In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Professors of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University, Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher to discuss their experiences and work with PLCs.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:18 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:45 PLC+ with Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher. Today, we are joined by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, the authors of “PLC+ Greater Decisions and Input by Design.” They are both professors at San Diego State University and leaders at the health sciences high and middle college there. So welcome to both of you and thanks for joining us.
Nancy: 01:14 Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here. Se, morning rock and everybody.
Steve: 01:19 I’m wondering for starters, if you could take a moment to introduce yourselves a little bit further and describe your experiences with PLCs that led you to the work on PLC+.
Doug: 01:36 Sure. Nancy and I have worked together more than 20 years, we met a long time ago and noticed we had a lot of things in common. We started a school with a couple of colleagues 13 years ago. We were able to create a learning environment for about 700 kids and try to think about what’s the best things we could do – staff, students, parents, community members, to create an amazing place to learn. And our journey included of course, professional learning communities. How you get grown ups together, talking, thinking, designing, learning, those kinds of things. And so we embarked on this journey going way back to Shirley Ford’s work about what does it mean to create a professional learning community where a group of adults come together and they learn and it benefit their students. And over the years, we have experimented and modified and learned from giants in the field about what it takes to actually make professional learning community in a school really work. There are a lot of people out there who talked about professional learning communities who are not part of the day to day operations of a school and we want it to be part of every single day. This is how it works, year after year, can we engage the adults and the students in learning that grows their skillset, their confidence, their competence.
Nancy: 03:10 As Doug noted, we spend our days here at a school and we were motivated in part to be able to find ways to be able to capture lightning in a bottle, I guess. We work with amazing educators and have been privileged to be a part of their professional learning communities. And what we recognize in working through what those professional learning communities look like is that there are sometimes some shortcomings that traditional protocols sort of leave by the wayside. And yet we were in the room with these amazing people who were having these discussions that quite frankly were, I guess off script if you consider a traditional PLC. So we wanted to capture those ideas and make them a part of the norm of what happens within a professional learning community.
Steve: 04:13 As I read your materials and as I listen to you today, I’m finding a connection that I’m wondering if you could explore a little bit further with me as you define PLCs first and then talk to us about PLC+. As I struggled with working with people that were calling what they were doing, PLCs that I wasn’t seeing as a PLC, I ended up coining the term PWCs versus PLCs. And so I made the PWC a professional working community. And I describe that as a group of teachers who come together and collaborate in order to get work done. They may get it done more effectively, they may get it done more efficiently by collaborating and working together, but that the outcome of it was work done. And generally it had more of a focus on teaching. And then I described as a professional learning community, a group of people coming together where the outcome is teacher learning first that’s going to then have the impact and guide the student learning. So I’m kind of wondering, I think I’m fitting in with what you’re describing, but maybe you can go a little bit further with your definition of PLC for me and how it fits into what I’ve laid out.
Doug: 05:45 And I really appreciate your comment about the PWC. We’ve talked about like, people call planning time PLC, people call admiring data PLC. They talk about a PD session as a PLC. They talk about a one shot meeting as a PLC. That’s not how we see this. When we started working on this, we said there are two main purposes for professional learning communities. And as you said, the first is to improve the learning, the knowledge, the skill that whether that’s content or pedagogical knowledge of the educators that they are learning from with each other about students. And the second is to improve the learning outcomes for students. Both have to be in play. And the key is that they are learning from the interaction. They are learning from each other and their students benefit from that learning. And I do think having, you know, run a school for 13 years, there’s some work teachers have to do and many hands make it lighter. But that’s not how we think about a professional learning community. They are coming together to learn about impacting their students’ lives.
Steve: 07:00 Some of the schools that I’ve worked with have now picked up the PWC phrase and they are actually dividing the agenda for their time together. So they might allocate that the first 15 minutes are PWCs – here’s the thing that we’ve got to get done and then we’re going to get back engaged into the learning.
Nancy: 07:24 That’s interesting that you, that you say that as well because one of the struggles that we have had is that in a conventional PLC, teaching isn’t discussed. And so it does have to sort of reside to the side of what is happening within a professional learning community. And what we wanted to do was to be able to create a system where teaching is a natural part of that conversation. It is certainly not all of it, but it belongs within those conversations. So for example, many professional learning communities of course are looking at their qualitative and quantitative data and figuring out where it is that they are and where it is that they want to be able to take their students to. However, there is often sort of this empty space about how it is that we actually move the learning forward. And so we placed in the center of that as one of our guiding questions, how do we move learning forward? And in particular what we encourage PLC plus teams to do and we equip tools with them to do is to do things and use things such as learning walks, to be in and out of each other’s classrooms, to engage in micro-teaching so that they can talk about their practice as it relates to the common challenge that the team has identified.
