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Durham University

School of Education

Research Projects

Publication details

Brown, C. & Poortman, C. (2019). Professional Learning Networks: harnessing collaboration to achieve the scale-up of effective education practices. In Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation. Peters, M. & Heraud, R. Singapore: Springer.

Author(s) from Durham


The emergence of networks within education has been driven by a number of key factors. These include: the complex nature of the issues facing education, which are typically too great for single schools to tackle by themselves; changes to educational governance structures which involve the dismantling of old ways of working and the introduction of new approaches with an individualized focus; as well as the increased emphasis on education systems that are ‘self-improving and school-led’. Within this context, the realization of teacher and school improvement actively emerges from establishing cultures of enquiry and learning, both within and across schools. Since not every teacher in a school can collaboratively learn with every other teacher in a network, the most efficient formation of networks will comprise small numbers of teachers learning on behalf of others.

Within this context, Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) are defined as any group who engage in collaborative learning with others outside of their everyday community of practice; with the ultimate aim of improving outcomes for children (Brown and Poortman, 2018). This broad definition encompasses a huge range of between-school or school-plus-other-organization network types, including data use teams and research learning networks.

Research suggests that the use of PLNs can be effective in supporting school improvement. In addition, PLNs are an effective way to enable schools to collaborate to improve educational provision in disadvantaged areas. Nonetheless harnessing the benefits of PLNs is not without challenge. In particular, participation in learning networks does not automatically improve teaching practice or student outcomes. Correspondingly, this encyclopedia entry explores the notion of PLNs in detail; it also sheds light on the key factors and conditions that need to be present if PLNs are to lead to sustained improvements in teaching and learning. These factors and conditions are: focus, collaboration, reflective professional inquiry, individual/group learning, and leadership.

School of Education