On the other hand, in the PLC-like model so many schools end up adopting, the community starts by identifying its shared goals, values, beliefs, and norms. Then, the community selects a strategy and implements that strategy in an effort to raise student performance—and data from student results are used to revise and improve both the implementation and the strategy over time. This is an example of double-loop learning. If I were cynical, I might say the PLC-like model is designed to coerce teacher buy-in, but I believe in many instances, it is a genuine attempt to involve teachers in the process of researching and analyzing best practices.

In a PLC-like model, student results are also used to revise the strategy over time. Sometimes goals are also revised in the second loop.

But PLCs aren’t designed for double-loop learning; they’re designed for triple-loop learning. They’re designed based on the premise that our initial goals, values, beliefs, and norms are faulty—or will eventually become faulty as circumstances change—and we need internal processes in place to correct them. Applying triple-loop learning, the PLC uses data from student results to revise and improve its implementation, its strategy, and its shared goals, values, beliefs, and norms over time.

In an actual PLC, student results are also used to revise the PLC’s shared goals, values, beliefs, and norms over time. Sometimes goals are revised in the second loop.

Mechanisms for growth and learning

Admitting we’re wrong and changing our goals, values, beliefs, and norms isn’t easy, but it is necessary. If our schools were already staffed by educators with healthy and appropriate values and beliefs, public education wouldn’t be in the state it is today. I’m not blaming the teachers—we have screwed up values and beliefs because we grow up in a culture with screwed up values and beliefs.

A common belief among many educators is that, if everyone would only get behind the goal or strategy we happen to favor, student performance would improve. Unfortunately, this often means we can’t easily be convinced we’re wrong unless everyone actually does get behind our goal or strategy and we can see for ourselves it doesn’t work—which is exactly what a PLC does.

After identifying shared values and beliefs and establishing shared norms, the members of a PLC commit to working toward a goal focused on student learning and a strategy for achieving that goal. While not everyone will be enthusiastic about the goal and strategy, they must be willing to commit and get behind them. There are protocols for building consensus and facilitating an open and honest conversation where everyone’s voice is heard.

Once a goal and strategy have been agreed upon, all members of the PLC must do what they can to help the strategy succeed. That means doing more than simply carrying out one’s assigned tasks and responsibilities; it means jumping in to identify and solve problems—including calling out members of the PLC who aren’t doing what they can. In many school cultures, publicly calling out a colleague is frowned upon, but it’s a necessary norm in a PLC. Having a highly skilled facilitator who can read subtle cues and draw people out can be very helpful here.

If data suggests students have reached the performance target and the goal has been achieved, a new and more ambitious goal is set. After all, the focus of a PLC is continuous improvement. However, if the goal was not achieved, new strategies are put forward and tested until it is achieved.

A few things are likely to happen. First, there will be goals which cannot be achieved using strategies favored by members of the PLC or strategies in the research literature. At that point, the PLC will have to step back, do some divergent thinking, engage in inquiry, and begin experimenting. Second, if a favored strategy is unsuccessful, members will suddenly accuse one another of not fully supporting the strategy after the fact. Third, once it becomes apparent the PLC will spend years working at a single goal, members will come off the bench to state they never agreed with the goal in the first place or the goal was never a top priority. Fourth, as goals and strategies succeed or fail—and members analyze student data, reflect on and discuss what just occurred, and generate new questions and lines of research—existing values and beliefs will begin to shift.

This, in turn, leads to some hard questions. Do we believe this goal is still achievable? What does that say about our values and beliefs? Do we believe we are capable of developing new and innovative strategies which aren’t in the research literature? What norms, processes, and capacities are required? What about beliefs and values? If you thought the goal was a mistake or you witnessed members not fully supporting the strategy, why did you not speak up when that’s a norm of our PLC? How can we revise our norms, processes, values, and beliefs to reflect our greater commitment to being open and honest with one another? Have our values and beliefs shifted? What do we value and believe now as a community?


A PLC grows by making and learning from its mistakes, engaging in an ongoing dialogue about its values and beliefs, building its capacity to learn, and ultimately learning to trust one another. If the process sounds a little insane, it is. But it—or something very much like it—is what’s required. As educators, we have a lot of unlearning to do.

