Let’s discuss strategies for promoting collaborative teams, especially professional learning communities. In the endeavor to develop and sustain a collaborative learning culture, effective leaders should seek to mitigate informational overload. Effective leaders know that reducing stress and fear optimizes organizational learning and success.
An effective school collaboratively reaches consensus on the mission, core values, and beliefs (Lezotte & Snyder, 2011). Thereafter, collective inquiry is effective for building shared knowledge. This process, “in turn, allows them to make more informed (and therefore better) decisions, and increases the likelihood they will arrive at consensus” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, p. 17). Despite the benefits of a collaborative professional learning community (PLC), the authors were “convinced educators would benefit from both greater clarity regarding the PLC concept and specific strategies for implementing the concept” (p. 15).
Effective communication promotes collaboration, thereby optimizing the learning organization’s ability to reach consensus. Schmoker (1999) posited teams outperform individual efforts, therefore, "learning not only occurs in teams but endures" (p. 12). An effective learning organization utilizes the following three beliefs to optimize teams and the PLC concept:
1. the team believes strongly in each member's capacity to develop practical solutions to everyday teaching and learning problems;
2. there is a belief that regardless of a school's social or economic circumstances, improvement can and will occur;
3. the team arrives at each meeting anticipating that informed trial and error will inevitably lead to better teaching and hence to higher learning (Schmoker, 1999, p.20).
Educators benefit in a number of ways from working together to identify a clear, shared vision, developing a collaborative culture focusing on learning, engaging in collective inquiry, remaining action oriented, committing to continuous improvement, and being results oriented (Dufour et al., 2008). Those six elements of an effective PLC promote learning by doing. As with many processes developed for sustaining success, the six elements work most effectively if treated as an interdependent, cyclical process.
To be successful, the PLC requires “reculturing the traditional culture of schools and districts” (Dufour et al., 2008, p. 6). This shift needs to be systemic and not merely structural, embedding sustained improvements in “the assumptions, beliefs, values, expectations, and habits that constitute the norm for that organization” (p. 90). A skillful educational leader begins developing an effective collaborative culture by understanding the interdependency of the improvement process rather than merely undertaking elemental processes for change. A skillful educational leader and empowered educators trust in non-negotiable goals (NNGs) and values while embracing both school-based and teacher autonomy.
An effective leader can create a defined collaborative culture to optimize structured organizational learning by utilizing strategies that encourage high levels of effectiveness. The first pursuit in this endeavor is to mitigate learning overload. Information overload prevents stakeholders from realizing progress and achievement of stated goals (Nguyen, 2011; Reason, 2010). Citing Kennedy (2006) and Franklin (2005), Reason (2010) notes, “We can’t alter the brain to hold more information, but we can change our approach to learning in ways that reduce overwhelm and prepare us to deal with institutional challenges more effectively” (p. 99). Every stakeholder’s reticular activating system (RAS) impacts his or her attention and motivation. Therefore, the RAS influences how efficiently staff addresses the organizational focal points. The effective leader recognizes this and seeks to “clearly identify the learning focal points that matter” (p. 100) as a way to mitigate stressors that overwhelms one’s perception and attention to organizational focal points.
Learning organizations are expected to attend to what Vygotsky called scientific concepts (Blunden, 2009; Tudge & Scrimsher, 2003). Scientific concepts are psychological tools such as language, formulas, memory techniques, concepts, rules, symbols, and signs. Properly designed class instruction utilizes and learns these psychological tools, thereby reducing learning overload by optimizing metacognition (Bohlin et al., 2008)
In the pursuit of defining a learning culture, effective leaders also seek to optimize structured organizational learning by utilizing a proven system for promoting change. The following eight-step protocol (Reason, 2010), promotes success while reducing learning overload:
Step One: Acknowledging Learning Limits
Step Two: Lightening the Learning Load
Step Three: Identifying Learning Focal Points
Step Four: Establishing Emotional Relevance
Step Five: Establishing Inquiry
Step Six: Identifying Essential Goals and Outcomes
Step Seven: Making the Focal Points Public
Step Eight: Funneling New Ideas Into Current Focal Points (pp. 103-112)
“The identification of learning focal points, empowering questions, and must-have outcomes won’t reduce all the confusion in an organization” (Reason, 2010, p. 112). However, the above protocol optimizes the learning organization’s ability to prioritize elements essential for promoting student learning and sustaining success. Clarity and focus mitigates fear and stress, thereby improving the organization’s culture of learning while reducing learning overload.