Nancy: 08:56 I guess I would say that the analogy would be that I couldn’t imagine surgeons talking about the purpose for surgery and what the outcomes for surgery should be without ever also talking about their practice of performing the surgery and watching each other perform the surgery. It would seem to be a missing step otherwise.
Steve: 09:23 Yeah. So it’s right on. I’ve pushed that two of the elements that we need in the conversation are what I call student production behaviors. So I label that as what the kids are, what the kids need to do that’s gonna move them, in your language, move them forward. And then then the next piece being the teacher behaviors that are most likely to get the students engaged in those necessary learning behaviors. And then I see if you can bring peer coaching into your PLC, it gives you a big step towards those conversations being much more valuable when we get together.
Nancy: 10:04 Agreed.
Steve: 10:07 So how about walking us through now the + aspect of your title.
Nancy: 10:15 We have four cross-cutting themes as we call them, that are intended to permeate every aspect of the guiding questions and those cycles of professional learning that the PLC+ team is working towards. And those four cross-cutting themes are equity, high expectations, individual and collective efficacy and activation. In other words, how is it that each of us as team members work together in order to be able to move our collective learning forward? Those four themes we see as being absolutely critical to what it is that PLC teams are able to accomplish. And they are often, unfortunately, set to the side – kind of siloed, you know, equity’s important, but it doesn’t necessarily affect our day to day decision making. Collective efficacy – yes, we’ve heard it’s really important, but we haven’t made it apparent and transparent within our processes of working together. Those are just two examples.
Steve: 11:26 I was intrigued and impressed by the floor. So why don’t you why don’t you take enough time to to just go one at a time and give us a little capsule. Walk us through a little more detail on each of the four.
Doug: 11:43 So one of the cross-cutting values that we have are, is activation. And we were frustrated many years ago in more PLP models where everybody is equal and there’s no facilitator, there’s no one who’s trying to keep the meeting moving forward, focused on learning. And we went down the path of facilitation. But the purist in facilitation means that the facilitator doesn’t contribute to the group and our groups are often not big enough to have a person facilitate who can’t contribute to the group. So we went down the path instead of being an activator. That your role is to be participating and activating the learning of the grownups in that session, in those experiences. And we talked about who can be activated, there’s a wide range of people and it might change meeting to meeting. It might be consistent over a semester, but someone has to have a skillset to keep the group focused on the learning. They have to have a skill set to have tools and strategies and that’s why we wrote the playbook is to provide activators and teams, resources and tools. Like if they don’t know how to engage in micro-teaching, here are some tools to do that. If they don’t have good processes for doing learning walks, here are some tools for them. If they have not looked at their, what they mean by a professional learning community and how it lines up against some of the evidence on professional learning communities, there are tools to do that. That role of that activator becomes super important in our work.
Steve: 13:22 So would you see that the activator probably has a little bit of homework in coming in with a design that’s going to assist the group in maximizing their time?
Doug: 13:37 Yes. The activators should be doing homework, should be prepared for those sessions. And I think the activator needs a skillset of being able to work with grownups and keep, you know, whatever interpersonal skills to keep the group, to be able to redirect the group to you know, when someone starts grandstanding and peacocking as we call it, how do you manage that. So yeah, there is more planning, there’s more intentionality. It’s not just that we show up to the meeting and we talk about the data and we admire what the data say. We don’t do anything about it. A second area that we were pushing on was high expectations. That some teams come together and they talk about what they want kids to learn, but it’s not at the right level of learning. And like we often say, if it’s the seventh grade lesson taught on fifth grade standards, we’re going to produce eighth graders who are good at sixth grade.
Doug: 14:38 It’s not enough to just come together and say, here’s what we want kids to learn. We have to have the expectations for our students that are high. That students’ expectations for themselves and teachers expectations for students are powerful accelerators of learning. Unfortunately, there are just places where the expectations are not high enough and if we all sit in a meeting and we talk about what we want kids to learn and how are we going to know they learn it, we could all leave with a different understanding of what the expectation is. What is mastery or competency look like? So we do a lot of checks through our process. Where are the expectations? Are the expectations shared across all the people who are teaching them? Over time that build that individual collective efficacy. But one of the things we attend to, our third value, is around building the collective of the team so that when you leave that collective and you go back to your classroom, to your learning environment, you are highly efficacious and the teams come together and they have experiences of mastery.
