I have begun describing many of the meetings I observe that are labeled PLC as more correctly defined as a PWC….professional working community. This teacher collaborative time is being spent getting work done, tasks completed. This is not a bad thing to do, but it differs from teacher learning as an outcome. Without educator learning there is unlikely change in teacher practice and therefore little likelihood that there will be a change in student learning outcomes.
Historically most department, grade level, middle school team meetings have been PWCs. I was first triggered to this thought when I realized many administrators had taken an activity previously called common planning time and renamed it PLC. Observing common planning sessions, I most often found teachers collaborating by divvying up the work that needed to get done. One teacher planned the 4th grade science unit, while another planned the social studies unit, and a third mapped out the writing assignments. One algebra teacher created the assessment for the first unit while another did the second. Each teacher in the department assigned a topic, created 5 questions for the end of unit assessment.
In professional learning communities, purposeful teacher learning around how to increase student achievement is the focus. Teachers are collaboratively asking, “What do the students need us to learn?” Donohoo and Velasco* provide a structure for using collaborative inquiry as a process for generating teacher learning to increase student learning. “The team’s inquiry is driven by a central question, composed by team members, that identifies a challenge they are experiencing related to learning, leading, and/or teaching.”
Questions posed by collaborative inquiry teams need to come from a place of authenticity, where participants are grappling with issues in which the solution is unknown.
Donohoo and Velasco
“Where should we concentrate our efforts to change student experiences and outcomes?”I often find that PLCs do too many things and therefore seldom work deep enough for teacher learning to impact student learning. If teams need time for PWC tasks, perhaps they should identify meetings with a split agenda. The first twenty minutes of our time will be a PWC and the remaining 40 minutes is a PLC. The PWC portion probably has an ever changing agenda based on current school issues and individual student/teacher needs and concerns. The PLC agenda likely follows a longer term focus working to learn how to change the student learning outcome. The PLC selects a focus with questions such as:
“Where is the most urgent student learning need?”
Here is an example I developed with a middle school team from a small K-8 building. This team teaches all grade 6, 7, 8 students in all content areas. They decided to split their one hour a week common release time into PWC and PLC agendas. With a PLC desire to increase student achievement across all content areas, they developed a theory that if students set personal goals and established a set of behaviors to achieve that goal and developed self -discipline and self- assessment strategies to maintain repetition of the needed behaviors…student achievement would increase.
For me, this focus is worthy of their PLC time for the year. What are the teacher behaviors necessary to teach, motivate, and coach the development of these goal setting skills? What are the initial indicators that students are changing their learning behaviors? Which students struggle most to develop the necessary self- discipline and how do we support them? How can we simplify processes for student self- assessment? When and how do we reteach these skills? What are the first indicators that student goal setting is impacting student achievement?
The team has begun by having the physical education teacher present the first instruction and practice with goal setting and the identification of the behaviors to achieve the goal as part of the first PE unit. A continuous exploration of the impact of teacher actions on student behaviors and learning outcomes can drive teacher learning.
*The Transformative Power of Collaborative Inquiry: Realizing Change in Schools and Classrooms by Jenni Donohoo and Moses Velasco