Pushing Back on Organizing PLCs. . .

Scott McLeod—who writes extensively about school leadership over at Dangerously Irrelevant, a must-read blog for anyone involved in education—stopped by my recent post about organizing professional learning teams in a PLC and pushed against my thinking a bit.

He wrote:

Bill, I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one. The point of a "learning team" of teachers should be to benefit students first, not the teachers themselves. Yes, I want teachers to benefit, but I want students to benefit more.

So… if you accept this premise, then I think you have to go with a PLC made up of role-alike teachers who together can create common assessments, track student learning outcomes, and adjust their instruction accordingly (particularly for the benefit of struggling learners).

In many ways, Scott’s ideas about learning teams aren’t far from my own.  I agree that role-alike groups are the best starting point for teachers and schools new to teaming primarily because they are the most efficient forum for accomplishing the kinds of tasks—creating common assessments, tracking learning outcomes, adjusting instruction—that can make a difference for kids.

But my argument is that role-alike groups aren’t the only organizational strategy that allows for this kind of work to be done.

Let me give you an example:  Not long ago, I had the chance to cover the sixth grade band class for my friend and colleague Bobby Hinson.  While conducting (and who can resist waving the baton around a bit?), I noticed that several of the songs that Bobby was introducing to his kids had themes based in the history that I’m responsible for teaching to my kids

In particular, one song was about Romulus and Remus—the mythological founders of the city of Rome.  What made this song powerful to me as a social studies teacher was that its tone grew in intensity over time, coming to a crescendo and then ending abruptly.  This neatly mirrors the story of Romulus and Remus, two brothers who built the Italian capital city together and then fought to the death over what it should be named. 

Now, what if Bobby and I decided that we wanted to pair together in a learning team to study the impact that music centered on historical events had on student learning? 

Couldn’t we identify objectives from the history curriculum—Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Cold War, World War I and II—select songs and have the students analyze how the composers used tone, beat, pitch, and melodies (am I using the right terms here, Nancy?) to convey messages to listeners?

And then, couldn’t we compare the common assessment results of students who explored history through music to the results of students who didn’t to draw conclusions about music as an instructional strategy?  Wouldn’t that kind of work—pairing two teachers with seemingly incompatible roles—be just as productive as the work that I do every day with the teachers on my language arts and social studies team?

Don’t get me wrong:  I realize that the kind of learning team that I’m describing here isn’t for every teacher in a professional learning community.  Pulling off such a project would take teachers who were incredibly motivated—and who had the kind of personal and professional time to invest in working through ambiguity to find meaning.

I also realize that school leaders would have to carefully monitor the work of self-selected teams to be sure that outcomes were benefiting students instead of just making teachers happy.   

All that I’m asking is that principals consider differentiating the structure of professional learning teams for the small handful of creative and accomplished teachers who want to invent something new in their buildings. 

Like an over reliance on any one instructional strategy in the classroom, a rigid commitment to any one team organizational strategy in a PLC is bound to come up short for some learners. 

Does this make any sense? 


  1. Gregory Louie

    Hi Bill,
    Of course, it makes sense. It is much closer to the kind of interdisciplinary teamwork that happens in the real “real” world.
    It just doesn’t make any sense in a politically constructed world in which “learning” is focused on performance on “high-stakes” tests. That artificial construct “motivates” principals, teachers, PLCs to focus in the wrong direction.
    Here is a general principle to consider …. A tool, no matter how powerful, only serves to more effectively reach a goal. If the goal is wrong, the tool (in this case, PLCs) simply accelerates reaching the wrong goal.
    My guess is that your passion for history coupled with your enthusiasm drives your two-person PLC to innovate.
    There is a larger lesson here about passion that is so hard to capture in high stakes testing. I would argue that implicit in your teaching goal is the desire to pass down your passion for the stories of history and to provide examples of how a historian thinks as they analyze history.
    Isn’t that close to the heart of what it means to be a teacher – to leave behind a legacy of one’s passion and the methods of one’s chosen field.
    In your opinion, does the high stakes testing get anywhere near assessing that kind of passion or habit of mind?
    Now if a principal and the teaching staff cannot see how their passion helps students perform better on the tests, what structural reason do they have to create such passion-driven PLCs?
    As long “high-stakes” multiple-choice testing dominates the thinking at a school, they will naturally value “expedients” and focus on what they think is required of them. It is fear that de-motivates innovation.
    On the other hand, if administrators create an environment where an individual teacher’s passion and expertise is valued over the tests, than I do believe that your type of passion-driven PLC would dominate.

  2. David Cohen

    Bill, one other thing I’d add is that context is everything. I’m in a school where individuals and departments are generally isolated. We’ve taken tentative steps towards PLC practices and culture shift, but we have a looooong way to go. At this phase, I think we need flexibility, we need to get people on board, used to the idea, and jazzed about the potential to do more for our students. Given choice, I think most people will choose something with use and value anyway, and we know that adult learners, like children, thrive when given more choice. If we get the culture shift going, then I think an administrator has more opportunities to highlight the successes of certain groups and put a healthy kind of pressure on everyone to improve with each year. But, in schools where PLCs are well-established and their value already understood, it might be possible to push people out of their comfort zone a bit more. Does that make sense?

  3. Deanna

    Perfect example of a different sort of PLC and the sorta thing that I’m looking at as a librarian working with core content and elective teachers!

  4. Nancy

    Yes Bill, this does make sense! And I couldn’t agree with you more! The stringent, structure that has been placed on many PLC’s defeats many of the fundamentals principles that surround PLC’s.