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Developing a professional learning community
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Developing a professional learning community

Research 6 minute read

What exactly is a professional learning community and how can school leaders dependably measure how well their school matches its characteristics? Lawrence Ingvarson explains.

Developing a professional learning community

Research indicates that it is primarily by building a strong professional learning community within their schools that school leaders ensure high-quality teaching and learning opportunities for students.

Both the Australian Professional Standard for Principals and the National School Improvement Tool usefully identify the pivotal role that school leaders play in developing and sustaining a strong professional learning community within their schools.

According to the Australian Professional Standard for Principals, a fundamental role of school principals is to, ‘work with and through others to build a professional learning community that is focused on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.’

The difficulty, however, is that creating a professional learning community may be a significant challenge, particularly when traditional norms of privacy, territory and hierarchy prevail among a school’s teaching staff. Creating a professional learning community often means challenging these norms head on and establishing new norms around what it means to be a member of an accountable professional learning community.

Strong professional culture

Schools with a strong professional learning community are characterised by shared norms about quality teaching, peer review of student progress and wellbeing, collaborative approaches to work, evaluation of teaching practices, and the de-privatisation of practice. Leadership is essential in establishing conditions that support a collaborative and accountable professional learning community.

Professional learning communities need time and opportunities for peer review based on evidence about teaching practices, the quality of opportunities for students to learn, and student progress in learning. Activities that de-privatise practice and use feedback from colleagues and students are critical to professional learning communities, but fostering such practices depends on determined and resilient leadership.

Professional organisations are characterised by professional forms of accountability and a shared responsibility for student learning and well-being. Members habitually review their practice, individually and collectively, in the light of their professional values and standards for best practice.

A professional learning community is a way of life, not an add-on program. It is about the quality of relationships teachers have with their peers and developing workplaces where teachers stay, improve and succeed.

Framework for a professional learning community

The challenge for many school leaders is to develop a shared vision of their schools as a professional organisation, guided by norms for collaborative work and standards for highly accomplished teaching. 

The ACER Professional Learning Community Framework (PLCF) provides a basis for staff discussion and for building a common understanding of that vision. Based on research, it provides a comprehensive description of the characteristics of strong professional learning communities that lead to improved student outcomes. 

The Framework includes five domains that describe in detail the characteristics of strong professional learning communities:

  • A professional culture
  • leadership that fosters and supports a professional culture
  • a focus on student engagement, learning and wellbeing
  • a focus on improving professional knowledge and practice
  • a performance and development culture.

Each domain is elaborated further in terms of key elements, indicators and rubrics for each domain.

School leaders aiming to strengthen their schools as professional learning communities can use a confidential online survey based on the Framework, the ACER Professional Learning Community Questionnaire, to take a snapshot of where their school stands in relation to the characteristics of a professional learning community.

They can then use reports based on the survey results to compare current organisational and collegial practices within their school with those of professional learning communities, and identify specific priorities for school improvement. 

School leaders are also using the Questionnaire two or more times to measure the extent to which they are strengthening their schools as professional learning communities from one year to the next. The Questionnaire and Framework can thereby provide aspiring or accomplished principals with a valid means of demonstrating the impact of their leadership over time for purposes such as professional certification.

Measuring school improvement: One school’s story

School leaders at a secondary school in New South Wales administered the Professional Learning Community Questionnaire with their teaching staff in 2016.

Based on their ACER report, the school’s leaders recognised that there was room for improvement in all five domains. They decided to give special attention over the following year to the two domains in which they scored the lowest, through initiatives that focused on collaborative review of data about student achievement and performance and development planning for individual staff members.  

Figure 1 shows that there was significant improvement in these two domains by the end of 2017.  The scale ranges from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). A score of 5 indicates that on average respondents slightly agree with statements about activities in that domain.

In terms of ‘focus on student engagement, learning and wellbeing’ (Domain 3), teachers reported significant increases in activities such as:

  • collaborative review of data about students’ progress
  • identifying trends in student achievement over time and using them to set goals for school improvement
  • using student achievement data to compare their progress with that expected of similar students
  • using student outcome data to identify priorities for professional learning.

Of particular note was that teachers reported a significant increase in the amount of time set aside for staff to meet to discuss data about student progress.

PLCF domains

In terms of ‘a performance and development culture’ (Domain 5), teachers reported that they:

  • used the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers more to reflect on their teaching and to identify needs for professional learning
  • were more confident that the performance and development process was conducted in a valid, consistent and fair manner
  • felt more supported in working towards their goals, including access to high-quality professional learning.

No one should expect rapid change in the strength of a school’s professional learning community. This particular school still has scope for improvement in several areas before it has a strong professional learning community. Nevertheless, this example demonstrates how school leaders can use the ACER Professional Learning Community Framework to identify specific objectives for school improvement and to measure progress toward achieving these goals.

The school’s leaders are using the 2017 results to develop priorities for 2018 and will use the ACER Questionnaire late this year to measure further progress toward a strong professional learning community.

Find out more:
For further information about the Professional Learning Community Framework and ACER’s other school improvement tools and services, visit

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