PLC Development- “Where are we?” and “What’s our next step?”

I have had several opportunities in the last few weeks to observe and coach PLC sessions. In most cases I was looking to identify where the PLC was functioning in a developmental process and then provide suggestions, payoffs, and encouragement for movement to a stronger learning system, continuously increasing its positive impact on student achievement.

Three “big ideas” from the writing of Dufour can serve as a guideline. (earlier blog)

Professional Learning Communities judge their effectiveness on a basis of results. Working together to improve student achievement becomes the routine work of everyone in the school. Every teacher-team participates in an ongoing process of identifying the current level of student achievement, establishing a goal to improve the current level, working together to achieve that goal, and providing periodic evidence of progress. (DuFour)

My observations suggest that most PLCs have this as their starting point. Some are working from common state or district assessments. Others started their work as a PLC designing common assessments for their course.

Many PLC conversations are increasing teachers’ focus on reaching agreed upon student outcomes with common assessment criteria. This focus leads to discussions of teaching and pacing which is  present in most PLCs  I observed. Many of these conversations are built upon data from assessment results examined in the PLC.

The next step for many of the PLCs I’m observing would be the addition of pre-assessments and goal setting. At the start of teaching this standard, where are students in their readiness? Have any already learned it? Grouping students based on their pre-assessments, what learning outcome goals should we set for each group? This process sets the stage for the next big idea.

The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift– from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning– has profound implications for schools.  (DuFour)

I believe that bringing students’ work to the PLC meetings rather than numerical data helps the conversation on learning. A team of teachers looking at student math assessments were grouping students based on assessment scores of 4, 3 or 2. Since they had the students’ assessment papers I encouraged   them to study the 2 scores for similarities and differences. They formed three groups: students who did not understand the concept, students who understood and made accuracy mistakes, students who understood but lacked basic computation skills to be successful.

The largest group was students with accuracy mistakes. This discovery led to a discussion and then design of instructional activities that would increase student accuracy. They created a list of accuracy strategies to review with students and a set of practice activities where students identified which accuracy strategies they were using. On the next assessment, students would record on the assessment the accuracy strategies used.  A different set of learning tasks were selected for students needing to build basic computational skills as well as students who needed re-teaching on the initial standard.

PLCs identifying grouping of students around specific learning goals and needs can develop the third big idea.

Educators who are building a professional learning community recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture.   (DuFour)

In an earlier blog,  I explored how PLCs develop from individuals who attend meetings to franchises to real TEAMs. As a team, teachers take shared responsibility for all students served by the PLC. Most of the PLCs I have been observing are at the stage of franchise. Teachers develop shared outcomes and assessments. They share possible instructional and learning activities. Then teaching the standard as they decide and sharing the results they got with teammates. I have noticed that when teachers have student work samples at the PLC, the analysis and exploration of strategies leads to increased shared ownership of learning results.

School leaders and coaches who are facilitating PLCs should consider where the members are in the development of a PLC culture and consider ways to take the next step.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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