We have been advocates for, and practitioners of, professional learning communities for many years. We have seen all kinds of things called a “professional learning community”—from book discussions to staff meetings to deep conversations about student’s learning. In fact, we have categorized our experiences with what people call “professional learning communities” into four areas based on whether or not the example was good and whether or not the idea was good:
Bad examples of bad ideas.
For example, it’s a bad idea to call a staff meeting a professional learning community and we have seen some really bad staff meetings, with participants totally disengaged. In one particularly memorable meeting, the principal ate donuts and then fell asleep while a person from the district office reviewed the results of the state test.
Good examples of bad ideas.
Again, we think it’s a bad idea to call every meeting a professional learning community. But we’ve been to some pretty good staff meetings in which important decisions were presented, discussed, and problems were solved. However, that doesn’t make it a professional learning community.
Bad examples of good ideas.
It’s a better idea for teams of teachers to meet and examine student work as part of a larger system that is being built. But we’ve attended meetings in which people were mean to each other, and other meetings that were so superficial that no changes were enacted.
Good example of a good idea.
Thankfully, we have also experienced amazing discussions with colleagues focused on the impact that we have on student learning. Further, decisions are made about how we each might take action such that all students are making progress. These are more likely to take place situations in schools and districts that value collaboration, inquiry, and reflection.
To date, our work has focused on helping more schools get to the “good example of a good idea” place. But we have a confession to make. We feel guilty when we encourage groups to talk about instruction and the impact of specific teacher moves on student learning. The way we were taught about professional learning communities, teams did not talk about instruction or their own learning. They focused on what students were learning, how they would know, and what they would do if students did not learn. That’s powerful, but sometimes not enough. Sometimes, teams need time to discuss the best evidence they can find to impact student learning before they begin planning lessons.
For example, we observed a group of teachers talking about the results of their reading instruction. They knew what students were supposed to learn, and confronted the evidence that their students did not learn it. They were not having the impact that they hoped. But they never discussed the ways in which they would teach students. As it turns out, several of them had been using round robin reading in an attempt to build fluency. Imagine instead if they had discussed their ideas for instruction in advance and learned that this approach is ineffective at best and likely harmful (Eldredge, Reutzel, & Hollingsworth, 1996). Yet because they had been discouraged from discussing instructional moves and the impact of those moves on students’ learning, students suffered from the perpetuation of an ineffective instructional approach.
Importantly, we do not believe that teams of teachers should spend all of their time talking about teaching. The majority of the conversation should focus on learning. But sharing ideas about what is likely to ensure learning, and then establishing ways to know if it works, strengthens the efforts of the team. And doing so also builds their collective efficacy, which reinforces team members and is likely to result in even better learning for students (Donohoo, 2017).
Based on these experiences, and on the research on teaching and learning, we proposed a new structure for professional learning communities. We honor the work of scholars and practitioners who have gone before us, such as Shirley Hord, Rick and Becky DuFour, and Anthony Bryk, and further offer that teams can focus their discussions using the following questions (Fisher, Frey, Almarode, Flories, & Nagel, 2019a):
- Where are we going?
- Where are we now?
- How do we move learning forward?
- What did we learn today?
- Who benefited from our efforts, and who did not?
The question about moving learning forward is important to us. We believe that teams should talk about their best evidence for accelerating learning before students fail and need intervention. Again, this is not the only focus of the professional learning community, but it is something that has been missing in a lot of conversations.
There are a number of additional features in the PLC+ framework, including an explicit focus on equity and expectations as well as building collective teacher efficacy, that are unique and that reflect the lessons learned after several decades of evidence and experience. In future blog posts, we will explore these new aspects that are baked into the Corwin PLC+ framework. For now, we hope you’ll consider the ways in which you can move learning forward, and that you don’t feel the need to do so alone. We offer the following beliefs that serve as our foundation and our reasoning for developing, testing, and sharing the PLC+ framework:
- Student learning is the focus.
- Sustained improvement requires a collective effort.
- We need to stick to what the data tell us.
- We will accept the difficult facts and act on them.
- We need each other to truly address the needs of all our students
We believe that each of these are conditions necessary to ensure deep learning for students. And we believe that teachers need systems to implement these beliefs. The result is the PLC+ framework.
Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective efficacy: How educators’ beliefs impact student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Eldredge, J. L., Reutzel, D. R., & Hollingsworth, P. M. (1996). Comparing the effectiveness of two oral reading practices: Round-robin reading and the shared book experience. Journal of Literacy Research, 28, 201-225.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., Almarode, J., Flories, K., & Nagel, D. (2019a). PLC+: Better decisions and greater impact by design. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., Almarode, J., Flories, K., & Nagel, D. (2019a). The PLC+ playbook: A hands-on guide to collectively improving student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.