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Sunday / September 22

Where Are We Now? The Starting Point for Moving Learning Forward

Even if you know where you are going, the pathway to arrive at that destination heavily depends are on your starting point. This has never been more obvious to me than during my interactions with Tessa and Jackson, my two children. Getting dressed, brushing teeth, making their way to the breakfast table are just a few of the tasks necessary for getting to school on-time – the desired outcome or destination created by their mother and me. However, if we are not aware of their current status (e.g., are they out of bed, moving towards the bathroom, having difficulty getting their toothpaste on the toothbrush), the mere act of starting the day can spiral into a period of tension, anger, and chaos.

This same principle applies to our classrooms. If we, both us and our students, are going to successfully navigate the learning journey towards it’s intended destination, we must first identify the starting point for our learners so that we know the starting point for our teaching. Not knowing where we are now will lead to teaching concepts and skills they already know or overlooking knowledge gaps, and therefore failing to address potential stumbling blocks. In both cases, this may invoke tension, anger, and chaos in our classroom. Therefore, the second question of the PLC+ framework is where are we now? The answer to this question is rooted in our initial assessments, what we do with the data generated by those assessments, and the development of a common challenge.

Initial Assessments

Assessment drives instruction, and it begins with the initial assessment at the beginning of the year, which helps us identify where students are in their learning and where we need to begin. But the start of the year is not the only time that initial assessments are useful. For each unit of study, teams review students’ current level of understanding and skill and may administer additional initial assessments. For example, when moving from a unit of study on cells to ecology in biology, the teachers administered an initial assessment, because they had no other information about students’ level of understanding. But rather than administer a new assessment, a group of English teachers reviewed students’ writing progress from the previous unit to identify strengths and needs that they would continue to address in the upcoming unit.

Every year there are there are variables in play that cannot be fully known, especially background knowledge and prior experience. Knowledge is power. When teams move forward instructionally without this knowledge about their students’ current state of learning, valuable instructional time is wasted.  Without initial assessments, it is nearly impossible to streamline instruction and repurpose time to close knowledge and skills gaps.

Data from Initial Assessments

The PLC+ framework thrives on the data it gathers. It can also perish if the data isn’t used to act, or if it obscures needs that are hiding in plain sight. The first problem is one that too many schools find themselves mired in. The uptick in data-gathering sources using a variety of digital analysis tools has resulted in what one administrator aptly described as “a tsunami of data.” Results of state assessments, measures of school climate, and parent and community engagement surveys can mean that teachers and leaders can become quickly overwhelmed. In the face of data overload, is it any wonder that the results––coded in too many multicolored tables and passed out at a planning week meeting in August––are then relegated to a binder that sits unused behind a teacher’s desk?

So what kinds of data are useful for a PLC+? Broad-scan assessments do have some value. They can provide useful information about past progress of students (state assessments), serve as a snapshot of the emotional tone of the school (climate data), and highlight underutilized resources (parent and community engagement surveys). In professional learning communities, these data sources can further illuminate trends that are occurring at the classroom level.

Once useful data has been collected, teams need a process to discuss that data. Teams can get bogged down in this process. If we spend all of our time analyzing data, we don’t move to action and thus impact learning. Teams need to strive to focus just enough time to identify trends and patterns that they can use to make learning better.  Teams should make initial observations on data, make inferences from that data, and discuss the implications on instruction.

Innovating Teaching and Learning Through a Common Challenge

In the PLC+ framework, we focus on a common challenge that serves as the goal that the team wants to accomplish. They were not told what the common challenge was, but rather identified the common challenge after answering the first two guiding questions. When teams understand where they are going and where they are now, they identify gaps.

For example, a team of kindergarten teachers identified a gap between what their students needed to learn and what they already knew, and noted that letter formation while writing was very poor. They also noted that most students had a hard time rereading what they had written and seemed to tell listeners about their writing from memory and not from looking at the page. In addition, they noted that students did not have good control of spaces between words. There are any number of common challenges that could have been developed from these data points. What’s important is that this group of teachers agreed on a common challenge and then set forth to address that challenge. In this case, they decided that their challenge was “if we improve students’ mastery of print conventions, they will be able to reread what they have written.”

When attempting to identify a common challenge, the following characteristics can serve as a guide:

  1. The common challenge is grounded in the evidence we gather during the where-are-we-now? phase.
  2. The common challenge is observable and actionable.
  3. If acted upon, the common challenge should make a significant difference in students’ learning.
  4. The common challenge should mobilize and motivate teachers to engage in the work required to meet the goals that they have for themselves and their students.

Once teams a common challenge, they turn their attention to ways to meet that challenge. Temperley, Kaser, and Halbert (2014) found that what teachers are professionally curious about increases their motivation, which leads to student achievement. The team capitalizes on the collective curiosity of its members to focus their inquiry on addressing the common challenge. The obvious place to start is instruction.

Innovation From Where We Are Now

When practitioners share and collectively identify common concerns, or sets of problems, it ignites both their efforts and their passions to deepen their knowledge and expertise by ongoing interaction toward a common goal (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002).  This is what we are called to do!


Timperley, H., Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning in schools:

Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Center for Strategic Leadership: Victoria, Australia.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). A guide to managing knowledge:

Cultivating communities of practice. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Written by

John Almarode conducts staff development workshops, keynote addresses, and conference presentations on a variety of topics including student engagement, evidence-based practices, creating enriched environments that promote learning, and designing classrooms with the brain in mind. John’s action-packed workshops offer participants ready-to-use strategies and the brain rules that make them work. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.

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