The Guilded Age: Professional Learning Communities in Education

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Whole Child

By Walter McKenzie

A millennium ago, artists and artisans formed guilds to share expertise and support one another in highly-skilled professional practice. These vibrant learning communities sustained artistry and craftsmanship through the dark ages when centers of learning were exclusive and rare. Much like these medieval guilds, professional learning communities (PLCs) provide a new dimension to professional development as educators flock around high-interest needs and topics. By definition, PLCs

  • Form organically around immediate member needs and interests.
  • Allow participants to self-select their roles and contributions.
  • Offer opportunities to enrich and deepen understanding.
  • Include collaborative inquiry in the learning process.
  • Provide practice and risk taking in a safe, supportive climate.
  • Grow, morph, and disband as part of a life cycle.

These PLCs very much resonate with Etienne Wenger-Traynor’s description of a community of practice: “a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope.” Similarly, educators come together in various capacities to do important work in their PLCs:McKenzie 1

  • In a classroom—teachers and students working together to assess understanding, learn, and build new knowledge
  • On a faculty—teachers and staff working together to identify and practice new instructional approaches that support learning
  • In a community—educators and parents working together to build and sustain a caring and successful school program
  • In a district—professionals and citizen-stakeholders working together to develop programs, policies, and procedures that reflect local-area values
  • Across a state, province, or region—educators working together to share experiences, expertise, and opportunities within a wide-area context
  • Globally—educators working together worldwide to learn from one another on platforms that transcend barriers of location and distance

Educator PLCs come in all shapes and sizes, and they all thrive on connections between interests, inquiries, and ideas. Whether working together side-by-side on a daily basis or meeting intermittently as time and opportunities allow, PLCs remain vital so long as members continue to value working together. Face-to-face or online, asynchronously or in real time, the venue doesn’t define the community—the work does.

The life cycle of a vibrant, thriving PLC includes six phases: building understanding, acquiring expertise, practicing skills, solving problems, contributing new knowledge, and creating original products. At the end of the life cycle, members will either regroup and recommit to new work or disband, having completed their objectives.

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The legacy of a successful PLC is its members’ demonstrated, observable contributions to society. Just like artists, artisans, and their apprentices came together to improve their crafts, ultimately providing a contribution to society that is still valued and appreciated in museums today, education PLCs should seek to achieve similar long-lasting effects. As we conclude Connected Educator Month, let’s resolve to not just make connections in a social media sense but also in a substantive, meaningful, generative sense that pushes us to move education forward, improving the world in which our children will live. Professional learning communities have the potential to shape our legacy and our children’s future.

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Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. He is currently the director of constituent services for ASCD and previously served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at wmckenzie@ascd.org.