Doug: 15:47 When they come together and say, we did this and it worked. When they go through those processes, it builds the collective and the individual efficacy. And those are super important parts. They’re not easy to build. It takes time to build. The research on that one says that as teams develop their collective efficacy, they set higher and higher goals for themselves and their students. And so that relates back to the expectation, is this is common challenge that this thing we’re working on – is this challenging enough? And in the beginning when teams first start this, they probably aren’t quite as challenging as they could be. But one thing, I have a couple experiences of mastery and maybe some vicarious experience where they go see each other, they start to have increased efficacy. So we make sure we call out efficacy both at the individual level and the collective level and we provide tools for teams to analyze and build their efficacy.
Doug: 16:48 As Nancy said earlier, the fourth area is around equity and one of our reflections, working in a challenging community, is that most PLC models – in fact, we can’t find any PLC models that directly focus and call out the need to attend to equity. We tend to look at individual kids and whether or not they need intervention. That’s how most professional learning community conversations go. Anthony didn’t learn it, so we’re going to make Anthony go to tier two or whatever we’re going to do. We’re going to reteach whatever. We’re calling for teams to look at trend data. Where are the equity gaps in the learning outcomes of their students and what are they going to do about it? And instead of always applying the needs like, oh, we’re all gonna go to intervention now, if you didn’t learn it. Sometimes we need to look at barrier removal. Rather than always asking kids to go to intervention, sometimes you need to look at the barriers that were in place for their learning and remove those barriers. And that’s a harder conversation to have. We are very much right now focus on individual kids and whether or not they go to intervention or not. Did they learn or did they not learn it? And we are asking those professional learning conversations to consider equity and the trend data so that they can start to address some of those bigger barriers to students’ learning.
Steve: 18:11 So can I try something there? If I’ve got a successful PLC plus the number of students needing remediation or intensive instruction should be decreasing because of what we’re learning about the learning process.
Nancy: 18:30 Yes, absolutely. And what we’ve really advocated for and is built into the PLC+ process is in being able to track and discuss not only achievement – who mastered something and who did not, but also the look at growth. Who grew over the unit of instruction, for example, that the PLC team devised and implemented. And that includes not only looking at students who may have not reached mastery or really crossfitted from the instruction that happened – identifying them, finding out what was it successful that made it possible for those students to grow, but also to highlight, to shine a spotlight on students who quite frankly already knew what it was that you were going to be teaching at the beginning of the unit and made very little growth because they already knew it and nobody attended to those particular requirements or needs that those students had. So they hit mastery, but they would’ve hit mastery at the very beginning.
Steve: 19:46 One of the first groups that caught my attention was at the middle school level, a group of students that I started labeling as highly proficient. So kids who were advanced tended to be pulled into into a different class perhaps. But students who were in that category of highly proficient weren’t making a substantial amount of growth because all of the instruction was geared for the students who either were below coming into the unit or were ready for the unit. But nothing really being prepped and laid out as a goal for what you wanted the kids who came into the unit with a substantial amount of learning to achieve.
Nancy: 20:33 Exactly. And what we want to make sure of is that we are carefully looking at those students that you’ve identified. So students that quite frankly knew it before you ever even started teaching it. And we want to also look closely at those students who, while they may not yet have reached mastery, either made growth, profited from the instruction that was going on or who didn’t make growth. And those are two different kinds of questions that teams need to ask themselves about what’s working and what’s not working. Essentially drawing a line and saying, here’s a kid who passed this particular unit and here are the kids who have failed, doesn’t give – doesn’t feed much information back to the team about what it is that they need to do next.
Steve: 21:27 So is pre-assessment and goal setting a necessary component there?
Nancy: 21:36 Pre-assessment and goal setting are necessary components for student learning and they are necessary components for adult learning. In a PLC+ process, that pre-assessment and goal setting is something that the team does for themselves as well as gathering that kind of information about their students. Learning is learning. Whether it’s an adult or a student, those same practices that we know are beneficial for students need to be applied to ourselves as teams so that the team can learn.
Steve: 22:11 I’m wondering if you’d speak a little bit to what you see as the role or the support that school administrators should be providing to the to the PLC process.
