This month we sat down with Karl Clauset, co-author of Schools Can Change and Schoolwide Action Research for Professional Learning Communities, to talk about how professional learning models have changed and new ways to promote teacher collaboration.
Q: In your work with school leadership teams to develop learning communities, what changes have you seen in teacher collaboration over the last 5 years?
A: The landscape for teacher collaboration has changed enormously since I started working with Carlene Murphy, the founder of the Whole Faculty Study Groups model of teacher collaboration, in the 1990s. Three key changes I see are (1) more acceptance that teacher collaboration is important, (2) greater concern about impact, and (3) a shift toward co-constructed professional learning.
More acceptance that teacher collaboration is important
Most teacher leaders, principals, and district leaders now see teacher collaboration as an essential strategy to help teachers improve their practice and strengthen student learning. Many schools have regular opportunities for teachers to work together collaboratively as part of the teachers’ work week and a number of states now require that schools provide time for professional learning communities (PLCs) to meet.
Greater concern about impact
As more schools have PLCs and districts are investing resources to support them, the key question is “What impact are PLCs having on teacher expertise and student learning? John Hattie, in his 2015 monograph on building teacher expertise*, argues for shifting the narrative for improving student achievement from “fixing the teacher” to ensuring that PLCs build collaborative expertise. The parallel concern for knowing the impact of instruction on student learning has led to a greater emphasis on PLCs using common formative assessments to guide their own learning and their interventions in classrooms.
Shift toward co-constructed professional learning
For many years the dominant model for teacher learning was “fixing the teacher” through top-down professional development, exemplified by “sit and get” workshops and superficial workshop evaluations. In this approach, PLCs were a vehicle for teachers to process learning from workshops, practice strategies, and plan how to use strategies in their classrooms. Now, the emphasis has shifted to demand-driven, co-constructed professional learning, where PLC members are empowered to determine what they need to learn and do to build their collaborative expertise. The work teachers are doing in their PLCs drives their professional learning plans.
Q: What are some challenges with the PLC model that you’ve seen in your work?
A: Sadly, some of the challenges I see in the PLC model are the same ones I’ve seen for years – uneven quality, uneven leadership, and lack of reflection and documentation.
Uneven quality of PLCs within and across schools and districts
There are very few schools that have 100% high-performing PLCs. where all staff are engaged in highly effective collaborative teams having significant impact on staff and student performance. The goal is continuous improvement through inquiry, learning, action, and reflection at both the whole school level and in each individual team. In Schools Can Change, we showed that vision, culture, and trust influence whether PLCs are seen as innovative and creative change creators or as guardians of the status quo.
Uneven leadership at the school and district levels
PLCs in schools suffer both from benign neglect and micro-managing. It is not enough just to find time for PLCs to meet. Expecting every PLC to do the same proscribed tasks at every meeting is no better. Principals can’t sustain highly effective PLCs if they aren’t encouraged, supported and rewarded by district leaders. Why don’t we insist that every leader expect, practice, and support effective collaboration? I am still struck in 2016 by how few preparation programs for teacher, school, and district leaders even mention PLCs.
Lack of reflection and documentation
A continual concern is the difficulty in getting PLCs to regularly reflect on and document their work on behalf of their students. This isn’t a PLC problem, it’s a school culture problem. Teachers aren’t expected, prepared, or supported to keep notes about how a lesson went or what impact an instructional strategy they used had on specific students; nor are they expected to, or able to, take time at the end of a class or the day to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what to do differently tomorrow. So when we ask PLCs to do these things, teachers resist. And leaders, who often don’t document the impact of their actions and don’t take time to reflect, can’t speak to the positive value of these practices.
Q: What are some ways that PLCs can be more effective?
A: I am currently working with fellow Corwin author consultants Dave Nagel and B.R. Jones on a new book about resetting PLCs to be more effective. Our central premise is that resetting the expectations for adult and student learning in PLCs and paying attention to both process and outcomes can take existing PLCs to new levels of performance.
Resetting the expectations for adult and student learning in PLCs
Ensure that every PLCs in every school has a relentless focus on learning (adults first—then students): Our expectations are high – teachers develop mastery in the instructional strategies they use with students to address student learning needs and every student achieves at least a year’s growth in learning.
Focus the work of individual PLCs so that Less is More: Too often PLCs are expected to focus on all of the curriculum they teach, and at the middle and high school level, on all of their classes. This is unrealistic and a recipe for frustration. I always tell PLCs and leaders to focus the work of each PLC on one learning challenge or content standard at a time and for each teacher on one class or group of students at a time. By narrowing the focus, PLC members can develop more mastery in what they teach, how they assess, and how they give feedback to students and they can better understand what their students are thinking and doing
Paying attention to both process and outcomes
In each PLC, process is how members work together and what they do together. High functioning PLCs build relational trust, create common challenges to guide their work, apply common formative assessments, use authentic protocols to have deep conversations about their learning and their students’ learning, and plan and implement interventions to increase student learning. They work together in a genuinely cooperative and mutually dependent manner and energize and inspire each other.
PLCs don’t function like this on day 1. It is a transformational journey over time guided and supported by teacher leaders, school leaders, and district leaders. At the school and district levels, leaders pay attention to their processes for communicating the vision, purpose, and expectations for PLCs, resetting and supporting PLCs, and facilitating cross-PLC learning. Key to supporting PLCs is for school leaders to provide teams with structured freedom so that there are clear guidelines and expectations and available resources but teams have the freedom to define their common challenges and plan how to accomplish their goals.
Strong process supports strong outcomes. The relentless focus on learning for adults and students, using protocols to listen to student voices and examine deeply student work and the data from common assessments, enables PLCs to monitor in real time the impact of their growing expertise on learning for each of their students.
*John Hattie (2015): What Works Best in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise, London: Pearson at https://www.pearson.com/content/dam/corporate/global/pearson-dot-com/files/hattie/150526_ExpertiseWEB_V1.pdf
Karl will be co-presenting “Reset PLCs: Shifting the Narrative to Increase Impact” with B.R. Jones at the 2016 Annual Visible Learning Conference in Washington, D.C.