The structure of schools have changed dramatically over the last few decades. In my blog Digital Age in Industrial Education I discuss how schools used to be designed around a factory line style of learning due to the type of jobs that were needed in the industrial period. These factor line jobs are no longer in high demand, therefore our school structure is changing to match how students need to be prepared for the world we live in now. The problem is some traditional parts of school have not kept up with changes as well as others.
With the change in schooling a lot of great evidence based practices have emerged to create the best learning environment for all students. One that I am very interested in and am continuing to learn about is Professional Learning Community (PLC). PLC function off of four driving questions:
- What do we expect our students to learn?
- How will we know they are learning it?
- How will we respond when they do not learn it?
- How will we respond if they already learn it?
Arkansas has started an initiative so that all schools use the PLC model within their schools. This requires a lot of planning and dedication by the entire school.
So– does your school PLC?
Expert Principal Interview
For a class assignment in graduate school, I had the opportunity to interview a principal at a model PLC school. Here is a piece of our conversation.
Me: “How do you ensure buy in from your staff as far as PLCs are concerned?”
Expert Principal: “We use the word commitment instead of buy in…”
I remember thinking that was such a strange phrase for the principal to make sure and correct me on. I listened as she explained that everyone had an opportunity to voice any concerns about the new PLC structure that was being implemented at her school. She made sure that all stakeholders where given the why and purpose behind PLC as well as clearing up any confusion: PLC is not an initiative. PLC is a way of structuring a school so that all students learn at high levels.
After this principal interview I went back and asked my professor why he thought she felt the need to make sure I used the word commitment versus buy in. I understood that technically they are different, but I have heard a lot of people use buy in when speaking about PLC. He chuckled which made me feel even more ridiculous, like I was missing some major concept about professional learning communities. Come to find out, I was.
I have talked about common vocabulary in several different situations with my math students. Think of the words slope, rise over run, change in y over change in x, rate of change, constant change of proportionality… When you hear all of these words you know they mean the same thing, but there are certain times you would use rate of change that you would not use rise over run. Let’s take a more broad approach with words such as formative assessment, common formative assessment, summative assessment, common summative assessment, standardized test, high stake assessment… We understand that each of these are assessments used in different situations. We may not know exactly how to define these– but we (hopefully) know which each of them are if we saw them in front of us.
Now imagine a school with 200 teachers and everyone is using a different word for the same concept, or at least they think they are talking about the same concept. How can you really know if you are talking about the same thing if words have not been clearly defined and communicated?
Back to my principal interview. My professor went on to explain that common vocabulary has to be one of the first things that a school does when implementing PLC. Just as every school should have a common mission and vision that all staff members are working towards, so should every school have common vocabulary for a consistent vision among the whole school. From this common vocabulary, the school can define their mission and goals for the Professional Learning Community.
Envision a school that has defined their common vocabulary and everyone is on the same page as far as the educational language to use and the goals of the PLC. It is time to start meeting together, with different faculty members, with different personalities, with different passions… Conflict can arise quite quickly without clearly defined norms. Educators expect students to abide by classroom norms so that all students can learn. Educators should be held to same standard of creating norms and each person respecting and upholding those norms.
Not every collaborative team will have the same norms just as not every classroom will have the same rules and procedures. Each team must take into account the personalities on the team and what ways to bring out the best collaboration. This allows the team to analyze student data that is driven by the four PLC questions.
A norm that I would suggest is defining roles within each collaborative team. These roles do not have to be set for the year. They can rotate every month or quarter; whichever works best for your team. Having set roles will help PLC time be purposeful and efficient to bring out the best practices from all teachers to achieve student growth.
Schools can spend all day defining education buzz words and creating the best norms for collaborative teams. None of that matters if the school does not foster a culture of collaboration. Collaborating takes time and commitment by the entire school. Everyone, even those who may not be teachers, must work together to provide time for teachers to continually collaborate and answer the four PLC questions defined by DuFour and Marzano.
Building a school with a foundation in PLC is hard work. It is not a one and done, but rather a process that should be reviewed and added to each year. Collaborating begins with prioritizing a common shared time for teams to work together. Once that time has been set aside then teachers must be conscious of that time and how to use it. While at the Solution Tree Conference, Luis Cruz did a session on collaborating versus co-blab-orating. The session centered around a commitment to set and respect norms that allows for the PLC time to be protected from venting and will focus on the four questions centered around student learning.
When a school starts working on implementing and restructuring the school to be a PLC school it can be daunting. I was given the advice that when I read Richard DuFour’s articles and books on PLCs to remember he wrote most of those books after several years of practice. Starting out, we should not expect to be experts in the world of Professional Learning Communities.
Writing SMART goals may not happen the first year, but is an important part of the foundational work. Creating a culture of collaboration and establishing norms is the basis in which everything else is built. Once those are strongly established, then collaborative teams can begin with goals. Start small and define two to three SMART goals for the year. From there the teams can begin writing common formative assessments. Begin with one a unit, then each year add a new one. After a few years this will organically grow to multiple common formative assessments to track student achievement throughout the school year.
Do You PLC?
So, does your school PLC? I am by no means an expert. I am learning through my mistakes and will continue to grow with the guidance of others. The biggest piece of advice that I can give is be willing to commit 100% to this new structuring of schools. It will be hard work and will demand all hands on deck, but it is well worth it. Professional Learning Communities is not an initiative. Our society is changing, and therefore, so must education.