Doug: 22:31 Well, one of the things administrators need to think about is the time that they allocate for teams to actually do their work. They also need to think about the training needed to be an activator and we don’t think that the administrators have to be the activators. We do think people need support to serve as activators. I think there’s also a time where administrators can contribute as members of those learning communities, especially in the areas where they’ve taught and had experience with that or have really good questions about what the learning can look like. I think over time leaders have to trust that the teams are engaged in deep learning that’s impacting students and to trust them to go about their work and accomplish that. I think we see a lot of attempts at fidelity where administrators make PLC team fill out forms to document their conversations and we’re not finding that so helpful. It’s being present in the conversation. It’s trusting the team, it’s looking at the impact on students’ learning and adult learning. So if kids are growing and there’s evidence of impact, then the team is doing its work and so we really think about the enabling parts of the role of the leader. The leader also needs to set the vision, set the tone, set the expectations collaboratively with teachers, be there to support, be there to remove barriers as they come up.
Nancy: 24:01 Also one other element that school leaders can be responsible for. In our experience, it has been rare that PLC’s ever cross pollinate between teams. In other words, those teams are often working in isolation from one another and they don’t have opportunities to be able to come together. A professional learning community, as Shirley Ford talked about, it is the entire school and over time, it has decomposed into this idea that a PLC is a team meeting together. And what school leaders also need to do is to be able to provide time or those individual teams to be able to work with one another, to be able to talk about what it is that they’re finding out. So that in fact we can amplify the learning that’s happening within each of those individual teams.
Steve: 24:59 I’m wondering if you could take the same question and look at the role that exists in many schools today of an instructional coach. And I’ve been engaged in some conversations where administrators kind of handed over the facilitation of the PLCs to instructional coaches. I’ve described that the instructional coach was sent into the PLC five years ago to teach people how to do this and they never came back out. So I ended up describing two problems from it. One is that the instructional coaches time to work and more of the feedback learning process with teachers isn’t available. But the second is I’ve found teachers almost being left off the hook of accountability for their PLC’s effectiveness. That if we weren’t effective, that it was the coach’s fault instead of us jointly owning that problem.
Nancy: 26:00 And I think that that is an essential point. And one of the reasons why we use activation as one of those four cross-cutting themes. As you noted, in a traditional or conventional PLC, there’s one person and one person alone who is the facilitator of that group. And it tends to be the person who has a business card with a job title on it. It might be an administrator. Very often it’s an instructional coach. And as you noted, the blame can be set squarely on that person if in fact the PLC is not as productive as it wanted to be. What we’ve intended to do within – especially within the playbook, is to be able to create structures so that each and every time that teams come together for those face to face times, anybody can be the activator. You don’t need to have one designated person that’s going to run everything. But rather we’ve got scripts and protocols that pose questions to help the team work together as activators. We so value the role of instructional coaches within any school, any professional learning community, but we have to give them the opportunity and the space to be able to do that kind of coaching and not simply to lead meetings.
Steve: 27:32 Well guys, I really appreciate the time and ideas that you’ve shared here. I just kind of want to give you an open-ended chance here if there’s something important in your work that you want to share with folks that that our structure didn’t get out here for you.
Nancy: 27:53 What I’d like to share is, an a question that we often get is, what does the plus mean? When you say PLC+, what is it that you mean? And our short answer is that the + is you. This is really about you, your role within that team, looking at your individual as well as collective efficacy, looking at your ability to be able to activate the learning that’s going on, looking at your opportunities to be able to bring in the equity initiatives that are happening in districts and make it a living and breathing part of every school day. To be able to ensure yourself, create confidence for yourself that you’re holding high expectations for all your students. The + in PLC is you.
Steve: 28:45 The thought that’s running through my head as I listen to you say that is connecting opportunity with responsibility for each individual person.
Nancy: 28:56 I love that.
Steve: 28:58 Doug, anything else you’d like to add?
Doug: 29:01 I think the revisions of the questions that Nancy presented them is an important thing to think about. The one that really strikes me is that so many teams never talk about what the kids already know. So our second question is where are we now? And I worry that that teachers are teaching – spending valuable minutes on stuff kids have already mastered. We read “The Inside Life of Learners”, the Graham Nuthall book a few years ago and he says between 40 and 60% of instructional minutes are spent on things kids have already learned. If we don’t talk about that, that what do they already know? Where are we now? We the risk of wasting a lot of valuable instructional minutes.
Steve: 29:45 Yeah, that’s a biggie. And I know that happens a lot and it’s not purposeful, but it’s on where we got people focused. We got them focused on the outcome without stopping to find out where we are for a starter and a deciding then the appropriateness of the outcome that we’re working on.
Doug: 30:07 Right.
Steve: 30:08 Well guys, thanks for joining us.
Doug: 30:09 Thank you so much.
Steve: 30:11 Have a great day.
Nancy: 30:14 Thanks for the opportunity. Thank you.
Steve: 30:14 You bet. Bye, bye.
Steve [Outro]: 30:16 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Pod Bean, and please remember to rate review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.