I’ve been writing a lot about professional learning communities lately, haven’t I? I guess that’s because no single group of people mean more to me professionally than the colleagues that I work with on a regular basis at school. They consistently leave me energized and willing to work harder.
That’s why I’m always blown away by the constant criticism that PLCs take from teachers. In almost every conversation that I have with educators about professional learning communities, I hear nothing but sarcasm and scorn. "PLCs," they’ll say, "We’re doing those. What a waste of time!"
Their mockery has left me wondering whether PLCs will ever be a plausible reform strategy if they are left to the choice of teachers. From the sounds of it, the majority of my peers would pitch the concept if they had the chance.
That’s why something that my colleague Nancy Flanagan—who is the mind behind Teacher in a Strange Land—-said caught my attention this week. She mentioned that the DuFours, who are widely recognized as experts in establishing PLCs, believe that the work of learning teams must be mandated in order to be implemented:
"Personally, I think DuFour says the work must be mandated because he’s had experience with letting folks choose. I also think compelling, charismatic administrators (as he must have been) have a far greater chance of getting required PLCs up and running effectively."
I think this conversation about choice or mandate in PLC implementation is pretty essential because so few people working in professional development positions at the district or state level understand that the true value in collaborative teams rests in the process rather than a defined product.
Think about how school reform has always been done: A program is identified by someone influential. It is adopted for everyone by someone else influential. Then the PD wheels start a’rollin. Books are purchased, sessions are scheduled, documents are created—all with good intent: To support teachers who will be working hard to make changes in their instructional practice.
The same model holds true with PLCs: PD providers–and those responsible for selecting PD for teachers—believe that they are helping teams and teachers when they provide massive amounts of structure for developing learning teams.
By telling you what to do in your meetings, you don’t have to think that process through on your own. By creating common assessments at the district level, teachers are saved from having to spend time doing it on their own. By giving you specific tasks and templates, the "powers that be" are making your work easier.
And they’re missing the point completely!
You see, the real power in collaborative teaming rests in the conversations that teachers have when they are working to wrestle with these very issues—what should we be teaching? How will we know if students have learned? What does a good assessment look like?
The process of coming to resolution around these issues leads to incredible reflection and growth—which is the only real "product" that matters in a PLC. Overemphasizing other products—like defined meeting structures/notes, specific tasks that teams must complete, specific tests that must be given—might result in a product that makes decision-makers happy, but the process—which is far more important—is lost.
So what should those who are working to restructure schools at learning teams mandate?
DuFour’s central mandates are that all teams will meet regularly, develop 4 common assessments for the year and then look at the results of those assessments.
And with teachers/teams/schools that are hesitant about professional learning teams, that’s all I’d ever require to begin with. It’s approachable and will start the processes that will lead to increased student learning in any school.