Cost/benefit analysis

So, two questions: will it work and is it helpful?

My feeling is that it could be helpful inasmuch that it could encourage members to be motivated to learn, and provides a framework for that learning (in the same way that assessment helps to direct student learning). After all, there is a difference between thinking about doing something and saying that you are going to do something. It also helps to overcome the common problem with individual staff development, which can inspire people to want to change and then leave them frustrated because they do not have authority to do so.

However, in my opinion, a community forms when individual members feel that there are some benefits from membership (or, at the very least, there are penalties for opting out). How will membership of a Professional Learning Community be sold? Will it be altruism (the students will benefit) professional pride (I always want to do a job well), self-interest (my life will be easier) exclusivity (I want to be part of a club) or representation (our collective voice carries more weight)? Possibly it is  some or all of the above.

Also, I suspect that PLC’s are like online fora in that they are excessively reliant on momentum. People will want to contribute if others do. In the same way that a discussion thread can quickly falter when participants start to sense that it’s running out of steam – thereby fulfilling their own prophecy – I wonder if PLC’s could be vulnerable to sudden dips in commitment.  How do you go about sustaining any momentum? If, as you say, that these are formally constituted what are the penalties for deciding you have somewhere better to be?

So, in a nutshell, what are the incentives for joining a PLC and what are the disincentives for leaving? Can you tell that I spent a lot of time with economists?


Professional Learning Communities and Communities of Practice – what’s the difference?

Or leading on from ‘Which is better?’…. they definitely have a lot in common, and I’m wondering whether PLC is a subset of a CoP, or a more formal type of a CoP?

For example the use of the word community in both, is the most obvious synergy:

“At the heart of the concept [PLCs] …, is the notion of community. The focus is not just on individual teachers’ professional learning but of professional learning within a community context – a community of learners, and the notion of collective learning.” (Stoll et al, 2006)

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger, 1998)

Both are also predicated on the concept of social and situated learning, where developing knowledge is a process of negotiating meaning through social activity, shaped by the cultural, historical and social context (Wenger, 1998).

So what is the difference (or which is better)? My viewpoint is that CoPs, observed forming in workplaces and often applied to education, are fundamentally more informal than PLCs – it seems to me that PLCs have been formed acknowledging the principles of CoPs, but are part of an institution-led strategy to improving teaching. Certainly the emphasis on CoPs centres around a shared purpose and advancing collective knowledge, as is PLCs, but PLCs take a formal collective responsibility for student learning (yes worked out in advance of membership) – this formalised responsibility does not seem to be so explicitly part of the CoP concept.

As for shining examples there seems to quite a few for PLCs in a school context – but I’m more interested in how this might work for HE institutions and disciplines associations in improving HE teaching and student learning… will the concept work? Is this a helpful way of thinking about how to improve the capacity to improve teaching in HE?

Stoll, L., Bolam, R., Mahon, A., Wallace, M. and Thomas, S. (2006). Professional Learning Communities: A review of the literature, Journal of Educational Change, 7, 4, pp. 221-258.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

PLC or a COP: which is better…

…there’s only one way to find out. FIGHT!

So a Professional Learning Community (PLC) needs shared values and vision, collective responsibility, collaboration, mutual trust and an inclusive membership. A Community of Practice (COP) needs a domain (common interest), a community (people to interact with) and a practice (something that you do together). I call it tom-ay– to, you call it tom-ah-to?

So let’s break this down point by point.

  • Both theories place emphasis on collective responsibility
  • Both theories place emphasis on dynamic knowledge creation
  • Both theories place emphasis on collaboration
  • PLC emphasises mutual respect. COP does not.
  • PLC emphasises an inclusive membership. COP does not.
  • COP emphasises a lack of reliance on formal structures. PLC does not.
  • PLC talks about shared values and vision. COP talks about a common interest. These are similar, but you can have one without the other.

So where does that leave us? PLCs are different from COPs because anybody can join one, but in order for the PLC to function it requires members to agree common values and vision and demonstrate mutual respect.

I guess the issue with PLCs from my point of view is that is this shared vision agreed in advance of their membership. If so, the stereotypical masonic/golf club mentality could come to the fore (i.e. You think like us? Welcome to the gang.). If not, how do you go about agreeing and sustaining a set of values and vision when members are free to join at any time. Perhaps implicit in the idea of a PLC is that there are always opportunities to have that discussion, so that ideas are tossed out, argued over and settled before they are presented to the world. In a sense the HE associations that grew out of special interest groups (Russell Group, 1994 groups etc.) are examples of this, although their membership is anything but inclusive.

So, perhaps the next step is to find a shining example of a PLC and see whether it fulfills all of the qualities outlined above. Any ideas?

Professional Learning Communities and disciplines

I’m just on my way back from the Scottish Economic Society conference in Perth, and having enjoyed the convivial and supportive atmosphere for both the study and the teaching of economics, I’ve been reflecting on how discipline communities can help nurture a culture of teaching within University departments.

Part of my thinking has involved looking at what others have been saying about developing teachers and cultures of teaching. For example, Knight (2006) extols the importance of non-formal learning for teachers, including that which I and others have experienced at the conference and as part of the SES community. He also argues (Knight, 2002) that professionally developing University teachers through the usual centrally provided workshops, focuses soley on the development of individuals and as such does nothing to enhance collective capacity in teaching. Knight is focused here on the collective capacity of a University department, but what I’m also concerned about is the collective capacity of a discipline community and how this might affect and develop a department’s capacity and culture of teaching.

Knight, as many others, talks about Communities of Practice in the context of how departments may create and share learning about teaching. I’ve been thinking about how it may be helpful to go slightly beyond the CoP model and have been looking at the literature around Professional Learning Communities, which has focused on school communities to date.  Stoll et al (2006) describe PLCs as having the following characteristics:

  • Shared values and vision
  • Collective responsibility for student learning
  • Reflective professional inquiry (including dialogue about educational issues and how to address them)
  • Collaboration
  • Mutual trust, respect and support
  • Inclusive membership
  • Group, as well as individual, learning is promoted

Certainly these attributes seem to fit with some professional associations’ values, so how does and how should discipline capacity building help departments build capacity?


Knight, P. (2002). A systematic approach to professional development: learning as practice, Teaching and Teacher Education, 18, 3, pp. 229-241.

Knight, P., Tait, J. and Yorke, M. (2006). The professional learning of teachers in Higher Education, Studies in Higher Education, 31, 3, pp. 319-339.

Stoll, L., Bolam, R., Mahon, A., Wallace, M. and Thomas, S. (2006). Professional Learning Communities: A review of the literature, Journal of Educational Change, 7, 4, pp. 221-258.