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Sunday, 27 January 2013

Professional Learning Communities vs Personal Learning Networks

Gosh darn... Still curating.  This PLN vs PLC won't leave my head alone!

I have re-read our Ministry's monograph on Professional Learning Communities.  These are the necessary components to a PLC:

1. Ensuring Learning for All Students - which makes me think of the document "Learning for All", a guide for assessment and instruction for all students, supporting the need to know our students and differentiate as necessary.
2. Focus on Results - which makes me think of John Hattie's "Teacher, know thy impact".
3. Relationships - in the PLC we have to build trusting relationships where it is safe to take risks, and also safe to disagree.
4. Collaborative Inquiry - what do we want to learn about? It is after all a LEARNING community.
5. Leadership - the principal who fosters an environment of inquiry, but also teachers who take the lead on a focus of inquiry.

It all sounds good!  So why do educators complain about them so much?

I think Timothy Scholze, from our etmooc, hits the nail on the head in his post on Google+.  "I really dislike group work because I want to be in control of my learning."  Timothy also says that principals "need to make sure that they are not forcing people together ... Collaboration should be open to choice".

In his post, Hey! Over Here!! Timothy says, "In my view, connected learning and PLNs are the best things since personal computers and blogs.  My PLN looks like a major league baseball all-star team". 

I want to try to figure out why the PLN we create on our own feels so life-giving while the PLC we are asked to be a part of in our building can be filled with so much negativity.  I am not saying they always are... I've been a part of many thriving and exciting PLCs.  But I've also been a part of many dull PLCs in which people are clearly there just because they have to be, and asking them to contribute is like pulling teeth.

Comparing the etmooc to an on-line course is helping me to understand the difference between the PLN and the PLC.  In the etmooc everyone is thriving and excited.  We feel as though our heads are going to explode, and yet we come back for more - by choice!  I've taken many on-line course, and often people don't seem to be thriving in them.  We respond to the requisite three posts on each topic and scan the necessary readings... anxious to be done.

So what's the difference?  I'm thinking the common denominator is CHOICE.

Well, we clearly can't choose who is in our Professional Learning Community - if we are working toward School Improvement and Student Achievement, it has to be the people in our building with whom we work.

But as I continue to think about this, (my brain won't let me stop thinking about it!) I no longer believe the issue is simply not being able to choose the people in our PLC.  It's far more complicated than that.

When I first started teaching, I worked in the Primary Division of a small school.  At least three times per week, at the end of the day, all of the Primary teachers would gather either in the hallway or in one of our classrooms and we would reflect on our practice.  We would talk about students we were concerned about, make suggestions for one another, share new strategies we were trying; we would laugh, argue, gossip, cry and rejoice!  It was a very supportive PLC, but at that time, we hadn't ever even heard of the term before.  We weren't there because our principal told us to be there.  We were there because we wanted to be there.  We CHOSE to be there.

It seems to me the "PLC" has become synonymous with Professional Development and often, it is the principal, consultant, coach, or whomever the "Instructional Leader" is in the building, that decides what everyone needs to learn about.  How and why does this happen?  These instructional leaders are not just being arbitrary. They are looking at student results, looking at the gaps, and then they are using professional resources to determine what is the best strategy to meet the needs to close those gaps.

But the problem is this eliminates what appears to be a very necessary ingredient to learning - THE CHOICE!  I can't remember if it was Jim Knight or Stephen Covey who said, (I'm on a roll so I don't want to go looking for the quote - it was in a book!), that if you have a lousy idea but 100% commitment to that lousy idea you will get a better result than if you have a great idea but only 5% commitment.

I firmly believe that we need to consider ourselves a PLC in our building.  But somehow choice has to become a part of the equation.  It seems logical to me that the choice has to be in the Collaborative Inquiry. But as soon as you say "You have to do a Collaborative Inquiry" - even if you let people choose what they will inquire about, you've taken away the sense of choice by mandating it.

I like to discuss, question, share... I think it is human nature to do so.  But I don't necessarily like being told "You have to discuss, question, share."  Ah, there-in lies the conundrum.  It would seem that as soon as people feel as though they have no choice, or no voice, their attitude changes, they become resentful rather than embracing the learning opportunity.

