Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.4, 457-460
Published Online August 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 457
Professional Identity or Best Practices?—An Exploration of the
Synergies between Professional Learning Communities and
Communities of Practices
Daphnee H. L. Lee, Imran Shaari
National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Email: daphnee.lee, sg
Received May 4th, 2012; revised June 10th, 2012; accepted June 20th, 2012
This paper attempts to find the synergies between Professional Learning Community (PLC) and Commu-
nity of Practice (CoP), with the view to enhance teacher professionalism. Based on the review of litera-
tures, we highlight the different motivations of PLCs and CoPs, and the value-assumptions informing the
two initiatives. We argue that both initiatives serve critical functions in augmenting teacher autonomy.
Although conceptually distinctive, the underpinning values of the approaches to organizing teacher pro-
fessional communities are complementary. Therefore, a two-prong approach is proposed. One seeds
teacher professionalism through emergent best practices. The other consolidates these best practices into a
coherent teacher professional identity through the introduction of structural affordances.
Keywords: Communities of Practice; Professional Learning Community; Teacher Professionalism;
Professional Identity/Autonomy; Best Practices
This paper attempts to find the synergies between Profes-
sional Learning Community (PLC) and Community of Pract ice
(CoP), with the view to enhance teacher profe ssion ali sm. B ased
on the review of literatures, we highlight the different motiva-
tions of PLCs and CoPs, and the value-assumptions informing
the two initiatives. We argue that both initiatives serve critical
functions in augmenting teacher autonomy. Although concep-
tually distinctive, the underpinning values of the approaches to
organizing teacher professional communities are complemen-
tary. Therefore, a two-prong approach is proposed. One seeds
teacher professionalism through emergent best practices. The
other consolidates these best practices into a coherent teacher
professional identity through the introduction of structural af-
Literature Review of the Conceptual Premises of
PLCs and CoPs
Confluences in Practice
The Professional Learning Community, within the education
context, refers to the active engagement in professional learning,
with the aim of enhancing teacher professional identity. The
notion takes root in John Dewey’s proposition that the resolu-
tion of recurring knowledge gaps hinges upon a continuous and
cyclical process of reflection (Dewey, 1986). The PLC practi-
tioner is, thus, one who actively acquires professional identifi-
cation through reflective and collaborative dialogue with like-
minded teacher professionals. The process involves participa-
tion in cycles of collaborative inquiry (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker,
& Many, 2010; Levine, 2010; Nehring & Fitzsimons, 2011;
Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace, & Thomas, 2006; Wong,
2010), reflection (Campbell, 2005; Falk & Drayton, 2009;
Louis & Marks, 1998; Musanti & Lucretia, 2010; Nehring &
Fitzsimons, 2011; Pella, 2011; Stoll et al., 2006; Vescio, Ross,
& Adams, 2007; Wiley, 2001; Wong, 2010), action research
(DuFour et al., 2010; Levine, 2010; Webster-Wright, 2009) and/
or lesson studies (Foo & Lee, 2008), for the purpose(s) of re-
forming pedagogy and curriculum (Harris, 2011; Little &
Veugelers, 2005), and/or transforming school/ education culture,
values, vision and action (Cranston, 2011; Falk & Drayton,
2009; Hoffman, Dahlman, & Zierdt, 2009; Little & Veugelers,
2005; Nehring & Fitzsimons, 2011; Pella, 2011; Servage, 2008;
Webster-Wright, 2009; Wong, 2010). Teacher identity is said to
be enhanced by a corresponding enhancement of their profes-
sional capacity, which is, the ability to “achieve better results
for the students they serve” (DuFour et al., 2010: p. 11).
The CoP is, according to Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder
(2002), a congregation of practitioners who seek to deepen
knowledge expertise (4). It is through the process of ongoing
practice that members develop professionally (Lave & Wenger,
1991). To associate practice and community, Wenger (1998)
emphasizes the importance of a shared repertoire of practices
that is emergent from mutual engagement in reflective dia-
logues. As with PLCs, the structure of CoPs are loosely defined
and “members” are usually part of networks or other larger
organizations. In schools, this implies that the teachers may be
part of small networks (e.g. dedicated to improvements in as-
sessment) or a large cluster of schools (e.g. groups of schools in
a district) (Wenger & Snyder, 2000).
However, the similarities between the two constructs stop
there and scholars agree on how they differ (McDermott &
Archibald, 2010; Raven, 2003; Wenger & Snyder, 2000).
