Saturday / April 13

Where Are We Going? 4 Steps to Empower Your Professional Learning Community

Imagine being asked to embark on a trip. You’re excited, of course, but you also need details. Where are we headed? How will we get there? How will I know I’ve arrived? If the guide refused to answer, would you go? Unless you are quite the adventurer, the answer is probably no. Yet some professional learning communities miss this important step. Instead of a clear destination in mind, members are left to map the learning journey on their own. Little wonder that not everyone arrives.

The question, “Where are we going?” is the launching point for a PLC+ team. This question is designed to drive decisions about the learning path we blaze. In doing so, PLC+ teams ensure that no member is left behind. The best journeys, we all know from experience, are those completed in the company of trusted fellow travelers.

Start the Learning Journey with the Destination in Mind

Educator and leader Stephen Covey shown a light on this abiding principle: “Begin with the end in mind.” When it comes to teaching, the content standards for the grade or subject are the destination. When new standards were constructed earlier this decade, educators did something they hadn’t done in a long time: they deconstructed standards to more fully understand the learning demands. But several years later, this practice is fading. Experienced educators believe they now “know” the standards, and new educators can fall victim to the assumption that they possess this knowledge. Even experienced teams can experience a drift from the original intentions of the standards.

Combat drift by re-calibrating expectations so that they align with the standards. Take the time as a PLC+ team to deconstruct using a simple process:

  • Underline the operational nouns and noun phrases in the standards —these are the concepts students should learn.
  • Circle the operational verbs in the standards —these are the skills students should learn.

Here’s an example of one standard that has been analyzed in this way:

ELA.RI.3.2: Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.
ED: Circle the words Determine, recount, and explain. This art can also be pulled from p. 40 of The PLC+ Playbook.

Learning Progressions Map the Learning Journey

By noting the skills and the concepts required for mastery of the standards being taught, the PLC+ team can now move into the second step: designing learning progressions.

Learning progressions are the carefully sequenced building blocks of a unit of study (Popham, 2008). They equip the team with a way to identify important sub-skills and enabling knowledge students will need to access the standard. In addition, the learning progression delineates a logical order for acquiring and mastering the content. The result is a PLC+ team equipped with a road map for the journey. These discussion questions aid teams in designing the learning progression (Fisher et al., 2020, p. 39):

  • What prior knowledge is necessary for students to successfully engage in this learning?
  • What skills and concepts did the students need to master in prior standards?
  • What learning experiences must they have to successfully build their prior learning and background knowledge?
  • What key vocabulary is explicit or implicit within the standard?
  • What scaffolding is necessary for all learners to successfully engage in this learning?
  • What do we know about students that can make these learning experiences more meaningful?

Once designed, PLC+ teams turn their attention to developing daily learning intentions such that the efforts of the teacher and the students are fully aligned.

Daily Learning Intentions Mark the Path

Daily learning intentions address the question present in every learner’s mind: What am I supposed to be learning? Communication of learning intentions is a foundational component of teacher clarity, itself a strong influencer on student learning. Too often, learners misconstrue daily lessons as a string of unrelated activities. Explicit daily learning intentions ensure that students are able to answer their question about their learning.

Daily learning intentions consist of three elements: the content, language, and social purposes. While the content demand is derived from the standard, the language demand is a closer interrogation of the literacies they will utilize during the lesson. These literacies include reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing. Language purpose is especially helpful for those learning English as a subsequent language. The social demand articulates the cooperative, prosocial, and communication skills and dispositions needed. For example, the third grade teacher working on the standard listened above might say:

Today we’re going find those key details our author has described in the informational book we’ve been reading. To do so, you’ll be rereading the article with your table group, and making a list of those details you agree are important. Your group discussion will be stronger if you listen carefully to one another, and ask good questions when you don’t agree with them.

PLC+ teams craft daily learning intentions together, and observe the learning of their students as they use them. Check-ins with students about the learning intentions shed light on what they do and don’t understand. These insights in turn provide the team with the information they need to make mid-course corrections throughout the unit.

Success Throughout the Journey

Success builds incrementally throughout a trip, and shouldn’t be saved solely for the end. In the same way, we want teachers and their students to possess a means to measure their daily accomplishments. Success criteria bring into sharp focus the purpose for learning in the eyes of the teacher; thus improving teacher clarity. Importantly, PLC+ teams use success criteria as a means to gauge progress of student learning. The success criteria can be at the lesson, learning progression, or unit levels. A success criterion for the lesson described earlier might read, “I can explain details such as who, what, when, where, and why from a text.” Some success criteria extend across multiple units. For instance, this criterion might guide student discussion: “I can listen carefully to others. I know how to disagree, and to ask good questions, in ways that help our learning.”

Start the Learning Journey the Right Way

A successful trip begins with good planning and a clear vision of the destination. Leverage the collective strength of colleagues working as a PLC+ team to ensure that the learning journey starts strong.

Popham, W.J. (2010). Everything school leaders need to know about assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He has published many books with Corwin, including PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design, The Teacher Clarity Gradebook, Grades K-12, and Engagement by Design: Creating Learning Environments Where Students Thrive. You can find his other published works with Corwin here.

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