I recently participated in a site visit with the Tri-State Consortium at a school district that is in the process of evaluating the effectiveness of its K-12 school-based Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Essentially, the district was looking for a fresh set of eyes and as members of Tri-State, we set out to be “critical friends” who offered feedback, support, and suggestions for improvement. PLCs are not a new concept. Richard DuFour has been writing extensively on the topic for years and many districts continue to implement different versions of the PLC framework at both the micro- and macro-level.
To those who enter “Twitterverse” on a regular basis, the nature of the term “PLC” has morphed, evolved, and perhaps devolved as users build professional learning networks (“PLN”) that are comprised of educators with similar (and different!) views and interests on both a national and international level. On a personal note, Twitter has transformed my ability to connect and network with educators in ways that I had never thought imaginable and the access that I have to current and “fresh” information is like never before. During the site visit, I had a chance to think a great deal about school-based professional learning communities in general terms and what they should look like when operating at an optimal level.
The question of whether or not “to PLC” is not much of a question. The answer is a resounding “yes!” The better question actually surrounds the “how” of PLCs and must be decided upon based on the vision, culture, and needs of each respective school and/or district. At DFHS, we don’t have formal PLCs per se as defined by DeFour, but our teachers do meet on a consistent basis around important topics relating to student success and, as a result, our school continues to thrive academically as we now pursue full authorization to the IB MYP.
In thinking about PLCs, regardless of the model that is being implemented, there are a some “norms” that are non-negotiable to ensure that teacher time is both maximized and directly linked to student success. Here’s seven that quickly come to mind. Professional Learning Communities must be…
- Rooted in a School-Wide Mission: While mission statements sometimes get a bad rap, the bottom line is that all work that is done at the school level will be more focused and meaningful for staff members if it is connected to a “big idea.” This principle is directly in-line with the tenets of Wiggins and McTighe’s “Leadership by Design” model. Is it necessary to have a vision statement hanging in every classroom to make that happen? Certainly not. But it does require a leader that communicates a clear instructional vision and mission both informally and formally on a daily basis.
- Flexible: There are many reasons for teachers “to PLC” and it’s important that schools allow for a high degree of flexibility based on teacher and student need. This can mean that teachers meet with different groups of teachers for different purposes, including curriculum work (content or interdisciplinary), professional exploration and learning, a focus on a specific aspect of practice (assessment, student work, etc.), and/or a focus on specific subgroups (ELL, special education, etc.).
- Teacher-Driven: While it’s clear that a school leader must set the instructional vision and mission, what’s even more clear is that the work must be teacher-driven based on “real” problems that they identify.This will not only help to promote ownership over the work that is being done, but will also better translate to the classroom.
- Student-Centered: All work that is done in any PLC needs to have tangible student success placed directly at the center. It’s as simple (and complicated!) as that.
- Research-Based: A PLC is no place for the implementation of initiatives and/or teaching methods that are not grounded in research. Just because an idea “seems” like a good one doesn’t mean that it is. Think long and hard about this one.
- Product-Driven: While it’s easy to get caught up in conversation and debate for extended periods of time on topics that we care deeply about, it’s important that all work in a PLC has a tangible outcome that directly connects to student success. A product can mean many things, including units, assessments, or a protocol on how to best work with specific groups of students. Regardless of the product, this way of thinking will help to keep the group focused while allowing them to set (and reach) clear desired outcomes for each meeting.
- Connected to the Outside: While school-based PLCs are a wonderful way for teachers to engage in rich and meaningful work, they are also limited to the resources (in terms of people) that a school has available. This is especially the case in small schools such as DFHS. Given that, school leaders need to encourage teachers to not only read professional journals and attend both local and national meetings and conferences, but to also connect with professionals of similar interests through any one of the various social media outlets. The ability to connect online requires minimal effort, does not require a high degree of tech skills, and has benefits that go far beyond what can be attained in a small school setting.
Other ideas? Please feel free to share…
You make several great points on how PLC’s should operate! I view the structuring of a PLC in a very similar way to how I would structure student groups in a classroom. Just as we would with students, administrators need to set the structure and expectations for their teacher PLC groups. Many administrators get caught up with the idea of “teacher driven” PLC’s, but forget that groups still need to be given some direction and a structure in order to produce those “tangible outcomes”. Also, I think it’s equally important to mention that all groups need initial training in the DuFour PLC model in order to truly be effective. Eventually, teachers will figure out their own method of operation, but clear expectations and direction will prevent a lot of wasted time!
Thanks for addressing this often overlooked topic.