System Improvement through Professional Learning Communities

by: Alma Harris and Michelle Jones

In Wales, a major reform effort is underway to secure success for every student in every setting through changing an entire education system. Change is taking place at school, local authority and government level in order to secure higher performance and improved learner outcomes. Substantial effort is being put into building the capacity for large scale reform in a deliberate and purposeful way. The quality of an education system cannot outperform the quality of its teachers and therefore a concerted effort is being made in Wales to improve professional practice through participation in professional learning communities within, between and across schools. Evidence would suggest that professional learning communities offer a very powerful way of engaging teachers in reflecting upon and refining their practice.

But just getting teachers to collaborate is not enough (Stoll and Louis, 2007). There are numerous examples around the world of well funded teacher networks that fail to produce the learning gains expected, simply because they are shallow or empty networks devoid of any real focus on improving learner outcomes. If too loosely configured, it is easy for professional learning communities to pay attention to everything else except learning and teaching, and in so doing, to significantly reduce the potential impact of their work. Improvement through professional learning communities is only possible, if teachers collaborate and focus on the ?real work? of improving learning and teaching (Harris and Jones, 2010). Improvement through professional learning communities means focusing relentlessly on improving learner outcomes. It means addressing the hard questions about the quality of classroom practice and actively seeking to change teachers? professional practice. It means creating cultures for learning where teachers learn together and are collectively committed to improvement.  In Wales, it is this infrastructure of professional learning that is being forged through professional learning communities that has the potential to change the system for the better.

The model of professional learning communities being established in Wales is characterised by teachers participating in decision making, having a sense of purpose, engaging in collaborative work and accepting joint responsibility for the outcomes of their work (Harris and Jones, 2010). Empowering teachers in this way and providing them with opportunities to lead is based on the simple but powerful idea that if schools are to meet learner needs, they must provide opportunities for teachers to innovate, develop and learn together. The current work around PLCs is premised upon a number of key principles. Firstly, that system wide change is only possible through entire system collaboration and networking. Secondly, there is a central and non-negotiable focus on pedagogical improvement and improving learner outcomes. Thirdly, the model uses action enquiry approaches, as a driver for change in classroom practice. Theoretically, the model also draws heavily upon the theory of change implicit in Wenger?s (2002) notion of communities of practice. Within such communities, practice is developed and refined through the collaboration of ?groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis? (Wenger, 2002).

Experience of large scale implementation of PLCs in Wales highlights that successful professional learning communities need certain features to be effective which include:

  • a relentless focus on learning and learner outcomes
  • respect and trust among colleagues at the school and district level
  • data informed and evidence driven
  • willingness to innovate and change pedagogical practice
  • supportive leadership from those in key roles and distributed leadership practices
  • broad based involvement in decision making
  • continuous critical inquiry, reflection and refinement
  • reciprocal accountability and professional empowerment
  • dissemination, application and extension of PLC outcomes

The scale of the challenge in transforming an entire education system cannot be underestimated. There is no suggestion here that professional learning communities are a ?silver bullet? for successful system level reform, they are certainly not a panacea. The whole point of a professional learning community is that the sum is greater than the parts and that by distributing and sharing leadership more widely, the opportunities for releasing learning capacity within schools and across the system is maximised. System level improvement can only be achieved by changing the way professionals connect, communicate and collaborate. There is a basis for believing that in Wales professional learning communities can contribute to system wide improvement and have the potential to secure better outcomes for all young people, in all settings. However, this will only be achieved if professional learning communities are well constructed, passionate about improving learner outcomes and fundamentally owned by the profession they serve.

Acknowledgement: We would like to thank Chris Tweedale, Steve Vincent and the School Effectiveness team at the Welsh Assembly Government for supporting our PLC work throughout Wales.

Note: Alma Harris & Michelle Jones are currently seconded to the Welsh Assembly Government.


  • Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2010). Professional Learning Communities and System Improvement Improving Schools Vol 13 no 2 172-181.
  • Stoll, L. and Seashore Louis, K. (eds) (2007). Professional Learning Communities, Maidenhead Open University Press.
  • Wenger, E. (2000), Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems, Organization, Volume 7(2): 225-246.