Monday / June 17

Three Reasons Activators are Crucial for Your PLC Success

Picture this scenario: You have a PLC team that has every reason to be a success. The team is full of strong, passionate teachers committed to students’ learning. They have common planning time dedicated to the work. They have developed simple norms to follow such as being on time, focusing on the positive, etc. Yet they struggle and rarely seem to have the impact they should on both their own learning as well as the learning of their students. The team struggles repeatedly throughout the school year to determine if their efforts and actions are leading to student learning. Many meetings feel disjointed, lack focus and direction, and very often cause more frustration than success. The participants leave most meetings feeling defeated instead of rejuvenated and often make statements as to ‘why are we even meeting?’ Does this sound too familiar?

There is an antidote for these types of meetings and this scenario. The PLC+ Framework consists of five guiding questions and four core values. PLC+ provides schools a way forward; a model for increasing impact through collaborative efforts. One of the values is activation, which relates to how PLC teams must have individuals on the team take on the responsibility for ensuring the learning of the adults consistently moves forward. Through this value of Activation, the PLC+ framework places a premium on the role human behavior plays in PLC settings and helps teams navigate challenges and maximize their collaborative expertise. School and district leaders should make every effort to support and develop activators that can support and ensure the “L” in PLC really does occur for both students and teachers.

Three Reasons Activators are Crucial for PLC success:

1. Activators help drive adult learning and thus the impact on student learning:

The PLC+ model deeply supports the learning of both the adults and their students. The focus on adult learning has been absent far too often in many PLC efforts and is a critical factor that ultimately leads to increases in student learning. One of the ways activators help drive the adult learning is ensuring there is a deep focus on classroom instructional decisions. Far too often collaborative teams talk about the curriculum as well as the assessments they use to determine where students are making progress towards curricular targets but avoid the rich meaningful conversations around the instructional element that is the conduit between the two. Activators help teams navigate those discussions that are paramount to a team’s success. Louis and Marks (1998) found, after adjusting for grade level and student background, that student achievement was significantly higher in schools with the strongest PLCs. This effect was so strong that the strength of the PLC contributed to higher levels of social support for achievement and higher levels of authentic pedagogy. In fact, they noted that successful PLCs accounted for as much as 36% of the variance in the quality of classroom pedagogy in classroom practice and for 85% of the variance in positive gains in achievement.  Schools need to activate the learning of the adults around effective instructional decisions in all PLC settings.

2. Activators address adult learning challenges:

There is danger in assuming effective discussion related to instructional pedagogy that moves the learning of the adults forward will simply take place harmoniously and without challenges. Activators help drive the conditions that promote collective teacher efficacy, which has an effect size of 1.36. This is critical as teams will inevitably face challenges and tough situations throughout the school year.

Also, efficacy doesn’t develop when things are easy, but rather when teams face and overcome obstacles and adversity. This is where activators have a critical role by ensuring their team develops armor over time to handle the adversity and trials they will surely face during the realities of a 180-day school year. They do so by ensuring their team stays aware of the impact they are having on student learning by focusing on student learning evidence of their committed actions.  Here is where teams can feed and fuel deeper levels of collective efficacy and prepare the team for inevitable future challenges.  Bandura (1982) noted that efficacy expectations play a major factor in the choice of activities, amount of effort expended, and how long peers will sustain effort in dealing with stressful situations.

One strategy a team can take is ensuring they examine specific learning evidence that focus primarily on the instructional actions they have been committed to. For example, perhaps the team had a common challenge to focus on students being able to defend a claim with strong evidence. Each member of the team may bring evidence for review and discussion of impact. The team might be a group of English language arts teachers or a group of teachers across content areas all focused on improving students’ writing. Activators make sure the team concentrates their analysis on this evidence first to determine how well their adult actions impacted the learning of their students.

3. Activators help their teams establish and adhere to TRUE norms:

Collaborative routines among teachers are a critical component in collaborative settings in securing improved student learning outcomes (Resnick, 2010). Many teams erroneously believe that norms are things like being on time, staying positive, being respectful, and coming prepared. Norms are behaviors teams work at, so they become normal behavior. In The PLC+ Activator’s Guide, two types of norms are explored: operating norms and process norms. Operating norms are the non-negotiable behaviors for ALL adults for ALL PLC+ / collaborative meetings. These are what many are familiar with when we think of norms, but activators ensure a layer of specificity to expected adult behaviors. Some examples:

    1. All members come prepared having read or completed agreed upon tasks
    2. Notetaker sends agenda to team at least 24-hours prior to meeting
    3. Start every meeting by sharing specific examples of evidence of our teaching or leadership actions on student learning
    4. Monitor and respond to each other’s non-verbal communication

The other type of norms activators help teams develop are process norms.  These are aligned to the five guiding questions of the PLC+ framework. These help teams make the most of their dialogue and discussions around clarity, assessment, instruction, and equity. Some examples are:

  1. We will look first for evidence of our committed instructional actions to determine our current impact (Question #2)
  2. We will not assume universal understanding of instructional strategies so we will always describe in detail how instructional strategies look in classroom practice (Question 3)
  3. We will consistently (at least several times per nine weeks) monitor the progress and achievement of all students (Question 5)
  4. We will regularly (at least once per month) examine assignments and tasks to monitor the level of rigor at which we are engaging our students (Questions 2 and 5)

Activators help the team create normalcy of these norms being developed and adhered to truly become routine practice. This allows PLC teams to determine and keep the focus of their collaborative time where it needs to be… Focusing on the learning of the students as well as their own.

Do you think the scenario at the beginning of this post would be different if the team had an activator?

PS – Empowering your PLCs is a step toward becoming better equipped educators with greater credibility to foster successful learners and PLC+ professional learning can help. If you’re ready to begin your PLC+ professional learning journey, contact us to get started.


Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122–147.

Louis, K. S., & Marks, H. M. (1998). Does Professional Community Affect the Classroom?

Teachers’ Work and Student Experience in Restructuring Schools. American Journal of Education, 106, 532-575.

Nagel, D., Almarode, J., Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Flories, K. (2020). The PLC+ Activator’s Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Resnick, L. B. (2010). Nested learning systems for the thinking curriculum. Educational Researcher 39(3),183–197.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 24(1), 80–91.

Written by

Dave Nagel is an international educational consultant and researcher. His educational career started as a middle school science and high school biology teacher. His administrative experiences involved being a middle school assistant principal, high school associate principal, and director of extended day and credit recovery programs. In his former district, Dave was instrumental in implementing power standards and performance assessments. He was honored numerous times as a “Senior Choice” winner, with graduating seniors selecting him as someone who dramatically affected their life in a positive way. Dave has been a national and international presenter and consultant to schools for over 10 years. Using his experience and expertise, he has presented and helped schools, from pre-K through Grade 12, implement effective practices leading to gains in student achievement. His main focus when working with schools has revolved around assessment, instruction, leadership, and effective collaboration. He has worked specifically with schools in implementing the following topics: prioritizing standards, common formative assessments, building authentic performance tasks, effective use of scoring guides, data teams, rigorous curriculum design, and effective grading practices. Dave is the author of Effective Grading Practices for Secondary Teachers.

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