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The starting point for professional learning
is in schools and classrooms

By Ann Lieberman and Lynne Miller

earning communities are best defined as practice, to try out new ideas, and to reflect together on
“ongoing groups … who meet regularly what works and why; and they provide opportunities for
for the purposes of increasing their own the collective construction and sharing of new knowledge.
learning and that of their students“ (Li- Equally important to the concept of a learning commu-
eberman & Miller, 2008, p. 2). Although nity is the connection it forges between professional and
learning communities vary in form and student learning. As educators identify and solve problems
context, they share some fundamental of practice together, they build the capacity and collective
core beliefs and values. Based on the idea that educators will to move forward the equity agenda of their schools
can learn from each other, learning communities create and districts and enhance the learning and achievement
and maintain an environment that fosters collaboration, of all students.
honest talk, and a commitment to the growth and develop-
ment of individual members and to the group as a whole. WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS
They work from the assumption that teachers are not mere We have selected five research studies that bolster the
technicians who implement the ideas of others, but are case that learning communities in schools are a critical el-
intellectuals who are doing knowledge work. This means ement in professional development and student achieve-
that learning communities privilege theory as well as prac- ment. Each of these studies has made a major contribution
tice; they encourage and support members to examine their to a growing and powerful research base about learning

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Professional learning that increases
educator effectiveness and results
for all students occurs within learning
communities committed to continuous
improvement, collective responsibility,
and goal alignment.

communities, how they can transform classroom practice, munity. Their idea was to join an English department
and, ultimately, enhance student learning. What follows with a history department and observe and document
are descriptions of each study and how it adds to our un- its development, which they defined in stages of begin-
derstanding of what learning communities are, what they ning, evolution, and maturity. They uncovered distinct
do, and how they develop. stages of growth. The first stage involved the formation
McLaughlin and Talbert (2001, 2006) undertook of group identity, where teachers playacted a community
a large-scale study of 22 high schools in Michigan and and formed a pseudo-community in which there was little
California in which they described the characteristics of civility or interaction. What followed was a process the re-
teaching communities and the kind of instruction they searchers called the navigation of fault lines, where oppos-
promoted. Only one of these communities embraced the ing forces competed for attention, negotiated their essential
ideas associated with a true learning community. In a weak tensions, and fought through their differences. The final
community, where teachers worked in isolation and had stage involved the teachers taking communal responsibil-
little opportunity to engage in conversation with each ity for individual growth. As they moved through these
other, instruction was text-focused and teacher-directed stages, community members learned how to deal with dif-
and students also worked in isolation and on routine as- ferences, eventually recognizing that conflict can be dealt
signments; educators graded on the curve. In a strong with openly and should be expected, and that all could
traditional community, where teachers and students were grow from a connection to one another by working at vari-
“tracked” in formal hierarchies according to experience or ous approaches to student learning.
ability, teaching took the form of standards-based instruc- Lieberman and Wood (2002) studied two teaching
tion and emphasized accountability that was measured by communities that took place during the National Writ-
tests. By contrast, in learning communities — where teach- ing Project summer institutes at UCLA and the Univer-
ers collaborated around teaching and learning and devel- sity of Oklahoma in Stillwater. The researchers found that
oped expertise through shared knowledge — teaching was though the sites differed in location (urban and rural) and
fueled by the belief that all students can learn, focused on age (long established and newer), they shared 11 social
active student engagement, and ultimately led to enhanced practices that helped meld a strong community. These in-
student learning. cluded:
Where McLaughlin and Talbert drew portraits of 1. Approaching each colleague as a valuable contribu-
contrasting teacher communities, Grossman, Wineburg, tor;
and Woolworth (2001) focused on a single learning com- 2. Honoring teacher knowledge;

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We’re all in this together

By John Wiedrick place and monitor and tweak
As told to Valerie von Frank them when necessary.
We meet as an entire staff after

earning communities are important because school every second week and
when you work collaboratively with colleagues, give people extra preparation
you can make larger academic gains with kids. time during the workday as
Five or six years ago, when I was a teacher, a compensation. We set clear
busload of school staff went to a workshop where objectives and have clear meeting
we were introduced to the concept. I was excited norms, such as starting and Wiedrick

