Sunday / July 21

Impact vs. Just Existing PLCs

Are your PLCs having their best possible impact? Are they passionate and inspired? What actions and evidence would you look for?

PLC impact cannot be measured by simply the presence of core characteristics: goal setting, shared values, collaborative culture, and positive relationships between staff. These PLC traits have been linked as much to 36% of the variance in quality classroom pedagogy and 85% variance in achievement (Vescio, 2008). While important precursors to unlocking a PLCs potential impact, true impact must be measured by how collaborative actions increase student learning.

Do some of your PLCs display these core characteristics yet don’t have this type of impact on student learning?

Beliefs about teaching and learning have something to do with it.

Preconceived theories impact PLCs

In Visible Learning, Professor John Hattie reminds us that teachers possess preconceived ‘theories of practice, for accomplishing teaching outcomes with the resources they have.’ He notes that as teaching experience increases, these theories become more etched in stone as being the best way to do things (Hattie, 2011).

For PLCs, this is an important point to consider, as collectively, these pre-established notions or ‘horizons of observations,’ (Little, 2003) (Source cited here and differently above) can limit the solutions teacher teams see as possibilities for adjusting practices to improve student learning.

Hattie speaks of mind frames, or ways of thinking, that when developed, cultivated, and demonstrated through actions, greatly increase teachers’ and leaders’ opportunities to best impact student learning.

First personal plural mind frames for PLCs:


    • Are Evaluators
    • Are Change Agents
    • Focus on learning not teaching
    • See assessment as feedback to us
    • Engage in dialogue not monologue
    • Enjoy challenge(s)
    • Develop positive relationships
    • Use a shared language of learning
    • See learning as hard work!

We are Change Agents

For PLCs to become a collective group of change agents, they must have both a willingness and ability to make necessary teaching adjustments to best meet student learning needs. They never settle for using predetermined instructional strategies or coming up with something to complete a PLC task or process — they innovate!

Innovating doesn’t mean the finding latest or greatest trending idea in education.  It could also mean going back to strategies and materials that worked in the past that had been shelved or tossed for a new fad. Here, veteran teacher experience may be cultivated and viewed more as wise vs. outdated.  By being a collective group of change agents, autonomy and freedom take a back seat to collaboratively determining the best ways to reach students.

Structured freedom

To develop as change agents, teacher teams need to be malleable when experimenting with innovative teaching methods and approaches. They must be afforded a certain amount of structured freedom when searching for ideas when students are not grasping key concepts.

When PLCs are overly concerned with rigid processes and protocols, they focus less on the substance of their collaborative discussions and become too wrapped up in completing PLC tasks. This significantly diminishes their ability to search for the best possible solutions which promotes more autonomy and leads to less innovation.

But how are they held accountable?

Accountability is derived from positive interdependence. Structured freedom should not ever allow PLC members to be autonomous from each other. As teachers become more committed to consistently reporting back to their team what they, as teachers, have learned from trying new things, collective mind frames are developed. This sharing is always focused on the impact on student learning—not how they feel about their teaching. In doing so, their collective capacity for increasing adult knowledge by creating and discovering innovative strategies in PLCs is augmented.

We dialogue about student learning—not monologue about teaching

Dialogue, opposed to monologue, above all else involves listening. In PLCs this means teachers truly listening to their peer’s ideas and inferences about how strategies are impacting student learning. In doing so, we become better learners.

Far too often in collaborative settings, the opposite of talking is waiting to do so. Most often, waiting to share what strategies I used or what I did as a teacher — not about what the students did or how my actions impacted them.  A status report session often ensues where one after another in a table-go-round, adults tell what they did (or will do) for addressing this week’s or this unit’s objectives.

Authentic protocols for structuring their dialogue, can lead to PLCs better listening to and questioning each other about what we are seeing in student learning. A protocol such as ‘We will consistently ask for clarification regarding evidence of student learning,’ trumps by a country mile a norm like ‘we will respect the speaker.’

Example: In PLC, a teacher shares: “I tried something new this week—I really liked it.” An expected response would be similar to: “Sounds good Dave, share specifically what evidence of learning you looked for towards our learning objectives?”

Our reactions should not be defensive or feel our competence is being questioned. The team makes it clear up front, that by doing this we make sure we are always focusing our discussions around the impact of what we did as teachers on the student’s learning.

This evidence might include student work samples, but also student voice. Perhaps what certain students were articulating verbally in their answers and their processing. Collective dialogue from intentionally sharing evidence in what students are expressing verbally about their learning becomes a form of assessment feedback for the teachers providing valuable clues for how specific students are making connections in their learning.

By collectively developing ways of thinking around the Visible Learning mind frames, schools can create passionate and inspired PLCs whose consistent actions best impact teaching and learning.



Hattie, John A. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Little, J. W. “Inside teacher community: Representations of classroom practice.”

Teachers College Record, 105, no. 6 (2003): 913–945.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. “A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning.” Teaching and Teacher Education, 24 (2008):80-91.

Dave Nagel is presenting at the 2014 International Visible Learning Conference on Friday, July 18th at 10:30am. To register for the conference, please click here.

Written by

Dave Nagel is an international educational consultant and researcher. His educational career started as a middle school science and high school biology teacher. His administrative experiences involved being a middle school assistant principal, high school associate principal, and director of extended day and credit recovery programs. In his former district, Dave was instrumental in implementing power standards and performance assessments. He was honored numerous times as a “Senior Choice” winner, with graduating seniors selecting him as someone who dramatically affected their life in a positive way.

Dave has been a national and international presenter and consultant to schools for over 10 years. Using his experience and expertise, he has presented and helped schools, from pre-K through Grade 12, implement effective practices leading to gains in student achievement. His main focus when working with schools has revolved around assessment, instruction, leadership, and effective collaboration. He has worked specifically with schools in implementing the following topics: prioritizing standards, common formative assessments, building authentic performance tasks, effective use of scoring guides, data teams, rigorous curriculum design, and effective grading practices.

Dave is the author of Effective Grading Practices for Secondary Teachers.

Latest comment

  • Dave hits the nail on the head when he says, “a PLCs potential impact, true impact must be measured by how collaborative actions increase student learning.” That is the REAL bottom line in EVERYTHING we do, and it is great to see PLC’s discussed in that perspective. Nicely done, sir!

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