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.

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About rosoleary

Head of Educational Development

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