There is no universal definition of a professional learning community, but there is a consensus that you will know that one exists when you can see a group of teachers sharing and critically interrogating their practice in an ongoing, reflective, collaborative, inclusive, learning-oriented, growth-promoting way (Mitchell and Sackney 2000; Toole and Louis 2002). An underlying assumption is that the teachers involved see the group as a serious collective enterprise (King and Newmann 2001). It is also generally agreed that effective professional learning communities have the capacity to promote and sustain the learning of professionals in a school with the collective purpose of enhancing student learning (Louis et al. 1995; Bolam et al. 2005).
Each of the words making up the phrase ‘professional learning communities’ brings its own important meaning. The word professional suggests that the community’s work is underpinned by: a specialized and technical knowledge base; a service ethic orienting members to meet client needs; strong collective identity through professional commitment; and professional autonomy through collegial control over practice and professional standards (Talbert and McLaughlin 1994). Although teachers have limited control over professional standards, historically they have been able to exert discretionary judgement in the classroom (Day 1999), and in many countries they have a strong (although not exclusive) influence on curriculum standards.
During the 1990s, much of the emphasis was on ‘professional community’. It is not insignificant that the word ‘learning’ now appears between ‘professional’ and ‘communities’, because it connotes a shift in the emphasis away from a focus on process towards the objective of improvement. Although some early research on teachers’ workplace focused specifically on learning – Rosenholtz (1989) distinguished between ‘learning enriched’ and ‘learning impoverished’ schools – others pointed out that cohesive groups often have limited interest in changing their current practice. Little (1999), for example, distinguished between schools with strong teacher communities in which the professional culture is either that of ‘traditional community’ (where work is co-ordinated to reinforce traditions) and ‘teacher learning community’ (where teachers collaborate to reinvent practice and share professional growth). Collective learning departs from traditional forms of professional development, which emphasize opportunities for individuals to home their knowledge and skills in and out of their school settings. Learning in the context of professional communities involves working together towards a common understanding of concepts and practices (Bryk et al. 1999; Marks et al. 2002; Stoll et al. 2006a).
Underlying the earliest discussions of professional community was the core assumption that the group’s objective is not to improve teacher morale or technical skills, but to make a difference in student learning outcomes. Building on the arguments for the importance of caring as a component of school cultures (Noddings 1992; Beck 1994; Sergiovanni1994; Hargreaves with Giles 2003), the professional community literature assumes that teachers always need to focus on the relationship between their practice and their students. However, a focus on caring without a clear link to support for student learning is regarded as meaningless and counterproductive, particularly for disadvantaged students (Louis et al. 1995). Subsequent analyses of student achievement in schools indicated that the presence of professional community that is centred on student learning makes a significant difference to measurable student achievement (e.g. Louis and Marks 1998; Bolam et al. 2005). This is what gives the concept the ‘legs’ to stand among other proposals for reform (Louis 2006).
In summary, the term ‘professional learning community’ suggests that focus is not just on individual teachers’ learning but on (1) professional learning; (2) within the context of a cohesive group; (3) that focuses on collective knowledge, and (4) occurs within an ethic of interpersonal caring that permeates the life of teachers, students and school leaders.