that this idea was not just kindergarten teachers ending on time. We had one or two resisters at first,
responsible for kindergarten kids, 7th-grade teachers but it boiled down to having a conversation about
responsible for 7th graders. We’re all in this together. how this strategy would be effective for students in
If we all understand the needs of our students, if we their classroom. When that point is clear, teachers don’t
all sit down and use our professional knowledge to say no.
the best of our abilities, and we talk and research, We also have a weekly learning support team
then implement and come meeting to look at specific students’ struggles.
back and discuss, we really We have support from the central office. All of our
St. Stephen’s Catholic School daylong professional development days (we have six)
Valleyview, Alberta, Canada
move learning forward.
At first, the junior high focus on our literacy concept. Everything we do is
Grades: K-9
Enrollment: 245 teachers met voluntarily after tied to that one idea.
Staff: 30 school and over lunch. We We give students a common reading assessment
Racial/ethnic mix: left our meeting open to the that remains the focus for the year and set goals
White: 40% based on data for the individual proficiency of each
entire staff. We didn’t want
Black: 0%
to be seen as a secret clique student. We give interim assessments, and, at our
Hispanic: 0%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0% inside the school. All of a next meeting, look at the results, discuss strategies
Native American: 60% sudden, a 4th-grade teacher for intervention, then come back in two weeks and
Other: 0% showed up, then other discuss the results.
Limited English proficient: 15% Our 1st-grade kids are making massive gains —
teachers began to participate.
Free/reduced lunch: 25%
Three years ago was a 10 to 12 months of reading growth in six months,
Contact: John Wiedrick, principal
tipping point. We had about especially among the students who were struggling.
80% buy-in for the idea of We make sure that as a school we celebrate and
learning communities. When I recognize these individual successes in the classroom.
took over as principal, I said, if we’re doing this, we’re all We send the message that individual successes tie to
going to do it together. It’s important to do as a team. success for everyone.
To become a whole-school learning community, •
we followed a step-by-step process. We solidified John Wiedrick (
our mission and vision to be clear what we wanted is principal of St. Stephen’s Catholic School in
and our nonnegotiables, what we call “the hills we’re Valleyview, Alberta, Canada. Valerie von Frank
going to die on.” For example, we will teach all kids ( is an education writer
to read at grade level. Then we put interventions in and editor of Learning Forward’s books.

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Learning Communities

3. Creating public forums for sharing; learning. For many years, it was assumed that professional de-
4. Engaging in dialogue and critique; velopment should be delivered from external sources. Research
5. Turning ownership over to learners; and experience have taught a different lesson:
6. Situating human learning in practice and relationships; The starting point for professional learning is
7. Providing multiple entry points in the learning com- best located in schools and classrooms where As educators
munity; teachers work and where they can define and identify and
8. Guiding reflection on teaching through reflection on solve real problems of practice. Professional solve problems of
learning; communities build relationships between practice together,
9. Sharing leadership; and among teachers who share students and they build the
10. Promoting an inquiry stance; and who are working for greater student learning. capacity and
11. Encouraging a reconceptualization of professional iden- Communities eliminate teacher isolation and collective will to
tity and linking it to professional community. start with what teachers know and do. They move forward the
When engaged in these practices, teachers internalized not expose teachers to what they need to know, equity agenda
only learning in communities, but gained many strategies that offering support and opportunities to learn of their schools
they could do in their own classrooms. from one another about how to provide the and districts
In a series of observations that lasted several years, Little richest possible opportunities for student and enhance
and Horn (2007) and Horn (2005) developed an extensive case growth. Many teachers have significant ex- the learning and
study of a content-specific learning community that took place pertise and can facilitate learning with their achievement of
in a single high school. The Algebra Group, as it came to be colleagues in a learning community. This all students.
called, was composed of nine teachers who met weekly. They kind of expertise can’t be bought.
began each meeting with a “check-in,” during which members
were invited to discuss a problem they were encountering in ESSENTIAL PRACTICES
their teaching or to offer for group consideration a new idea Because each learning community develops in its own way
they had come across in the past week. The check-in served as and within its own particular context, it is difficult to isolate a
a starting point for the serious, honest, and focused talk that set of generic practices. What follows is a list of ways that we
became the signature practice of the group, engaging members have seen successful communities go about their work:
in a level of “ disclosure of and reflection on problems of prac- • They meet regularly and take the time to build collegial
tice” (Little & Horn, 2007, p. 50) that went much deeper than relationships based on trust and openness.
congenial conversation. It generated new learning and led to a • They work hard to develop a clear purpose and a collective
deeper understanding of mathematics and how to teach it. As focus on problems of practice.
a result, students in the urban, working class school where the • They create routines and rituals that support honest talk
group convened and taught became noted for their high rates of and disclosure.
participation and achievement in math. These researchers added • They engage in observation, problem solving, mutual sup-
that it is not only working together that makes a community, port, advice giving, and peer teaching and learning.
but also a particular kind of “talk” that deepens the communi- • They purposefully organize and focus on activities that will
ties’ understanding of practice. enhance learning for both the adults and students in the
Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993) reported on Project school.
START, a community of postbaccalaureate student teachers, • They use collaborative inquiry to stimulate evidence-in-
their cooperating teachers, university supervisors, and college formed conversations.
faculty who met weekly to engage in collaborative inquiry. The • They develop a theory of action.
project was embedded within a larger research community that • They develop a core set of strategies for connecting their
spanned 20 years and included a wide array of teacher-directed learning to student learning.
groups. These diverse research communities considered top-
ics as wide-ranging as “language and literacy; curriculum and CHALLENGES
pedagogy; race, class, and gender; modes of assessment; and cul- Building authentic professional communities in schools
tures of schools and teaching” (p. 66). As a result of their work, creates areas of tension and challenge. The most obvious chal-
Cochran-Smith and Lytle uncovered a theory of action that lenge that learning communities face is that they embrace a set
propelled the groups. In challenging the theory-research split, of norms and rules that are often in direct conflict with those
teacher inquiry propelled a reconceptualization of the teacher of the schools in which they are located. Schools adhere to a
role as involving knowledge construction and social action. bureaucratic model that privileges compliance to mandates over
These five studies provide evidence of the critical role of reflection on practice and external monitoring of benchmarks
learning communities in educator development and student over peer review and feedback. On the other hand, professional

