Professional Learning Communities at Work – Day 1
At the October 28 district-wide PD day we introduced the whole idea of PLCs, or Professional Learning Communities. During the morning training that day all schools conducted a three hour training answering the basic questions “What does a PLC look like?” and “How should a PLC function?” Then in the afternoon teachers were divided into PLCs to begin walking through the new standards documents as they learned how the Revised Blooms’ Taxonomy (RBT) aligns with the new NC Essential Standards.
This week a team of over 40 teachers, administrators, and instructional coaches are attending a two-day training in Raleigh entitled Professional Learning Communities at Work: Bringing the Big Ideas to Life, led by Dr. Rick and Becky Dufour (the training is Wednesday, December 14 and Thursday, December 15). The next several blog posts will serve as summaries of our work there, as well as how this will impact our work here in Pitt County Schools. If you want to follow live updates of the training I’ll be tweeting highlights each day.
Wednesday’s sessions focused on addressing this issue of “What does a PLC look like?” and then began laying the groundwork for “How do we do that here?” Before I give a definition of what a PLC is, however, let’s take a moment to talk about what a PLC is not. When educators hear the term PLC a broad variety of mental images come to mind – and many are not correct. Most schools in Pitt County will report they have PLCs at their schools, but when asked to describe their “PLC” the answers range from what is essentially a team meeting covering the latest information from the previous SIT meeting, planning time to discuss the upcoming parent curriculum night, to something more along the lines of a book study. While these things are not in-and-of-themselves bad things (and they are needed in order to ensure a school functions effectively), they are not a PLC.
PLCs are not a program or event, they are not a team meeting, nor are they something that is short-term. PLCs are an “on-going process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” They operate under “the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous, job-embedded learning for educators.”
As we transition into the new NCSCOS (the Common Core & Essential Standards), PCS has invested a lot of time and money into using PLCs as a key component to school-improvement. PLCs will form the backbone of professional development in the new standards for the next several years, so it’s important that we have a firm understanding of what that means both theoretically and practically. As our work on the district-wide PD days has demonstrated, much of our work learning and applying the new standards will happen in PLCs.
Some of the Theory
PLCs will need to operate in what Marzano and Waters refer to as “defined autonomy” – meaning that teachers will have freedom to act within clearly articulated boundaries. These boundaries should be established by building and district-level administrators and may include expectations such as how often PLCs meet, deadlines for creation of common assessments, etc. But perhaps the most important “theory” line for us to understand in regards to PLCs is that PLCs “accept learning” (as opposed to “covering” or “teaching”) “as the fundamental purpose of school”, meaning that if students aren’t learning educators must answer the question “Why not?”, even if the answer to that question indicates a deficiency on the side of the teacher (which then leads to teachers working together to grow out of that deficiency). Educators who embrace this principle (or one of several “big ideas”) are “committed to working together to achieve the collective purpose [by] cultivating a collaborative culture” and assessing teachers’ (both individually and collectively) “effectiveness on the basis of results rather than intentions.”
This all boils down to one simply statement shared by the Dufours during the training: “Professional learning communities always attempt to answer critical questions by BUILDING SHARED KNOWLEDGE – engaging in collective inquiry – LEARNING TOGETHER.” Remember our earlier definition? PLCs are an “on-going process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” They operate under “the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous, job-embedded learning for educators.”
Now all that theory is great, but it still begs the question, “What does this look like for me?” So let’s get practical!
Every teacher in the district will be involved in a PLC, and the make-up of that PLC may be content or grade level focused, or perhaps it could address vertical articulation from grade to grade. But the point is that educators in our district will continue investing in themselves and each other through the PLC process. PLCs will meet not just this year, but throughout the coming years to answer the question (by examining the standards):
- What are the essential learning outcomes students need to master by the time they complete this grade/course?
- How will I know they have mastered these learning outcomes?
- What common formative assessments can we as teachers develop so we can track not only student growth but also teacher effectiveness (not for evaluation sake, but for the purpose of bettering our instruction so students achieve more)?
- What do these common formative assessments tell me and my colleagues about where students are weak and strong? What do they tell me I need to improve on as a teacher?
- What do I need to address these deficits?
- How can I use my strengths to help other teachers who may be weak where I am strong?
Wow! That’s a lot of stuff to cover – much more than I can address in just one blog post; which means the answers will be given over multiple posts, but also in trainings offered over the next several months throughout the district.
Check back tomorrow for more on what our team is learning from the Dufours!