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.


One thought on “Professional Learning Communities and disciplines

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  1. Hi Ros,

    Thanks for taking part. I think Knight’s point about the focus on the individual is well made. Most professional development courses that I’ve encountered – and indeed the one I tutor on – do place the emphasis on individual reflection. I can see how this can be rather short-sighted, especially when the individual in questions delivers rather than designs the curriculum.

    The most obvious concern that I would have about PLCs is the extent to which *new* ideas are circulated. How do you prevent the ‘golf-club’ syndrome where people with similar experiences make and reinforce a set of values that are anything but universal? Also, what do you when a sense of inclusiveness, trust and collaboration breaks down? It is hard enough trying to maintain a spirit of togetherness in a family of four, let alone in a PLC when people might be separated by rank, institution and region.

    I’d be interested in what you think the key differences between a PLC and a Community of Practice. Inclusiveness?

    Ta da, Chris

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