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communities require an orientation that values openness to eryday life of a school, learning communities can be sustained.
new ideas and practices and mutual accountability for learning Members of the community have to pay attention to the pur-
(Talbert, 2010). It is very difficult to enact these values in a poses of the community and find ways that they can push back
bureaucratic culture. Professional norms that enable and reward on the routine pressures of schools. In this way, nurturing the
collaboration and support a shared vision are the foundations community becomes a new way of thinking about continuous
for learning communities. A culture that focuses on problems of learning, improving one’s practice, and finding ways to improve
practice and invests in the resources necessary to achieve educa- student achievement.
tional equity is a culture where learning communities can grow
and thrive. Figuring out how to negotiate a professional orienta- REFERENCES
tion in a bureaucratic structure is a difficult, but necessary, task. Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S.L. (1993). Inside/outside:
The second challenge concerns the locus of control for the Teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College
content and the process of the agenda of a learning community. Press.
In the face of pressure to provide a quick fix for the complex Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., & Woolworth, S. (2001,
problems of schooling, it is often difficult for learning com- December). Toward a theory of teacher community. Teachers
munities to hold onto control of the conversation. As federal, College Record, 103(6), 942-1012.
state, and district mandates take prominence, concerns about Horn, I.S. (2005). Learning on the job: A situated
teacher and student learning may be pushed account of teacher learning in high school mathematics
to the bottom of the agenda. The challenge departments. Cognition & Instruction, 23(2), 207-236.
When successful, for learning communities is to guard against Lieberman, A. & Miller, L. (2008). Teachers in
communities the usurpation of the teacher voice and the professional communities: Improving teaching and learning.
can change reduction of the professional learning com- New York: Teachers College Press.
the culture munity to just one more standardized pro- Lieberman, A. & Wood, D.R. (2002). Inside the
of the school fessional development tool. National Writing Project: Connecting network learning and
for students, The third challenge has to do with classroom teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.
teachers, and time. There is no fast track to developing Little, J.W. & Horn, I.S. (2007). “Normalizing”
administrators, an authentic learning community. As we problems of practice: Converting routine conversation into
but the members have learned through the work of Little a resource for learning in professional communities. In Stoll
must hold onto and Horn (2007), it takes time and effort L., & Louis, K.S. (Eds.), Professional learning communities:
the commitment to unpack conversations and to get at real Divergence, depth, and dilemmas (pp. 29-42). Maidenhead,
to creating problems of practice. The capacity to engage England: Open University Press.
shared values, in honest talk is of critical importance and McLaughlin, M.W. & Talbert, J.E. (2001). Professional
maintaining a develops gradually as trust and colleagueship communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago:
collective focus take root. And as Grossman, Wineberg, and University of Chicago Press.
for student Woolworth (2001) make clear, it also takes McLaughlin, M.W. & Talbert, J.E. (2006). Building
learning, working time to navigate the fault lines of differences school-based teacher learning communities: Professional strategies
collaboratively in subject matter, approaches to teaching, to improve student achievement. Chicago: University of
in coordinated gender, race, and ideas of privacy. Learning Chicago Press.
efforts to communities that acknowledge differences Talbert, J. (2010). Professional learning communities at
improve, and and allow them to co-exist reach common the crossroads: How systems hinder or engender change. In
holding onto ground only after an extended process of Hargreaves, A., Lieberman, A., Fullan, M., & Hopkins, D.
collective control continuous engagement and commitment. (Eds.), Second international handbook of educational change
over decisions The final challenge is sustaining a com- (pp. 555-571). New York: Springer.
affecting their munity that is an integral part of school in •
teaching and the face of rapidly changing demands on Ann Lieberman ( is a senior
learning. teachers, teaching, and learning. When suc- scholar at the School Redesign Network at Stanford
cessful, communities can change the culture University. Lynne Miller ( is
of the school for students, teachers, and ad- professor of educational leadership at the University of
ministrators, but the members must hold onto the commitment Southern Maine. ■
to creating shared values, maintaining a collective focus for stu-
dent learning, working collaboratively in coordinated efforts
to improve, and holding onto collective control over decisions
affecting their teaching and learning. When rooted in the ev-

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