Component Overview: Professional Learning System

In this section of Support Structures, actions and resources are recommended to help educator teams develop or redesign a professional learning system.

What is a professional learning system?

Educators regularly engage in a wide variety of professional learning activities designed to improve instruction and increase student learning. In order to make all of the activities meaningful and provide the impact desired on teaching and learning, an organization needs a professional learning system. The system is an infrastructure for how professional learning works to develop individuals, sites, teams and organizations to ensure success for all educators and students (Learning Forward, p. 1). It is through the system that educators are provided sustained and focused professional learning that will help them “refine, expand and improve their knowledge, skills, dispositions, and practices” (Killion, 2013).

Why is a professional learning system important?

A comprehensive professional learning system provides a guide to help organizations support educators, improve classrooms and set high expectations for all students.

According to a 2018 Aspen Institute report, most professional learning experienced by educators is disconnected from curriculum, their daily work, and the specific learning needs of learners. By creating or redesigning a “tightly connected systems focus on continually increasing the knowledge and skills of teachers in their context,” organizations can ensure that all students have equal access to “rich, high-quality learning” (Aspen Institute, 2018, p.1).

The professional learning system theory of action (illustrated below) describes the immediate, intermediate and ultimate outcomes of an improved professional learning system over time. As the learning system improves, educators gain knowledge, skills and dispositions, which lead to improved teaching and learning environments. Finally, educational research has long demonstrated that improved teaching leads to improved outcomes for learners. Throughout the implementation of the system, leadership teams should collect feedback and other data to be used as part of a continuous improvement process for the system.

Professional Learning System Theory of Action

This graphic illustrates how the development or redesign of a professional learning system impacts the knowledge, skills and dispositions of educators which will improve teaching and learning environments that provide equitable academic and experiential outcomes for students with the whole process influenced and supported by feedback loops for continuous improvement.

When the priority for professional learning in the site and system is grounded in “collaborative professionalism” (Hirsh, 2018), the system builds an environment for professional learning to become a continuous, embedded part of every educator’s day, making each aspect of daily work in the classroom integral to the function of the system.

Through the creation and implementation of a professional learning system, organizations develop a well-prepared, learner-ready educator workforce inseparable from the pursuit of educational equity. These educators are generally more successful when supported by a system that bolsters deeper knowledge of content, pedagogy, differentiation and culturally responsive practices, using data from all levels to reflect upon, monitor and adjust instruction.

How do we develop or redesign a professional learning system?

The actions below are designed to help organizations develop or redesign their existing professional learning activities into a comprehensive system.

This component of a Standards-based Education System is a synthesis of Learning Forward’s Comprehensive Professional Learning System: A Workbook for States and Districts, with adaptations recognizing updated federal and state policies, particularly Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and World’s Best Workforce (WBWF) respectively, and Minnesota’s commitment to educational equity. Some steps of the guidebook are covered in other sections of this portal, however teams looking for a more in-depth process for creating a professional learning system may want to access this resource for additional information and activities.

Consequently, organizations will find four distinct actions designed to create an effective system for professional learning. The four actions are:

· Build a culture for effective professional learning systems

· Develop the professional learning system

· Strengthen professional learning communities (PLCs)

· Evaluate the effectiveness of the professional learning system

Each action is designed to identify the critical steps that need to be taken by organizations to redesign professional learning to make the system as meaningful and effective as possible.


Aspen Institute. (2018). Developing a professional learning system for adults in service of student learning. Washington, DC. (Link to the document).

Hirsh, S. (2018). Call to action: Whatever name you give it, the PLC plays an important role. The Learning Professional, 39(1), 8-9.(Link to the document).

Killion, J. (2013). Comprehensive professional learning system: A workbook for states and districts. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

Learning Forward. Developing a Comprehensive Professional Learning System. (Link to the document).