Divergences in Organization
Based on the review of literatures on the key PLC attributes
propounded by its supporters, engagement in PLC signals the
commitment to embrace alternatives to traditional notions of
professional learning. Departing from the preoccupation with
“quick solutions and immediate results” (DuFour et al., 2010: p.
514), teachers take charge and reflect upon their daily work
processes, and professional identity takes shape from this col-
laborative reflection. The acquisition of teacher autonomy is
less daunting when like-minded professionals congregate in
collaboration to this effort, rather than attempt to do so in the
private practice of one’s isolated classroom.
The PLC’s emphasis on collaboration and reflection differ-
entiates teacher professional learning from traditional notions
of it. However, casting the exclusive focus on the two attributes
conflates PLCs and CoPs (Campbell, 2005; Dooner, Mandzuk,
& Clifton, 2007; DuFour et al., 2010; Falk & Drayton, 2009;
Levine, 2010; Louis & Marks, 1998; MOE, 2010; Musanti &
Lucretia, 2010; Nehring & Fitzsimons, 2011; Stoll, et al., 2006;
Vescio et al., 2007; Webster-Wright, 2009; Wiley, 2001; Wong,
2010), rendering them conceptually indistinguishable. As con-
ceptual distinctions exist between the two concepts that could
result in dissimilar outcomes in the way teacher capacity is to
be enhanced, we deem it crucial to identify these distinctions, in
view of the implications that can be drawn for teacher profes-
sional development.
PLCs and CoPs diverge in the lens they adopt towards
teacher development. Although both models promise to be the
counter-cultural force for enhancing teacher efficacy, the CoP
appears more promising in performing this function than its
counterpart in question. If an initiative is to remain true to the
profession of “teachers taking charge”, the organic approach
taken to form communities appears much more attractive. (Falk
& Drayton, 2009) In contrast, PLC implementations tend to
be predominated by top-down initiatives targeted at shaping
teacher identities. The empirical reality of how the two initia-
tives unfold on the ground makes sense in the light of the dif-
ferent priorities that take precedence between the two models.
The more practice-based approach of CoPs makes learning
more immediate to the learner (Aguilar & Krasny, 2011; Bou-
chamma & Michaud, 2010; Chambers & Armour, 2011; Do-
oner et al., 2007; Falk & Drayton, 2009; Levine, 2010; Lewis,
Koston, Quartley, & Adsit, 2011; Musanti & Lucretia, 2010;
Parker, Patton, Madden, & Sinclair, 2010; Thang, Hall, Muru-
gaiah, & Hazita, 2011). Bottom-up initiatives may be more
attractive to the ground practitioner than abstract notions of
professional identity acquisition, which requires a vantage point
from the top. It may also be tedious to engage in distant asso-
ciations of “teacher learning for student outcomes” (Louis &
Marks, 1998; MOE, 2010; Nehring & Fitzsimons, 2011; Stoll
et al., 2006; Vescio et al., 2007; Wiley, 2001), or high-brow
notions of an emergent value-system from the convergence of
value-identities (Levine, 2010).
Nevertheless, being less attractive does not correspondingly
mean being less vital. The PLC serves crucial functions in en-
acting change more effectively than CoPs under specific con-
texts. In environments that are already highly institutionalized,
such as the school environment, change initiatives may be inef-
fective when solely employing CoP approaches. As Levine
cautions, the trajectory of practitioners advancing to core ex-
pertise from the periphery may or may not happen with CoPs
Conceptually, there appears to be an irreconcilable dichot-
omy between PLCs and CoPs. When operating in reality, how-
ever, the differences are much less defined, and may even be
complementary. That is, communities operating under the mo-
niker of PLCs may in practice possess strong elements of CoP,
and vice versa. For instance, while embarking upon the onerous
process of professional identity formation, PLC practitioners
may be concurrently engaged in sharing best practices more
immediate to the challenges of classroom management. Like-
wise, CoP practitioners may come to adopt more defined forms
of professional identification when membership criteria take
shape. Viewed from the vantage point, there is much empirical
convergence between the two constructs, despite their theoreti-
cal divergences. While some applaud the co-existence of paral-
lel movements dedicated to teacher professional development,
others question if duplicate movements unnecessarily overload
the already time-challenged teachers. Our take tends towards
the former view. Indeed, much controversy remains over the
differentiated conceptual grounds and empirical fuzziness of
the two. Although these debates address important issues, our
concern tends towards how the ultimate end embodied by these
communities, nevertheless, serve the critical function of teacher
professional enhancement. Both movements entail the em-
bracement of a learning culture that is no longer about passive
transmission of knowledge, acquired through an active co-
creation process, which will empower teachers with the capac-
ity to exercise professional autonomy. While it is important to
not conflate the two to ensure the best of both elements are
integrated in professional development, the view that teachers
are unable to apply both concepts into practice is overly me-
The CoP’s focus on unstructured practice forms an important
basis for exploratory inquiry and authentic learning. Where
teachers possess limited capacity for systematic inquiry, novice
learning by simulation (i.e. “legitimate peripheral participation”)
CoP-style provides the unstructured learning with the space for
exploration (Lambsom, 2010). The loose community relation-
ships allows for a dynamic bottom-up learning initiative that
adapts with the learning priorities of the time. However, when
left as it is, a community formed on the basis of the CoP model
can take a long time for an emergent organization principle, if it
emerges at all. CoPs may lose its capacity to generate emergent
insights if its communities are obligated to devolve systematic
capacities. PLCs are able to complement CoPs with the capac-
ity for more sustained organization efforts. The development of
conceptual expertise requires concerted action steered beyond
immediate learning priorities. It requires the dissemination of
common epistemologies that reflects guiding values of an es-
teemed profession. While the PLC’s preoccupation with struc-
ture and identity puts limits on possibilities, it also consolidates
a common lingo that characterizes the professional identity of a
discipline. PLC practitioners, as members of a profession, are
intuitively oriented as professionals based on the shared identi-
fication with the values propounded. It will be all the better, if
professional values are shaped by the everyday practices de-
rived from CoPs. Optimal learning requires conditions that
provides for both systematic inquiry and organically emergent
insights. This need for system-emergent capacity can be pro-
vided for if teacher professionals subscribe to both CoPs and/or
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Summarily, a dialectical engagement with system (PLC) and
emergence (CoP) is beneficial to sustainable teacher profes-
sional development. As a further elaboration of the global-local
duality in Wenger’s (1998) theorizations of CoP, Bertram
charts the trajectory of professional communities with the anal-
ogy of “building an airplane in the air” (Bruce, 2009). We ex-
tend upon this proposition that while the sky is the limit when it
comes to scaffolding for innovative practices, building an air-
plane that flies requires innovation to eventually take institu-
tionalized forms. Both community models can be present in
schools concurrently and contingently, depending on individual
school requirements. For instance, if School A is just beginning
to experiment with devolving from traditional schooling meth-
ods, a radical departure into overly exploratory approaches may
create strong teacher resistance. The school may opt for PLC-
style communities predominantly, while making some provi-
sions for CoP-inspired groups to emerge. School B may be
characterized by weak leadership, which necessitates teachers
to play a more proactive role at exploring their own learning
direction within poorly defined professional boundaries. Under
this circumstance, the adoption of CoP predominant communi-
ties, coupled with some initiative for identity-shaping PLCs
may be a prudent option. School C may have enjoyed success-
ful track records of compiling innovative professional practices
from current CoP communities. The school may chart a trajec-
tory of surfacing more PLC-like com-munities, so that loosely-
linked practices can be solidified into translatable practices that
can be scaled system-wide based on consistent core values.
This shift may take place with some groups embarking upon
the PLC trajectory, while others remain committed to explora-
tory endeavors in CoPs. This view of continuous dialectical
engagement can be likened to a (mid)top-down consolidation of
emergent bottom-up phenomena (i.e. professionalization), for
the enablement of sustainable innovation in professional learn-
ing (McDermott & Archibald, 2010).
PLCs consolidate teacher identifications into professional
identities, organizing and connecting teachers as a professional
community. CoPs engage teachers as professional practitioners,
with amorphous community obligations to allow for the emer-
gence of professional innovation. With regard to teacher pro-
fessionalization and professional development, the two share a
symbiotic relationship. The distinctive models converge in the
ultimate goal of enhancing teacher professional standing. Though
not necessarily mutually exclusive, the means to enhancing
teacher professional standing differ, and hence, the end results.
If professional community organization obligates the selection
of one form over another, the end goal may still be partially
achieved, but not at the optimal capacity. Teachers are lesser
professional members if their craft is not constantly reviewed
for rejuvenation. Likewise, teachers are also lesser professional
practitioners if their craft is unguided by a common identity.
The trajectory of teacher professional development lies in
seeding, growth, integration, dissemination, consolidation, in-
stitutionalization, and renewal. When integrated, CoPs and
PLCs offer the sustainable means to this end.
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