Summer Learning: PLCs

One of the most profound professional development activities I took part in this summer was attending the Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute in Seattle with a large number of colleagues from my new building and across my district. We’ve all heard about PLCs and we’ve all been part of PLCs, but there were definitely some missing pieces in my understanding and implementation. (Read a short history of PLCs.) Maybe my story resonates with your experience.

A few years ago, I’m not quite sure how many, there were a set of four questions posted in the largest conference room at the district office, which also served as school board’s default meeting location (among other uses). Maybe they’re familiar?

  1. What do we want students to learn?
  2. How will we know if they have learned?
  3. What will we do if they don’t learn?
  4. What will we do if they already know it?

Good questions, but I had no idea where they came from or how I could use them. In fact I was a little suspicious of them because of the mystery that surrounded them. These questions seemed to show up everywhere. They were part of a number of school improvement plans and inexplicably appeared on collaboration forms my team was asked to fill out after working together.

A few years ago I was swept up in the Finland frenzy and was particularly struck by how much time teachers were able to collaborate during the regular school day. I already knew from my own experience that teachers needed more time to work together and I suspected that this was probably one of the reasons why the schools in Finland did so well. I joined a couple of PLCs and worked with teachers at my grade level, teachers from other schools, and teachers from across the grades interested in co-learning in my school. Still, I wasn’t totally clear on what the difference was between a group working together and a PLC. When I heard there was a conference on PLCs, I put my name in even though it was far off in the middle of the summer about nine months away.


Spencer writes a blog entry after the conference

So I’m here to tell you that I now believe that those four questions above are the secret to transforming public education. I wont be able to recreate the three day workshop with multiple keynotes and breakout sessions presented by some of the leading experts on PLCs working in education today, but I will explain those questions.

First of all, those questions form the cornerstone of the work that teachers in PLCs do together. They were articulated by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour. For further reading check out their books on PLCs.

Question 1: What do we want students to learn? This question is meant to be answered by teachers who collaborate together and work at the same grade level(s). These teachers must look at the standards and decide together what they guarantee that each of them will ensure that ALL students learn. What is non-negotiable? What, if not learned, would be disastrous for that student? Teachers need to commit to teaching those things as priorities. Not everything is of equal value. Teachers clarify and prioritize the standards together taking into account the intent of the standards and the needs of the students. This step can not be skipped, nor can it be mandated by above. This is where the team makes commitments to one another.

Question 2: How will we know if they have learned it? Now the teachers teach with the same objectives. They teach the best way each of them knows how. They decide on common formative assessments that will be given at approximately the same time. And when they have given those assessments and evaluated them, they come together to share their findings.

Question 3 & 4: What will we do if they don’t learn? What will we do if they already know it? These are the intervention and enrichment pieces, but there are a couple of important points to clarify if the PLC is to function properly. Firstly, we need to get vulnerable. Someone on your team will teach that particular concept most successfully and someone will teach it least successfully. Though there might be a nicer way to say that, this is where we feel threatened so we have to confront it. It must be visible so that the student learning can be addressed and this takes trust. Fundamentally, the teachers involved must see themselves as members of a team. Teachers in a PLC are not running side-by-side in a marathon, but rather rowing in the same boat (This was literally Rick DuFour’s analogy at the institute and it is a powerful shift in thinking). Secondly, the teachers need to take action with the information they obtain from looking at the results. That may include learning from the teacher who demonstrated the highest levels of student proficiency. It may also include having that teacher lead the intervention group for all of the students who have not learned. Nobody can meet the needs of all of their students by themselves. If we aren’t working as a team we don’t have a chance.

This process runs repeatedly and cycles through the key learning objectives for the students.

Time will be required and because we know it is a scarce commodity creativity will be necessary. One of the best ideas I have heard on creating time is to (occasionally) move the 30 minutes teachers are required to be available after school and combining it with the 30 minutes they are required to be there before school. In some cases you may be able to add an all-school activity to kick in another 15. All of this can be done without impacting buses, students, or families and could take place on a regular basis (with some contact negotiation).

This is the technical/structural shift, but the cultural shift may be the toughest to make (and hardest to recognize). This was brought to a very sharp point by Dr. Anthony Muhammad when he asked us to examine the achievement gap and equity from our own mindsets as well as within the de facto mindset of the system in general. More on this in another post…

3 thoughts on “Summer Learning: PLCs

  1. Mark Gardner

    I’ve been in PLCs every year but one in my career. Our focus has been on the four questions. After 14 years of PLCing, I’m still not convinced it is a worthwhile use of our time… and it is time that has been contractually given to us (generously) as part of our day at the secondary for a decade or so, and nearly as long at our elementaries. We have the time, we have the task… but it still lives “outside” the work we feel we actually need to do.

    Should teachers and teams be able to answer the four questions? Of course. However, why does PLC have to be the structure in which that happens? I absolutely believe there should be time for authentic collaboration built into a teacher’s day. I absolutely believe that those four questions are important. I also know that many, many people have had a positive experience with PLCs. I simply haven’t. PLC in my experience has been used as an accountability tool where we teachers must create stuff to prove our worth and report back to the next higher-up. Our teacher leadership team and administrative council are tackling this very issue this school year: how do we make PLCs actually impact both teacher and student learning? As one of my colleagues said, we don’t have PLCs, we have PCCs: Professional Compliance Communities.

    Here’s a question I posed to one our leadership teams recently: If teachers were told their PLC time was going to be eliminated, how hard would they fight to keep it? If the answer is “hardly at all,” then it is a system that isn’t benefiting teachers or kids in any real way. One of my (and my team’s) goals this year is to make PLC time something teachers value so much that they’d fight to keep it. We’re shifting our focus away from the four questions to a professional inquiry model… hopefully it will bring more meaning to the work. Another shift is about what “collaboration” even means…are we completing tasks and checking boxes or are WE learning?

  2. Spencer Olmsted Post author

    I was in those same shoes, and have heard “horror” stories of data teams that do nothing but sap time. I think the implementation of PLCs is generally misunderstood. Just because we call it a PLC doesn’t make it a PLC.

    * If teachers are empowered to decide on and then co-commit to essential learning objectives, then you might be looking at a PLC.

    * If teachers plan to teach and assess the same learning targets at the same time so that they can engage in intervention and enrichment, then you might be looking at a PLC.

    * If teachers use data from formative assessments to address student learning as a team and it is not used for evaluation, then you might be looking at a PLC.

    Bottom line – PLCs should empower teachers and improve student learning. It seems central to the work we are doing. That being said… I’ll have to let you know how it goes. There are schools that have success with this model, but it’s not exactly a subtle shift in systems or mindsets.

  3. Tom White

    We’re going all-in with PLCs this year at my school. I will definitely bring these ideas to the fore. Thanks!

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