The improvement to the collaborative learning culture begins with recognizing promotion of student learning in schools that are loosely-coupled by design must be tightly-coupled in relation to non-negotiable goals (NNGs). Beginning with district leadership, a culture based on “defined autonomy” (Marzano & Waters, 2010, p. 8) communicates NNGs to both the internal and external stakeholders. Otherwise, change can be either slow, inconsistent, or nonexistent.
An effective educational leader confidently handles the conveyance of more autonomy or degrees of freedom. Therefore, novice principals or leaders at struggling schools need more guidance and direction from district-level leaders. An effective leader recognizes when and how staff can work autonomously and collaboratively, thereby developing or removing staff as necessary, which promotes the culture of high expectations within the school (Eck & Goodwin, 2010).
Purpose driven inquiry (Reason, 2010) can be utilized with either small groups or the entire school. Reason presented a six-step protocol useful for small and systemic projects alike:
Step One: Identifying the Question and Knowing Why We Ask It
Step Two: Igniting Collective Curiosity
Step Three: Defining Strategic Action
Step Four: Defining Accountability
Step Five: Making the Agenda Public
Step Six: Maintaining Engagement (pp. 78-86)
Establishment of non-negotiable goals (NNGs) are a product of earlier collaboration. Intentional invitations promote staff empowerment (Purkey & Novak, 2016). Determination to collaborate, time to meet, willingness to ask serious questions, creation of an action plan, and always meeting with an agenda, promotes collaborative communication aligned to the established NNGs. Therefore, Reason’s (2010) six-step protocol for purpose driven inquiry mitigates learning overload while encouraging collaborative learning organizations to focus upon sustained improvement, efficient learning, and sustained success.
Effective accountability requirements hastened the emergence of professional learning communities (PLC). Marzano and Waters (2009) believe, a PLC “suggests a group of people sharing and critically interrogating their practice in an ongoing, reflective, collaborative, inclusive, learning oriented, growth-promoting way; operating as a collective enterprise” (p. 56). The PLC and undertaken action research addresses the need to develop and sustain a systemic culture of continuous improvement that promotes positive learning (DuFour, et al., 2008; Rentfro, 2007).
Positive change can be the outcome of innovative thinking, willingness, humility, collaboration, and a collective vision grounded in a clearly-defined mission. Unintended consequences, which often fall into the pool labeled “negative change,” typically ignore the characteristics connected with positive change. In conclusion, leaders interested in promoting a collaborative learning culture must embrace this reality: It is not enough to want to change or need to change, to become enculturated within an organization, stakeholders must experience positive change.
Anderson, C.J. (May 31, 2018) Developing a collaborative learning culture [Web log post] Retrieved
Bohlin, L., Durwin, C., & Reese-Weber, M. (2008). Ed psych: Modules. NY: McGraw-Hill.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at
work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Eck, J., & Goodwin, B. (2010). Autonomy for school leaders. School Administrator, 67(1),
Lezotte, L. W., & Snyder, K. M. (2011). What effective schools do: Re-envisioning the
correlates. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Marzano, R. & Waters, T.(2009). District leadership that works. Bloomington, IN: Solution
Purkey, W. W., & Novak, J.M. (2016). Fundamentals of invitational education (2nd ed). The International
Alliance for Invitational Education. Retrieved from:
Reason, C. (2010). Leading a learning organization: The science of working with others. Bloomington, IN:
Solution Tree Press.
Schmoker, J, (1999) The Key to Continuous School Improvement (2nd ed.) Arlington, VA:
Tudge, J., & Scrimsher, S. (2003). Lev S. Vygotsky on education: A cultural-historical,
interpersonal, and individual approach to development. In B. J. Zimmerman &
D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Educational psychology: A century of contributions
(pp. 207–228) Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.