What’s a “Professional Learning Community” in Science?

By Sean Cavanagh — April 08, 2009 2 min read
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The president of a major professional organization for science teachers has a new online essay on what seems like a familiar topic: “professional learning communities.” Page Keeley, of the National Science Teachers Association, argues that too many learning communities are unfocused, and need to have a much clearer mission in order to improve science teaching and learning.

What is that mission, as Keeley sees it? It may seem obvious, but the focus of PLCs—which can be found in schools everywhere today—needs to be on improving instruction, rather than on management or departmental issues, or on loosely defined topics that are not focused on learning. Here’s how she puts it:

“In many schools, administrators now require teachers to participate in PLCs on a regular basis. However, merely meeting during or after school or through an online network does not necessarily translate into a PLC. Many teachers and administrators still need better understanding of what constitutes a PLC. The PLC, like science as inquiry, has been characterized in a myriad of ways, depending on who is defining it. This ambiguity has led to a danger of it being hijacked (much like formative assessment and inquiry) and turned into the latest education fad. Unfortunately these “fads” often succumb to the TTWP (this too will pass) approach if they are not well-defined and supported.

“PLCs are not meetings where science departments come together to focus on management issues. They are not loosely defined discussion groups. They are structures where teachers come together to engage in powerful learning where student success is at the core. The teachers’ learning is continually focused on how to become more effective so student learning is supported. The collective shared goals and participation of the group achieve results. This is a shift for some teachers who have traditionally viewed professional development as going off and doing their “own thing” by attending courses, workshops, conferences, and other such events for their own individual benefit. While this approach does help an individual teacher, it doesn’t necessarily improve the teaching of that educator’s colleagues by building a common knowledge base about effective science teaching and learning.”

Professional learning communities come in all forms in schools and districts. Keeley traces their growth to the commission led by former Sen. John Glenn and it’s report, Before It’s Too Late. We at Ed Week have written a lot about the development of PLCs, including this story about one widely praised model used at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. That article notes that the origins of PLCs go as far back as the 1960s, when researchers were exploring strategies to encourage collaboration among teachers, rather than educators working in isolation. Here’s another story on the PLC approach used by the Long Beach, Calif., district, winner of the Broad Prize.

One could argue that effective PLCs are especially important in science teaching, where educators are expected to cover large amounts of detailed content, much of which may be new to them. At early grades, those teacher may be generalists with relatively little background in science. At upper grades, they may be pressured, because of staff shortages, to take over classes with loads of unfamiliar science. Are the concerns that Keeley raises specific to science teaching, or do they have applications across subjects?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.