Contemporary understanding and research of professional learning reflect a shift away from traditional methods of teacher development and in-service training models to approaches that recognizes professional learning as both cognitive and socio-cultural processes embedded in everyday interactions. As a result, the study of professional learning communities has emerged as a pivotal topic. A professional learning community is broadly defined as a group of professionals engaging in ongoing joint work to improve their practice.

The current conceptualization of professional learning and collaboration in school improvement research has evolved out of two main scholarly areas: the communities of practice literature and research on professional learning communities. Empirical research on teacher collaboration, teams, and communities continue to illustrate that their enactment varies with regards to structures, membership, purpose, and timespan. Scholars have outlined the key characteristics effective professional learning communities exhibit. While the lists somewhat vary in detail, in general, scholars have consistently highlighted the following characteristics: (1) shared values and vision; (2) collective learning and application; (3) reflective professional inquiry; and (4) collaboration. Supportive and shared leadership is also considered to be a critical factor in the formation and sustainability of productive professional learning communities.

In practice, how professional communities are conceptualized and implemented varies across contexts. Specific practices, policies, and structure enacted in schools and districts reveal the culture and values for the types of collaborative interactions to a degree. However, the literature also suggests that rather than a consistent or coherent conceptualization of professional learning, actual practice is complex as it is enabled and constrained by organizational conditions, resources, and larger policy environments.