Consider a TLC to Improve Your Formative Assessment Strategies

Not this kind of TLC (although there are days where this would be nice)

By Learning Sciences Dylan Wiliam Center Staff

On this blog, we’ve had quite a few posts on teacher collaboration, professional development, and PLC scheduling. It’s important for educators to work together to improve their practice. PLCs are a common structure to foster collaboration and accountability. But they’re not the only way.

What’s the difference between a PLC and a TLC?

Most teachers are familiar with PLCs. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have a specific purpose: to foster a schoolwide culture of professional growth and support teacher leaders in sustaining schoolwide improvement. In the United States, PLCs usually take the form of instructional data teams, who gather and analyze student achievement data to determine what improvements might be made to curricula, professional development offerings, school schedules, interventions, and so forth. The overarching purpose of a PLC is to foster accountability and a culture of collaborative inquiry, as well as sustain teacher leadership as an integral part of school culture.

But Teacher Learning Communities (TLCs) are not yet common in U.S. schools. And they serve a completely different function.

TLCs focus on teacher professional development. As Dylan Wiliam and Siobhán Leahy point out in “Sustaining Formative Assessment”, any professional development must first and foremost begin with these questions: What do we want, as teachers, to change in our classroom behavior? What do we most need to learn to improve outcomes for our students?

Content first, then process

Once teacher groups have established, for instance, that they want to use classroom strategies that research has shown to be effective in improving student outcomes (the content), then, and only then, do they choose the process or structure that will best foster that development. Wiliam and Leahy have created their model of TLCs specifically to support development of the classroom formative assessment that we began to discuss last week <insert link to previous post>, which has been shown by research to significantly increase the speed with which students learn.

In this model, the TLC meets monthly, for at least 75 minutes, to consider formative assessment strategies and to commit to practice and refine these strategies between meetings. Successful TLCs foreground:

  • Choice
  • Flexibility
  • Small steps
  • Accountability
  • Support


Successful TLCs are committed to teacher autonomy. As a teacher, you choose the specific classroom practices you want to focus on, based on the needs of your classes and your own professional development, but within a framework of research-based strategies. When you “own” your learning process and focus, you’re far more likely to pursue your learning through the inevitable setbacks and build your expertise.

Research-based strategies may call for different techniques, depending on the classroom. Using popsicle sticks for random questioning, for example, might not cut the mustard with your high school students—they might prefer a high-tech solution. On the other hand, your second graders may love using color-coded Dixie cups to demonstrate their understanding. You will get creative with techniques that work best with your own students. Thus, flexibility. Ideally, some modification of techniques should take place without compromising the intent of the strategy.

For a full discussion of the additional processes important to implementation of TLCs, download the free paper, Sustaining Formative Assessment with Teacher Learning Communities, by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhán Leahy.

The new Learning Sciences Dylan Wiliam Center site is now live! In addition to “Sustaining Formative Assessment, the Resources page has links to the research base for embedding formative assessment and other resources for implementing TLCs in your school.