Imagine if a medical review board never talked about surgery. Instead, the doctors confined their discussion to the results of the operation, without ever asking whether the procedure itself was properly executed. Most of us would rightly question whether the review board could be effective when they failed to ask the right question. Yet in many professional learning communities (PLC), instruction is never discussed. While the student achievement results are queried, the unstated assumption is that the instruction itself was above reproach. This blind spot–ignoring instruction—leads to the perpetuation of ineffective teaching techniques that limit student learning.
Professional learning communities were first proposed nearly five decades ago, and have accomplished much since then. But educators have experienced limitations when protocols for PLCs restrain teachers from talking about the fundamentals of practice. Therefore, we have placed our third essential question at the heart of the PLC+ framework: How do we move learning forward?
There’s an old joke (not a funny one) that teaching is the second oldest private profession. In the past, teachers didn’t open up their classrooms to colleagues. It reflected expectations of the era, namely, that I’ll mind my business and you’ll mind yours. But there also weren’t many mechanisms for examining each other’s teaching. The PLC+ framework seeks to open up our classroom practices to one another to improve student learning. Let’s turn a spotlight on three tools for doing so: assignment analysis, learning walks, and microteaching.
We often say that we hold high academic expectations for our students, but how do we really know? Our assignments speak volumes about our expectations, and they are hiding in plain sight. Education Trust has performed analyses on over 4000 assignments in mathematics, English, social studies, and science, to examine the expectations of teachers (learn more about their findings at https://edtrust.org/resource/classroomassignments/). The organization’s rationale for doing so is that assignments reflect what teachers expect their students will be able to do, based on what they have been taught. The organization discovered that there was an inequitable distribution of the quality of assignments across four categories:
- Alignment to grade level standards
- Cognitive demand, as measured by Depth of Knowledge
- Discussion and communication
- Choice and relevance
The rigor of assignments, and therefore the expectations, was lower in high-poverty schools, and few assigned tasks in any school were deemed as being of high quality.
Inspired by Education Trust’s equity work, we incorporated assignment analysis as a protocol for PLC+ teams to do in advance of teaching. Using tools aligned with these four quality indicators, educators now have a means for proactively designing tasks that challenge. Doing so provides teams with a method for calibrating expectations and assuring that all students have access to grade level standards.
There is great value in being present in one another’s classrooms. Learning walks provide teams with a means for doing so. These scheduled events are short (10 minutes or less in each classroom), and focused on a common challenge agreed upon in advance. This ensures that the team doesn’t drift too far from the original intention, which is to learn more about a particular element of teaching and learning.
Teams new to the learning walk process might consider beginning with ghost walks. Members travel as a group through each other’s empty classrooms, examining the physical environment for techniques used to support learning. For example, a PLC+ team which has identified increasing independent reading as their common challenge can look for ways in which each member structures the environment to encourage more reading.
Teams use capacity-building learning walks within and across learning communities to watch instruction unfold in real time. Once again, the team identifies a common challenge in advance of the learning walk. Observers are assigned one of three tasks:
- What is the teacher doing?
- How do students describe their learning?
- How does the environment support the learning?
After visiting three classrooms, members debrief on patterns witnessed in each category, then visit three more classrooms. The role of each member changes to another task and the entire process is repeated. The cycle is then repeated a third time so that the result is nine classroom visits, three short debriefing sessions, and an opportunity for each member to have experienced each task. The team then debriefs the entire experience, using guiding questions to frame the discussion:
- What conclusions can we reach about implementation?
- What conclusions can we reach about strengths?
- What conclusions can we reach about opportunities for growth as a team?
- How might we refine this process for future capacity-building learning walks?
Learning walks are an embodiment of the professional generosity of high-functioning teams. Their contribution to trust building and collective teacher efficacy make them indispensable tools for any professional learning community.
Microteaching is a teacher-directed coaching process that uses video recording as a launching point for discussion. A volunteer teacher identifies a teaching practice for analysis, records himself utilizing the technique, then views the video on his own. The teacher identifies a segment to bring to his PLC+ team, explains the context, and identifies the questions he would like to address. The entire team watches the segment, and after viewing poses any clarifying questions. The discussion that follows is crucial, both for what it is and what it is not, as the team poses questions intended to mediate the teacher’s thinking. Examples of such mediating questions include:
- In what ways did the lesson you planned differ from the lesson you delivered?
- What do you think these students knew and didn’t know when they first asked for help?
- What surprised you?
- What would you like to see your students do differently?
- What obstacles did you encounter?
- What next steps will you take to move closer to your goal?
|What Microteaching Is||What Microteaching Is Not|
|To co-construct content pedagogical knowledge with the team||Purpose||To evaluate someone else’s teaching|
|Identified by the teacher||Determination of Focus||Identified by others|
|Directs the discussion||Role of the Teacher||Listens passively|
|To ask mediating questions to prompt the thinking of the teacher||Role of the Other PLC+ Members||To provide feedback about the quality of the lesson, to offer judgments and personal opinions|
Teaching As Inquiry
Inquiry is traditionally considered as a method for student learning, but teaching deserves similar attention. The PLC+ framework creates a space for teachers to engage in inquiry about their practices, through the eyes of colleagues. By doing so, members deepen their expertise and build their individual and collective efficacy. If we intend to accelerate student learning, how can we not talk about teaching?