Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Professional Learning Communities: More Than Grade-Level Faculty Meetings

Professional Learning Community. PLC. We hear these terms in schools all the time but, with a nod to The Princess Bride, I don’t think that word means what most people seem to think it means.

Many believe that professional learning communities began with Richard DuFour. In truth, the work predates the publication of Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement by Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker (Solution Tree Press, 1998), a book that catapulted PLC into a more common lexicon for educators.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, educational researchers found constants in schools that were making a difference: collaborative cultures; reflective practice; shared norms and values; and collective focus, effort, and responsibility.

As codified through the work of DuFour and Eaker, a professional learning community is “educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. PLCs operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous, job-embedded learning for educators” (http://www.allthingsplc.info/files/uploads/brochure.pdf).

A PLC is not a grade-level meeting operating as a grade-level meeting.

I’ve seen a few variations of how to implement a professional learning community and the fundamentals are the fundamentals. The key elements HAVE to be as previously stated: collaborative culture; reflective practice; shared norms and values; and collective focus, effort, and responsibility. We must start with collaborative culture.

Because we’re human beings, we have emotions, egos, and all kinds of things that can get in the way of true collaboration. Petty jealousies, different styles, personality differences. And let’s face it: not all teachers have the same view of teaching and children. Teacher burn-out, skepticism, and professional cynicism will get in the way. And if teachers don’t trust each other or their administration, a collaborative culture is a non-starter.

Let’s assume a school with a reasonably collaborative faculty, one that is able to overlook or work within the constraints of the personal and professional squabbles that will naturally arise and do so as grown-ups. Collaboration, by the way, doesn’t mean that every conversation leads to immediate consensus and that voices are never raised and the occasional feeling is never hurt. It does mean that, as professionals, teachers can rise above those challenges because the focus is on the students and what’s best for them.

The Big Ideas
Professional learning communities emphasize three big ideas. Please keep in mind the emphasis is NOT on the teacher or the teaching, but on the students and their learning. Why? Because the purpose of school is for kids to learn.

The first big idea focuses not on the question “Was it taught?” but on the more important question, “Was it learned?” I can hear the wheels turning and the questions being asked about how kids can learn something if the teacher isn’t teaching it. Stop. We know there are many, MANY ways for students to learn without a teacher teaching it. I think the more important questions are these:
  • Were the students clear about what they needed to learn and why?
  • Did the students have clear guidelines for their learning expectations so they would know when they were successful?
  • Did the students have access to resources to support their learning, especially if they were struggling
  • Did the students have access to resources to support their learning, especially if they wanted to pursue more information and answer their own questions?

Now I hear the primary grade teachers muttering under their collective breath about how their students might not yet know how to read or write so there is no way for them to be able to access resources to support their learning. True, but the questions are NOT about the teacher and teaching. The questions are about the students. As Dr. Shirley Hord notes “[i]n these small groups, members focus on their students’ needs, their curriculum, and instructional practices that appropriately address their students. The team’s learning focuses directly on these students” (p. 42).

So as teachers gather in the professional learning communities, they gather to talk about that complex intersection of curriculum, student needs, and instructional practice and strive to answer the question: How can we make sure all of our students have opportunity to achieve the lesson’s learning goals?

The second big idea is that culture of collaboration. Quite honestly, I think this is the harder challenge. I believe teachers want to collaborate, but I think time and a whole host of complex demands get in the way of teachers actually being able to collaborate. Grade-level meetings get hijacked as grade-level faculty meetings and grade-level faculty don’t actually get to talk about students and their learning.

The third big idea is a focus on results. I have some issues with the way DuFour speaks of results in his article, “What is a Professional Learning Community?”. Yes, educators have an amazing amount of data, most of which they don’t or can’t use or don’t know how to use. Assessment data reviewed in isolation are meaningless. Data without context isn’t helpful, but all data are not created equal because that assessment information may be more useless because the assessment wasn’t a good assessment. I think we have to be careful about focusing on results. I think we have to be focusing on student learning, but we also have to be reasonable about how we do that. Some of what informs student learning is the culture of learning and teaching. And that gets back to that culture of collaboration but also to the culture of the school as a whole, and the culture of the district. Yea, it’s complicated.

Years ago I had the privilege of working with Bill Saunders and Ron Gallimore as they were repackaging their years of research and experience into Pearson-supported research, working with Brad Ermerling and Claude Goldenberg. They were focused on instructional teams or, as they called them, learning teams. They developed a protocol for learning team meetings and based on their on-going work with schools, they continued to make adjustments to that protocol to help ensure that the learning teams weren’t just going through the motions but were able to work collaboratively to focus on student learning and what would be effective.

I remember sitting in a learning team meeting with Bill Saunders. He made notes, occasionally raised a question or a point, but essentially left the team to follow the protocol and continue its conversation. What struck me the most was how each teacher addressed how she was going to support student learning in her classroom and why. I remember one teacher stating something she was going to do and then, after she heard her colleagues, making adjustments by taking an idea from one colleague and another idea from a different colleague. In their next learning team meeting, they were going to discuss the results of this lesson as they looked towards what they were going to have to re-teach,
scaffold, or introduce next to their students. In fact, those ideas were part of their conversations about why they were doing what they were doing. I got to talk with one of the teachers after the meeting and she sighed. She said it was wonderful to be able to have that kind of meeting but she was worried what would happen when the district was no longer partnering with Bill.

A challenge for schools and districts is protecting that time for teachers when everyone is crushed by expectations as well as school, district, and state initiatives. A corollary challenge is to have someone analyze all of those initiatives and see which overlap and which conflict, and then find ways to make better use of everyone’s time rather than having separate meetings for each different project or initiative.

The idea of a PLC is not a difficult one but the implementation cannot follow a rote template. How each school, maybe even each grade, implements PLC must be with the students in mind.


Education World. (2012). Best Practice for Professional Learning Communities. http://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/best-practices-for-professional-learning-communities.shtml

Gallimore, R., Ermerling, B., Saunders, B., and Goldenberg, C. (2009). Moving the Learning of Teaching Closer to Practice: Teacher Education Implications of School-Based Inquiry Teams http://mimathandscience.org/img/math-assets/pro-development/Moving-the-Learning-of-Teaching.pdf

Saunders, B., Goldenberg, C., and Gallimore, R. (2009). Increasing Achievement by Focusing Grade-Level Teams on Improving Classroom Learning: A Prospective, Quasi-Experimental Study of Title 1 Schools https://education.illinoisstate.edu/downloads/casei/gradelevelteams.pdf

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