What Do Professional Learning Communities Look Like in Schools and Districts?

There is no one "look" for professional learning communities. They can be large or small. They can work within formal settings and structures or can operate more loosely. Professional learning communities can be school-based, district-based, cross-district, or national. They engage in a wide range of activities. Typically groups meet regularly over a significant period of time (weeks, months, semesters). In short, professional learning communities can “look” lots of ways, but they must include participants who share the following beliefs and behaviors.1

  • Caring deeply about learning.
  • Feeling free to take risks.
  • Challenging each other and raising the expectations of everyone.
  • Respecting and valuing perspectives other than their own by seeking and valuing every member’s input.
  • Intentional in seeking to do the work better.
  • Aggressive in continually building capacity of each member to work smarter.

In addition to sharing common beliefs and behaviors, successful professional learning communities share a common focus. Membership in a particular learning community should actually be determined by the focus2 (e.g. a group of math teachers working together to implement a new math program or to plan lessons based on a new math curriculum; a multi-grade group of educators collaborating to define a clear, coherent learning pathway for students.

Whatever the “look” and whatever the membership, the work of a professional learning community must be data-informed, standards-driven, and focused on instruction, equity, and results. The work of the professional learning community should expand the knowledge and skill of participants while encouraging innovation and excellence.3


  1. Martin-Kniep, G.O. (2004). Developing learning communities through teacher expertise. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  2. Annenburg Institute for School Reform. (2004). Professional development strategies that improve instruction. Providence, RI: Brown University.
  3. Ibid.