By Sam Piha
If programs want to be serious about changing practice and the structure of program activities, being part of a professional learning community with other practitioners is an excellent way to approach this task. Learning communities are especially effective for programs wishing to better align their work with character building and social emotional learning.
Thus, we were very pleased to see the release of a study of the effectiveness of professional learning communities (PLCs) by Public Profit entitled, Professional Learning Communities in the Expanded Learning Field.
Below is an interview with the research staff at Public Profit regarding this study. In a subsequent blog post, we will interview practitioners who have been part of a learning community.
Q: Can you help us with a brief definition of “professional learning communities”?
A: PLCs are collaborative cohorts of professionals with a shared interest in improving their practice in order to better serve youth. They meet regularly to reflect, to review data, and to share and develop strategies to improve their professional practice.
In the expanded learning setting, PLCs tend to follow one of two models: one, for front line staff, emphasizes improving the quality of content-specific activities through trainings on delivering curricula and facilitating group activities and on-site coaching. They can be broad, open to staff from multiple organizations, or narrow, open to staff from one organization.
PLCs for managers in expanded learning programs focus more on innovative approaches to organizational and systemic improvement via discussion-based meetings and support for continued collaboration. These PLCs tend to be broadly open to mid-level and senior managers from multiple organizations.
Q: What inspired you to explore this concept? Is this particularly relevant, given recent events in the ELP field?
A: As interest in promoting quality expands throughout the field, more and more of our clients found traditional approaches to PD – like workshops and user’s guides – weren’t enough to really support sustained practice improvements.
Our clients in Oakland supported several Professional Learning Communities for expanded learning time staff at all levels, and asked us to evaluate several of them. We found that some really strong benefits for staff who participate (see below), and we wanted to share their successes more broadly.
Q: What are the benefits of participating in a PLC?
A: PLCs benefit participating staff in a number of key ways. Participating in a PLC can give staff increased knowledge in a specific content area, and in process-, role-specific knowledge. For example, a staff member participating in a PLC about wellness will build her knowledge in delivering wellness curriculum specifically, and in planning and delivering high quality activities more broadly.
This happens because PLC facilitators model effective facilitation skills and engage youth workers in practical, hands-on approaches to learning that they can replicate in their programs. Giving staff the opportunity to network with peers and participate in ongoing professional development may even improve retention.
Q: Can you describe some of the best practices of PLCs?
A: Many of the best practices of PLCs are related to the pre-work needed before implementation. Assess organizational readiness by asking key questions about logistics and staff capacity. Budget for extra staff time so that participating staff can not only attend PLC meetings, but also can participate in coaching and practice-sharing with colleagues, and spend additional time planning. Create a process by which participating staff can document and share what they’ll learn in the PLC.
Once the PLC is off the ground, best practices include developing the goals and structure of the PLC based on participants’ needs and ideas, implementing on-site observations and coaching, and leveraging partnerships to give participants access to experts and other resources.
Q: Are there particular settings or situations that are well-suited to PLCs?
A: There are some organizational conditions that can make a PLC more effective. To ensure that an organization’s PLC learning is planted in fertile soil where it can thrive, consider making the PLC a long-term professional development strategy complete with a multi-year commitment. Organizations thinking of taking on a PLC should also consider the implementation environment: will the program schedule accommodate new activities? Is there a sufficient budget for materials? Are staff consistently using positive youth development practices in the program? These factors all contribute to the success of the PLC.
At the staff level, PLCs can be more effective if organizations choose participating staff carefully, making sure that any participants are equipped with strong facilitation skills and eager to grow in their practice.
Q: How do you know if a PLC is working?
A: We use a five-step framework from Thomas Guskey to think about PLCs, and have found it helpful in tracking the benefits of PLCs. The framework’s steps are:
Many existing evaluation tools can help address these questions, including session feedback forms, observations, and surveys of youth and staff.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.