Attributes of Professional Learning Communities

The literature on educational leadership and school change recognizes clearly the role and influence of the campus administrator (the principal, and sometimes an assistant principal) on whether or not change will occur in the school. It seems clear that transforming the school organization into a learning community can be done only with the leaders' sanction and active nurturing of the entire staff's development as a community. Thus, a look at the principal of a school whose staff is a professional learning community seems a good starting point for describing what these learning communities look like and how they operate.

Supportive and Shared Leadership

One could reasonably ask, If the staff of a school are working together and making decisions about its programs and processes, what is the staff's relationship to the campus principal? Lucianne Carmichael, first resident principal of the Harvard University Principal Center and a principal who nurtured a professional community of learners in her own school, suggested an interesting angle on this issue.

Carmichael (1982) discussed the authority and power position held by the principal in which the principal is viewed as all-wise and all-competent by the staff on the lower rungs of the power-structure ladder. This "omnicompetence" has been internalized by principals and reinforced by others in the school, making it difficult for principals to admit to any need for professional development themselves or to recognize the dynamic potential of staff contributions to decision making. Furthermore, it is difficult for staff to propose divergent views or ideas about the school's effectiveness when the principal is seen in such a dominant position.

Carmichael proposed that the notion of principal omnicompetence be "ditched" in favor of principals' participation in professional development. Kleine-Kracht (1993) suggested that administrators, along with teachers, must be learners: "questioning, investigating, and seeking solutions" (p. 393) for school improvement. The traditional pattern that "teachers teach, students learn, and administrators manage is completely altered. . . . [There is] no longer a hierarchy of who knows more than someone else, but rather the need for everyone to contribute" (p. 393).

This new relationship forged between administrators and teachers leads to a shared and collegial leadership in the school, where all grow professionally and learn to view themselves as "all playing on the same team and working toward the same goal: a better school" (Hoerr, 1996, p. 381). Leithwood and colleagues' studies (1997) reinforced these values where principals treated teachers with respect and as professionals, and worked with them as peers and colleagues.

Louis and Kruse (1995) identified the supportive leadership of principals as one of the necessary human resources for school-based professional communities referring to them as "post-heroic leaders who do not view themselves as the architects of school effectiveness" (p. 234). Prestine (1993) defined three factors required of principals in schools that attempted essential school restructuring: the ability to share authority, the ability to facilitate the work of staff, and the ability to participate without dominating.

A principal in a school where the staff demonstrated a collaborative relationship in a well-instituted professional community shared reflections:

The two principals who preceded me had a real commitment to share decision making and move teachers toward ownership in what was going on in the school, so when I came it was clearly understood when I interviewed for the position that was the way we did business. . . . If you are not intimidated by that, then you put your faith in people you work with . . . and get a great deal accomplished (Boyd & Hord, 1994a, pp. 19-20).

The studies of Leithwood, et al. (1997) made clear that leadership contributes "significantly to school conditions fostering OL [Organizational Learning] processes" (p. 24). A school whose staff is learning together and participating in decisions about its operation requires a campus administrator who can let go of power and his/her own sense of omnipotence and omnicompetence and thereby share the leadership of the school. As Sergiovanni explained, "The sources of authority for leadership are embedded in shared ideas" (1994b, p. 214). Snyder, Acker-Hocevar, and Snyder (1996) asserted that it is also important that the principal believe that teachers have the capacity to respond to the needs of students, that this belief "provides moral strength for principals to meet difficult political and educational challenges along the way" (p. 19). Senge (quoted by O'Neil, 1995) added that the principal's job is to create an environment where the staff can learn continuously "[t]hen in turn, . . . the job of the superintendent is to find principals and support principals who have that attitude" (p. 21).

An additional dimension, then, is a chief executive of the school district who supports and encourages continuous learning among its professionals. This suggests that no longer can leaders be thought of as top-down agents of change or seen as the visionaries of the corporation; leaders must be envisioned as democratic teachers. Sergiovanni suggested how this may be done (1994a, p. xix):

[Leaders] plant the seeds of community, nurture fledgling community, and protect the community once it emerges. They lead by following. They lead by serving. They lead by inviting others to share in the burdens of leadership.