As you can probably guess, I’ve never been a member of an actual PLC. If anything, I’m far more knowledgeable about the PLC-like model adopted by most schools. But, if you want my advice, here it is. First, everyone must understand what a PLC is designed to do and how it works. Initial progress will be slow and strategies will fail. Don’t put in unrealistic timelines or go after “low-hanging fruit”—goals need to be worth pursuing and defending. Second, I probably wouldn’t start with a school-wide PLC. Involve the whole school or district early on, but work in smaller teams where dialogue and trust is easier to establish. Third, hire or train great facilitators. In 2007, my district hired a professional consultant to facilitate our PLC. I spent an hour drumming my fingers on the table and glaring out the window. Yes, I was testing him. No, he never called me on it. Poor facilitators avoid conflict and settle for quick consensus. Fourth, beware of all the cruft that has built up around PLCs. Don’t develop SMART goals just because the book says to. Do it if the process is meaningful and leads to a renewed dialogue over values and beliefs.

Twice in my career, I have facilitated small teams that were on the verge of transforming into functional professional learning communities. At one middle school, the math teachers had been debating for years over whether to adopt constructivist learning with a focus on conceptual development or double down on rote procedural learning. I was hired to break the deadlock and help them find consensus. We spent a year engaging in inquiry and dialogue—learning together, evaluating our options, and identifying shared values and beliefs. In June, we were still divided.

The one value everyone agreed upon and felt most passionate about was helping students develop into independent problem-solvers. They wished their students would struggle to figure things out for themselves instead of waiting passively for the teacher whenever they got stuck. So, I asked each teacher which path would most likely enable our students to develop into the independent problem-solvers we envisioned. Except for one abstention, the response was unanimous. Later, several teachers spoke openly about how scary it felt to jump back into the unknown, taking on the role of new learner rather than expert in the classroom after all these years. They were prepared to take the plunge because our shared vision was more important than any personal discomfort, and they trusted the community to work through any issues together. Sadly, the district used our consensus to adopt a new standards-based math program, shutting down our dialogue in the process.

At a second middle school, the one implementing a PLC in 2007, we spent two years engaging in inquiry and dialogue. As we cultivated our PLC, we were restructuring our curriculum around power standards and encouraging teachers to experiment with new instructional strategies at the same time. We happened to identify a small gap in our math curriculum—we weren’t introducing our 6th-graders to linear functions. Instead of consulting the research literature and cobbling something together on their own, the 6th-grade math teachers wanted to test some of my ideas. By now, the teachers knew I was working on something called vertical learning. Our plan was to help all students develop a conceptual understanding of linear functions in 6th-grade, so they could master the rules and procedures in 7th-grade and leverage their understanding in Algebra I in 8th-grade.

After designing and implementing the 6th-grade linear functions unit, we shared our results with the other middle school math teachers in the PLC, using a protocol for examining student work. The other teachers were blown away. We assessed that 70% of the students had a conceptual understanding as deep as, or deeper than, the understanding of a typical 8th-grade Honors Algebra I student. Sixteen months later, the students who understood linear functions in 6th-grade still understood linear functions in 7th-grade, with no need for a review. These anomalous results made many teachers question their beliefs about learning and triggered a great deal of divergent thinking. Meanwhile, the same thing was happening among the science teachers due to a similar 7th-grade chemistry unit.

At this point, there was a renewed commitment to re-evaluate old beliefs and try new strategies. However, our work at the middle school was part of a districtwide initiative on power standards. All of the other schools in the district had completed their work already, and their power standards were sitting neatly in binders on office shelves. “Where to next?” they wondered.

The district decided to transition from power standards to Understanding by Design. While it was entirely possible to integrate our power standards work into the UbD framework down the road, for the next year or two, teachers would have to voluntarily continue the power standards work on their own time—all of the time contractually set aside for professional learning in the calendar was earmarked for learning about UbD and turning out the same UbD work products as the rest of the district. Many of the math and science teachers were okay with this, but it was hard to grow as a PLC knowing that the district prioritized appearances and not offending the other schools over our work and the gains we were making in student learning.

The journey to a functional professional learning community is long and winding, with many opportunities to get lost or turned around. However, it is possible to navigate if we remain mindful of what a professional learning community is designed to do and how it works. Good luck!




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David Ng

David Ng

Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Vertical Learning Labs

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