Why am I even interested in exploring this issue?  Because of my students of course.   The observations I make about how teachers learn together in a PLC vs a PLN can be extrapolated to the classroom.  If I can figure out what motivates adults to learn together, I will be better able to motivate my students to do the same.

Clearly this is still in the curation stage...  I welcome your thoughts.


  1. Lorraine,
    You have a great objective for applying the new insights you are gaining. You spell it out so clearly about how adult learning (and lack of learning in coercive attempts by administration) and student learning are linked.

    I would like for the adult learning in my PLCs to be better (freer from top-down directives, that is). I know we would be better able to learn if we had more choice. However, are we able to all be at a place to choose the same subject? Or do we choose our own objectives, learn at our own pace, and just rub elbows in our PLCs to inspire and help each other in our learning? I don't know. This year, we have PLCs that meet just once a month, but the members are from K-high school and we are in three different buildings, so the groups feeling somewhat contrived.

    I have gone ahead and introduced more and more learning by choice in my classroom, like genius hour. We will just carry on. I want students to grow up knowing how to learn.


  2. I think it goes beyond choice. I am a music teacher and band director - and as I was reading your post I couldn't help but think about student ensembles and music communities. In music students perform with their local high school bands. There are kids who really excel music, kids that are along for the ride, and kids you secretly wish would hop off at the next stop. Teacher communities are the same. There are teachers in your district or school that lead, teachers that sort of follow, and teachers that we all wish would retire.

    The biggest difference between a PLC and a PLN is that the PLN only has the leaders. The teachers who go above and beyond, and look to make those connections beyond their classroom. In music in the United States our best students audition for region and all-state bands, where they get to perform with the best students from across the state. The ensembles are amazing - the kids are so talented. We also have Drum and Bugle Corps that recruit the best musicians from across the country.

    I think the same thing happens in the PLN - but it's not just that the teachers in your PLN chose to participate - it's that the one's who choose to participate are some of the best in their field.

    In my district we have no PLC's and most teachers I work with don't know anything about PLN's - probably one of the reasons why the US ranks so low in education! I think, however, that I would welcome a "forced" PLC - I think teachers should collaborate - but I agree on the choice - they should be left to decide "what's best" as far as what the PLC pursues.

    1. Thank you for your very honest comment. I would be lying if I said that thought had never occurred to me as well. But it is the very same people who love their PLN that dislike their PLC. That is what surprised me so much.
      I feel so fortunate to work on Ontario where our Ministry actually supports our Professional Learning Communities.

  3. I agree with everything - and also think...
    When you get together as a support group (of your own volition) you help one another, support one another - and learning takes place. It is as if the group "takes turns" being and doing what each member needs (in turn).

    That is what I believe may be missing (the acronyms escape me) from the learning group your fellow teachers dislike... Each member of the group coming together needing/wanting something from the group, and the group having the flexibility to address what is needed.

  4. I wrote a book where I scaffold PLNs, PLCs and CoPs into a 3-pronged approach. Considering where you are in your thinking about this you might enjoy it. The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age.

    1. Thanks Sheryl. I appreciate the book suggestion, and I will most definitely check it out!

  5. Very interesting post. Choice and options are important in networked learning as shared in my post There are differences between Professional Learning Communities and Personal Learning Networks. Professional Learning Communities are more aligned with the FORMAL COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE, and there may be mandates as to how it would be sponsored, organised, and coordinated, with definite role definitions for community managers (principal, head teachers, counselors etc.) and other community members. Those are rules based COP with definite outcomes, and sometimes could be running under a committee structure. The PLN are more aligned with the Social Network approach where learning is emergent and thus would allow for more personal autonomy. Previous researches (from our CCK researches) have revealed those observations by the Timothy and many other networkers, in their various manifestations of blog postings and forum discussions. These tensions always relate back to the choice, power and decisions, often associated with communities and networks. The group versus networks discussion throughout the CCKs would be relevant here.

    1. Thanks; I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I suspect that personality has a lot to do with self-directed learning, but as a classroom teacher of 11-yr olds, I would like to determine exactly which personality traits lead to that type of self-direction so that I can foster it in my students. I will have to go and read all of the links on your blog post. I think they will be helpful!
      With regard to the PLC vs PLN, one of my colleagues pondered that perhaps it is not so much the absence of choice that makes the difference as much as it is the fact that in a PLC "teacher learning needs are predicated by student learning needs".


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