Collective Creativity

In 1990, Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline arrived in bookstores and began popping up in the boardrooms of corporate America. Over the next year or so, Senge's book and its description of learning organizations that might serve to increase organizational capacity and creativity moved into the educational environment. The idea of a learning organization "where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together" (p. 3) caught the attention of educators struggling to plan and implement reform in the nation's schools. As Senge's paradigm shift was explored by educators and shared in educational journals, the label became learning communities.

In schools, the learning community is exemplified when people from multiple constituencies at all levels collaboratively and continually work together (Louis & Kruse, 1995), "enhancing their capacity to create things they really want to create" (Senge, in O'Neil, 1995, p 20). Such collaborative work is grounded in what Newmann (reported by Brandt, 1995) and Louis and Kruse labeled reflective dialogue, in which staff conduct conversations about students and teaching and learning, identifying related issues and problems. Griffin (cited by Sergiovanni, 1994a, p. 154) referred to these activities as inquiry and

believes that as principals and teachers inquire together they create community. Inquiry helps them to overcome chasms caused by various specializations of grade level and subject matter. Inquiry forces debate among teachers about what is important. Inquiry promotes understanding and appreciation for the work of others. . . . And inquiry helps principals and teachers create the ties that bind them together as a special group and that bind them to a shared set of ideas. Inquiry, in other words, helps principals and teachers become a community of learners.

Participants in such conversations learn to apply new ideas and information to problem solving. Key tools in this process are shared vision; supportive physical, temporal, and social conditions; and a shared personal practice. We will look at each in turn.

Shared Values and Vision

"Vision is a trite term these days, and at various times it refers to mission, purpose, goals, objectives, or a sheet of paper posted near the principal's office" (Isaacson & Bamburg, 1992, p. 42). Sharing vision is not just agreeing with a good idea; it is a particular mental image of what is important to an individual and to an organization. Staff are encouraged not only to be involved in the process of developing a shared vision, but to use that vision as a guidepost in decision making about teaching and learning in the school (ibid.).

A core characteristic of the professional learning community is an undeviating focus on student learning, maintained Louis and Kruse (1995). Students are pictured as academically capable, and staff envision learning environments to support and realize each student's potential achievement. These shared values and visions lead to binding norms of behavior that the staff shares.

In such a community the individual staff member is responsible for his/her actions, but the common good is placed on a par with personal ambition. The relationships of the individuals are described as caring. Such caring is supported by open communication, and trust makes this possible (Fawcett, 1996). Newmann (in Brandt, 1995) maintained that the concern of the adults in the school for the "intellectual quality of student learning, in contrast to concern for techniques, such as whether to have portfolios or whether to eliminate all ability grouping" (p. 73) makes the difference in the values and visions that the staff bring to teaching and learning.

Newmann explained that the degree to which the staff develops into a professional community that engages and develops the commitment and talents of all individuals into a group effort that "pushes for learning of high intellectual quality" is the key to student success. Newmann shows a link between student learning of high intellectual quality and school professional communities that achieve the same degree of academic excellence. Martel (1993) concisely defines the vision of the professional learning community as a focus on "the quality of life, quality of work, quality of learning - in short, a total quality focus" (p. 24).

Supportive Conditions

Supportive conditions determine when and where and how the staff regularly come together as a unit to do the learning, decision making, problem solving, and creative work that characterize a professional learning community. Two types of conditions are necessary for learning communities to function productively: the physical or structural setup and the human qualities/capacities of the people involved (Boyd, 1992; Louis & Kruse, 1995).

Physical Conditions

Louis and Kruse identified the following physical factors that support learning communities: time to meet and talk, small size of the school and physical proximity of the staff to one another, teaching roles that are interdependent, communication structures, school autonomy, and teacher empowerment. An additional factor is the staff's ability to select teachers and administrators for the school, with the possibility of encouraging staff who are not in tune with the program to find work elsewhere.

Boyd's list of physical factors in a context conducive to school change and improvement is similar: the availability of resources; schedules and structures that reduce isolation; policies that provide greater autonomy, foster collaboration, provide effective communication, and provide for staff development.

Time is a resource and "time, or more properly lack of it, is one of the most difficult problems faced by schools and districts" (Watts & Castle, 1993, p. 306). This problem is a significant issue for faculties that wish to work together collegially, and it has been cited as both a barrier (when it is not available) and a supportive factor (when it is present) by staffs engaging in school improvement. Donahoe (1993) maintained that formally rearranging the use of time in schools so that staff are supported in their interactions is a prime issue to be resolved by restructuring schools. Raywid (1993) also addressed the need for supplying meaningful time for staff to engage in the work of learning and acting in behalf of improvement for students. All these authors suggested practical ways to solve the time dilemma.

