Using Study Circles to Jump Start Professional Learning Communities

Pennsylvania’s Adult Education uses job-embedded professional development (PD) opportunities to help adult educators learn new teaching skills and implement those new practices into their teaching.  Those PD opportunities include not only typical offerings, such as online courses and face-to-face workshops, but also those that encourage teacher collaboration.  Study circles and professional learning communities are two activities that encourage collaboration amongst teachers and other program staff.

World Education Project Director, Kaye Beall, was invited to conduct the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) Training of Study Circle Facilitators for regional consultants and local in-house professional development specialists (IHPDS) first in 2012 and then in subsequent years.  The NCSALL study circles are designed to bring practitioners together to:

  • Read research articles presenting findings from adult education studies
  • Discuss the relevance of the findings for the students with whom they work
  • Discuss strategies for applying the findings in their classrooms and programs
  • Make plans for trying strategies or changing their practice

Newly trained facilitators were encouraged to use one of the NCSALL study circle guides as they began to offer the PD activity in their local programs. Student persistence and reading instruction were popular topics that led local programs to tackle other topics based on their own planning for program improvement. These same facilitators noted that enhanced collegiality and working together brought about changes in programs and instruction.

The training and the guides provided the process, structure, and logistical considerations that were important in moving the study circles into the use of Professional Learning Communities (PLC) as Pennsylvania tackled the implementation of standards-based instruction with the adoption of the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS). (See Guide: Creating, Implementing, and Sustaining Professional Learning Communities to Support Program improvement and Professional Development Goals and Objectives.) Due to their experiences with study circles, programs were already committed to setting aside time and space for staff to meet. The in-house professional development staff had experience facilitating collaborative sessions and documenting the progress. The lead consultants had expertise in supporting job-embedded professional development.

Thank you, Pennsylvania Adult Education, for your visionary work in using job-embedded professional development and building on the study circle model.


We would like to acknowledge Bootsie Barbour, Former Project Coordinator, Consultation and Facilitation Project, Pennsylvania Professional Development System, for her assistance with this article.

Published by

Kaye Beall

Kaye Beall

Kaye Beall (M.L.S.) is the Director of the LINCS Professional Development Center, a partnership between Manhattan Strategy Group and World Education, Inc. Her expertise includes promoting and disseminating evidence-based resources and partnering with state-level organizations to provide research-based professional development (PD) on adult education topics. Ms. Beall is a skilled facilitator and project director with the ability to build instructional and programmatic capacity. She has worked in adult literacy since 1980, serving as an instructor and local program director, state consultant, program development director, training coordinator, and state outreach coordinator.