Professional learning communities

A professional learning community (PLC) is a group of practitioners working together using a structured process of enquiry to focus on a specific area of their teaching to improve learner outcomes and so raise school standards.

Why PLCs?

‘High performing schools help teachers improve instruction by learning from each other.’
How the world’s best performing school systems came out on top (McKinsey 2007)

PLCs, done well:

  • improve learner outcomes
  • change professional practice and empower practitioners
  • create sustainable change
  • develop system wide leadership capacity
  • have measurable impact.

The Professional learning communities guidance document and leaflet (available below) provide the information you need to get started and guide practitioners through the seven easy steps to set up and run an effective PLC.

PLCs the SMART Choice for School Improvement demonstrates how a PLC can be a useful tool for raising school standards through a whole-school approach. This document will be published online soon.

Measuring impact

Measuring the impact of the work carried out by the PLC is an important part of the process in order to decide whether it warrants wider implementation and further investment of time and resources.

The Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit (external link) is an accessible summary of educational research which provides guidance for teachers and schools on how to use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged learners. The aim of the toolkit is to support teachers to make their own informed choices and adopt a more ‘evidence-based’ approach.

The Individual Leadership Review (ILR) supports practitioners in reviewing their practice against the Leadership Standards and in identifying priorities for further leadership development.

1. Establish the group

Phases 1 and 2 are interdependent.

Phase 1 may come first where a group of volunteers recognise a barrier to learning and they feel strongly about bringing about change.

During this phase data is used to identify the composition of the group. All participants have a shared understanding of the PLC national model and agree responsibilities within the PLC.

The role of the PLC facilitator defines leadership, reviews how it can be distributed and highlights the advantages to a changing school system.

There is continuous critical enquiry, self-reflection and constant refinement within effective PLCs. Personal professional reflection notes (available below) can be completed by each practitioner throughout their involvement in the PLC as a record of their contribution and the impact on their professional development.

All members of a PLC should be data-informed with a strong evidence base for the focus. Data analysis notes (available below) can be used to record the data available at the first meeting. They can also be used as an aid to narrow and sharpen the focus of the PLC.

The Welsh Government’s Masters in Educational Practice (MEP) Programme provides access to useful guidance to focus your professional enquiry: How to data analyse

The phase specific report (available below) supports practitioners in working through Phase 1 of the national PLC model.

2. Identify a focus

Phases 1 and 2 are interdependent.

Where an analysis of data provides evidence for changing an identified focus it may become clear who needs to be in the PLC.

During this phase the PLC will identify a particular issue or problem for a group of learners, based on an analysis of data.

Deciding what to investigate

The Welsh Government’s Masters in Educational Practice (MEP) Programme provides useful guidance on how to frame your research about a specific issue and open up your thinking.

Using learner tracking

Estyn (external link) provide access to good practice case studies, demonstrating how learner data systems can improve learner outcomes:

  • Ambitious targets improve pupil performance
  • Using data to improve pupils’ skills
  • Data analysis: a key component to improving pupils' performance.

'Defining the focus' (available below) supports practitioners in defining their focus for the PLC from the data they have analysed. The more narrow and specific the focus the better.

The Phase specific report (available below) supports practitioners in working through Phase 2 of the national PLC model.

3. Action enquiry

Having identified the issue/problem based on the data/evidence the task of the PLC is then to ‘drill down’ to a specific question for further enquiry or investigation. For example, in terms of extended writing this could be ‘what types of writing frames and success criteria scaffold and support the quality of extended writing?

Alma Harris and Michelle Jones Professional Learning Communities in Action (2011)

In order to explore this question the PLC might look at:

  • research evidence
  • practice at other schools
  • practice within their own school, other year groups or departments
  • practice in other countries.

Once the PLC has collected sufficient evidence, it then embarks on a process of development, trialling and refining. In this phase it might:

  • try out new strategies
  • engage in lesson study to collectively plan, deliver and evaluate a new approach
  • ask others to trial new approaches and to obtain evaluative feedback to assist in further refinements.

How to action research in the classroom

The Welsh Government’s Masters in Educational Practice (MEP) Programme and ‘Reflective practice’ improvement area on Learning Wales provide useful guidance to introduce practitioners to a reflective and systematic enquiry-based approach.

Action research making a difference in education, NFER (2009), brings together articles based on action research and is a call to action for all practitioners thinking of carrying out their own research.

The phase specific report supports practitioners in working through Phase 3 of the national PLC model.

4. Innovation and change

During this phase the strategies identified through the enquiry are shared with the PLC participants. The strategy identified to have the most potential impact is selected for trialling. The necessary changes to support the trialling phase to take place at school level are agreed.

Change management

The phase specific report (available below) supports practitioners in working through Phase 4 of the national PLC model.

5. Trialling and feedback

During this phase the strategy or strategies for improvement are trialled. Progress and feedback are shared by PLC participants.

The phase specific report (available below) supports practitioners in working through Phase 5 of the national PLC model

6. Refining

During this phase the PLC will refine or refocus the trialled strategies based on the data/evidence collected.

Impact assessment exemplars

The phase specific report supports practitioners in working through Phase 6 of the national PLC model.

Exemplar impact assessments demonstrate how schools have evaluated the impact of PLCs on their learners, practitioners and the wider school community.

7. Sharing outcomes

During this phase the outcomes, impact and recommendations of the PLC are shared with staff, governors, parents/carers and, where appropriate, other schools for action.

Successful case studies give handy tips for how to start out and demonstrate effective whole-school and cluster approaches to PLC working in schools across Wales.

Since launching the revised PLC pages on Learning Wales in September this year, we have been working with British Council Wales to further develop our international links.

As part of their International Education Programme which provides ‘a range of ways to exchange ideas with peers around the world,’ British Council Wales sponsors opportunities for Welsh practitioners to collaborate and share best practice through International Professional Learning Communities.

The final of three IPLC visits to be held in 2015-16 will be going to New York during February 2016. The attached flyer provides further details.

Successful case studies (external link) give handy tips for how to start out and demonstrate effective whole school and cluster approaches to PLC working in schools across Wales.