People Capacities

One of the first characteristics of individuals cited by Louis and Kruse (1995) in a productive learning community is a willingness to accept feedback and work toward improvement. In addition, the following characteristics are needed: respect and trust among colleagues at the school and district level, possession of an appropriate cognitive and skill base that enables effective teaching and learning, supportive leadership from administrators and others in key roles, and relatively intensive socialization processes.

Note the strong parallel with people or human factors identified by Boyd (1992): positive teacher attitudes toward schooling, students, and change; students' heightened interest and engagement with learning (this may be construed as both an outcome and an input, it seems); norms of continuous critical inquiry and continuous improvement; widely shared vision or sense of purpose; norm of involvement in decision making; collegial relationships among teachers; positive, caring student-teacher-administrator relationships; a sense of community in the school; and two factors beyond the school staff - supportive community attitudes; and parents and community members as partners and allies.

Boyd (1992) pointed out that the physical and people factors are highly interactive, many influencing the others. Boyd and Hord (1994a) clustered the factors into four functions that help build a context conducive to change and improvement: reducing staff isolation, increasing staff capacity, providing a caring and productive environment, and improving the quality of the school's programs for students.

Shared Personal Practice

In order to identify and describe the attributes of professional learning communities, we can sort them in a variety of ways. Thus, sharing personal classroom practice might sensibly be included among conditions that support the community. However, this practice, attribute, or component (or whatever other label one might wish to use), seems significant enough to warrant individual attention.

Review of a teacher's behavior by colleagues is the norm in the professional learning community (Louis & Kruse, 1995). This practice is not evaluative but is part of the "peers helping peers" process. Such review is conducted regularly by teachers who visit each other's classrooms to observe, script notes, and discuss observations with each other. The process is based on the desire for individual and community improvement and is enabled by the mutual respect and trustworthiness of staff members.

Wignall (1992) described a high school in which teachers share their practice and enjoy a high level of collaboration in their daily work life. Mutual respect and understanding are the fundamental requirements for this kind of workplace culture. Teachers find help, support, and trust as a result of the development of warm relationships with each other. "Teachers tolerate (even encourage) debate, discussion and disagreement. They are comfortable sharing both their successes and their failures. They praise and recognize one another's triumphs, and offer empathy and support for each other's troubles" (p. 18). One of the conditions that supports this culture is the involvement of the teachers in interviewing, selecting, and hiring new teachers. They feel a commitment to their selections and to ensuring the effectiveness of the entire staff.

A goal of reform is to provide appropriate learning environments for students. Teachers, too, need "an environment that values and supports hard work, the acceptance of challenging tasks, risk taking, and the promotion of growth" (Midgley & Wood, 1993, p. 252). Sharing their personal practice contributes to creating such a setting.

In Summary

Reports in the literature are quite clear about what academically successful professional learning communities look like and act like. The requirements necessary for organizational arrangements that produce such outcomes include:

  • the collegial and facilitative participation of the principal who shares leadership - and thus, power and authority - through inviting staff input in decision making
  • a shared vision that is developed from an unswerving commitment on the part of staff to students' learning and that is consistently articulated and referenced for the staff's work
  • collective learning among staff and application of the learning to solutions that address students' needs
  • the visitation and review of each teacher's classroom behavior by peers as a feedback and assistance activity to support individual and community improvement
  • physical conditions and human capacities that support such an operation

A paradigm shift is needed, however, both in the public and in teachers themselves about what the role of teacher entails. Many in the public and in the profession believe that the only legitimate use of a teacher's time is standing in front of the class, working directly with students. In studies comparing how teachers around the globe spend their time, it is clear that in countries such as Japan, teachers teach fewer classes, using a greater portion of their time in planning, conferring with colleagues, working with students individually, visiting other classrooms, and engaging in other professional development activities (Darling-Hammond, 1994, 1996). Changing perspectives to enable the public and the profession to understand and value teacher professional development will require focused and concerted effort.

Next Page: Outcomes of Professional Learning Communities for Students and Staffs

Published in Professional Learning Communities: Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement