Professional Learning Networks: promises and challenges for sustainable school improvement

Valu.Enews’ Editorial Board has met Professor Chris Brown and Professor Cindy Poortman during the last two International Congresses for School Effectiveness and Improvement held in Stavanger (2019) and Marrakech (2020). In the light of the reflections on ensuring quality education for all, that Valu.Enews promoted in May 2020’s ICSEI’s Special Issue, we widened the discussion to the professional learning of school personnel, on the occasion of Valu.Enews’ Issue on Valu.E for Schools, the research activity of the Valu.E Project which focuses on the development of evaluation competencies of Italian teachers and head teachers.   

Chris Brown is Professor in Education at Durham University’s School of Education. Chris is seeking to drive forward the notion of Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) as a means to promote the collaborative learning of teachers.  

Cindy Poortman is an assistant professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Her research and teaching focus on teacher and school leader professional development in doing research in teams and networks.  

Chris and Cindy are co-founders and co-conveners of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement’s network ‘Professional Learning Networks’ . They edited together the book Networks for Learning: Effective Collaboration for Teacher, School and System Improvement (Routledge, London 2018).    

Educators learning together 

Equitable educational outcomes will always be a function of the quality of teachers in an education system. But the quality of teachers is not fixed – it can be improved through high quality professional development. Well-designed professional development of teachers can lead to changes in teacher knowledge and practice as well as student outcomes. And ultimately high-quality professional development can lead to both high educational quality and equity (which, incidentally, are two sides of the same coin).  

Active learning in collaboration is one of the essential features of effective professional educator learning. As a result, there is now an increased focus on the collaborative learning of teachers, school leaders and others involved in education, possibly together with researchers and/or policy-makers. In this respect, focusing on Professional Learning Networks is relevant. We define Professional Learning Networks as: groups of educators (e.g., teachers, school leaders, possibly in collaboration with researchers, and/or policy-makers) coming together with others outside of their everyday community of practice with the intention to engage in collaborative learning to improve teaching; and their students’ learning. Examples of such PLNs are Research Learning Networks, Teacher Design Teams, Global blended learning networks, Data Teams, and cross-district communities of inquiry. 

Professional Learning Networks, in particular, are considered a promising means through which to support teachers in changing their practices and so achieve improved student outcomes. Case study research often shows that participants enjoy being part of a PLN. Moreover, they develop both knowledge and skills related to the subject of the PLN. For example, they become more aware of how their students learn and as a result, how to better develop lessons. Results beyond satisfaction and PLN member learning can be a challenge, however. Research shows how much needs to be in place both as part of the process of the PLN itself (e.g. a shared focus on student learning among PLN participants, reflective professional inquiry), and in their participating schools (e.g. supportive leadership, models of distributed leadership). Involving other colleagues from the participating schools can be difficult, and needs to receive explicit attention from the start. Additionally, the policy context also plays a role. Nonetheless, there are a range of examples where PLNs lead to improved curriculum coherence and (formative) assessment, improved instructional support, and ultimately improved student learning. More long-term and (quasi-) experimental research is needed to further establish evidence in this area.   

PLNs in challenging contexts 

Although PLNs can be focused on a myriad of goals and in a range of contexts, often these PLNS are focused on improving outcomes in disadvantaged areas. Here such approaches have successfully attended to many different needs such as: ensuring all students, irrespective of background, gain the minimum skills necessary to successfully face the challenges of today’s society; support students’ transition from school to work; or address current concerns such as childhood obesity, children’s wellbeing and children’s mental health. Examples of PLNs that explicitly seek to improve outcomes of disadvantaged students/students in disadvantaged areas include: 

Challenge Partners: represents a growing network of more than 430 primary, secondary and special schools and alternative provision settings in England. Founded some 20 years ago, the aim of the network is to tackle educational inequality and improve the life chances of children, especially those in disadvantaged areas. Challenge Partner schools are organised into local ‘hubs’. These work together to secure improvements in relation to shared priorities. Hubs also link up with others across the country in order to facilitate wider knowledge-sharing between schools. 

The Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research (KNAER): an initiative between the Ontario Ministry of Education, the University of Toronto, and Western University, designed to mobilise research and knowledge in order to improve educational practices and student outcomes. KNAER supports the Ministry’s vision of Achieving Excellence, through four thematic networks: mathematics, student wellbeing, equity, and Indigenous education. The aim of the networks is to connect schools and universities in order to: 1) support the use of evidence-informed practices for mathematics instruction in order to improve student attainment; 2) break down the barriers to educational excellence for children and youth from marginalised groups; 3) promote wellness and mental health in education; and 4) support indigenous education.  

The One Square Kilometre of Education in Berlin: seeks to marry the efforts of local educational stakeholder organisations in an educational ‘alliance’. The members of the network assume joint responsibility for the learning of all children and young people in the area, to ensure that no child is ‘lost’. As well as schools, the network also includes urban planning and development agencies, health agencies, and other local associations. The premise behind the network is that no single institution – or indeed person – can alone solve the complex task of closing the educational gap for children and young people. Furthermore, what is required is an educational support chain within a selected community: in this case, a continuous chain of support extending over a 10 year period, in which children and young people are accompanied through different school levels.   

Sustainability in educational innovation 

Making any kind of educational innovation sustainable is hard, however. This also applies to PLN work. At some point there is always the question ‘(How) Do we continue?”. To begin with, it’s not easy to define sustainability, although we find it useful to think about it as the process of integrating and scaling the intervention’s core aspects in organizational routines, which are adaptive to ongoing work (Prenger et al, submitted, p. 35). This means that the core aspects of an innovation should ultimately become part of schools’ organizational routines. At the same time, local adaptability is important. This idea of ‘core’ aspects can also apply to the PLN work itself: it is a way of collaborating and often researching and developing together, that can be very much worthwhile to integrate in the school’s routines so that engaging with PLNs is very much something the school and its teachers do and are expected to do as part of the day to day business of teaching and learning. 

It is easy to start a PLN with immediate problems and short-term goals in mind, but alignment with the long-term educational vision of the school(s) and leaders involved, is also important if sustainability is to be achieved. This applies to the shared focus on student learning that the PLN is committed to; the leadership, both of the PLN and of the participating school or schools; but also the policy context. Studying the role of school leadership in supporting sustainability of data teams, we used a questionnaire focused on factors influencing sustainability. We found out that school organizational factors tend to be the most important, of which leadership is a key aspect. An innovation such as working with data team PLNs needs to connect to school vision and goals – that should be communicated interactively. Teachers’ commitment and innovation effectiveness are also crucial. PLN participants and colleagues in general often mention ‘lack of time’ as an important factor hindering PLN work and consequently sustainability.  Leadership is not only about facilitation, e.g., time and resources, however, but also about support, knowledgeable school leaders, and vision. Distributed leadership and coherence of leadership activities is essential. If you ask teachers why an innovation wasn’t successful, time is nearly always mentioned as the most or one of the most important factors. If you ask teachers to imagine they had all the time in the world, however, lack of vision, support, and the like often turn out to be the actual obstacles. Based on our research, we have developed pilot tools to help educators (both formal and informal school leaders) think about factors essential for sustainability before they start with establishing PLNs. Establishing and developing PLNs for sustainable school improvement is not a moment in the final phase of developing changed practice, but a process that starts even before PLNs are established.    


Brown, C. (2020) The Networked School Leader: How to improve teaching and student outcomes using learning networks (London, Emerald).

Brown, C. and Flood, J. (2019) Formalise, Prioritise and Mobilise: How school leaders secure the benefits of Professional Learning Networks (London, Emerald).

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Datnow, A., & Park, V. (2018). Professional collaboration with purpose: Teacher learning towards equitable and excellent schools. New York: Routledge.

Kyriakides, L., & Creemers, B. P. (2011). Can schools achieve both quality and equity? Investigating the two dimensions of educational effectiveness. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 16(4), 237-254.

Van den Boom-Muilenburg, S. N., Poortman, C. L., Schildkamp, K., De Vries, S., & Van Veen, K. (2020). The Enactment of Integrated School Leadership for Sustainable School Improvement with Data Teams. Paper presented at the 33rd International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI), Marrakech, Morocco.

Poortman, C.L., Brown, C. & Schildkamp, K. (submitted). Professional Learning Network processes and the link to student outcomes: a conceptual model of impact and research opportunities.

Poortman, C. L., & Schildkamp, K. (2016). Solving student achievement problems with a data use intervention for teachers. Teaching and teacher education, 60, 425-433.

Prenger, R., Tappel, A.P.M., Schildkamp, K. & Poortman, C.L. (submitted). How can educational innovations become sustainable? A review of the empirical literature.

Schnellert, L. (2020). Exploring the Potential of Professional Learning Networks. In Professional Learning Networks: Facilitating Transformation in Diverse Contexts with Equity-seeking Communities. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Tappel, A., Poortman, C.L., Schildkamp, K. & Visscher, A.J. (2020). Factors influencing the sustainability of a data use intervention. Paper presented at the 33rd International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI), Marrakech, Morocco.   

Interested in our network activities and publications? Please see:

ICSEI network of Professional Learning Networks 

Emerald Professional Learning Networks series   

• Working with or in a network and interested in proposing a book for the series? Get in touch with us!

Chris Brown and Cindy Poortman

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