Friday, June 17, 2005

some thoughts on PLCs

Having recently attended a two-day workshop on instructional leadership (featuring/promoting the Professional Learning Community concept), I have a few thoughts and questions...

This is a bit of a long post, so... you can read it here as a pdf file on a white background or you can go bug-eyed reading below... Also, this is my first crack at a response; I will take any feedback I get to offer a revised look at PLCs -- my opinion, so far, is easily influenced by what others may know that I do not. If you are new to blogging, just click on "comments" below the post in order to leave a comment.

First, briefly, my interpretation of the PLC concept:
-School system organized into hierarchies of learning communities, each roughly accountable to themselves and the next higher order
-Communities are distinguished by structures which focus on student achievement (asking questions like "what do we want our students to learn"); some of these structures follow...
-Time is sought for staff to meet regularly to collaborate on practices and results, study issues & questions, conduct & respond to casual research
-Problems with student achievement are met with timely, consistent, and structured interventions
-Student learning and classroom practice are valued over isolated teaching & professional development
-Supporting the development of a well-rounded, healthy student is balanced (or off-set) with the need to improve academic results
-Leadership is shared; administrators devote more time to instructional support and less on discipline and monitoring

Background on the PLC concept:
-The concept, with its attendant philosophies and terminology, is a product of Richard DuFour and others at the American National Education Service, a for-profit foundation which offers books, tapes, study guides, etc.
-Their system has much in common with other current educational theory (Dufour's is maybe less theoretical or inquiry-based and more "let's get to it") with varying levels of acknowledgement. Lave & Wenger's work on communities of practice is a good starting point for comparing similar theory.
-The PLC lingo and ideas have parallels in current business philosophies and government (USA to BC) emphasis on accountability and decentralization

PLCs in our district -- positive
-Following the conversion of a number of individuals in our district to the PLC concept over recent years, senior administration is encouraging the application of the concept at district schools. The PLC concept provides one way of meeting accountability requirements and School Plan for Student Success goals, and may also remind educators of what they are called to and help them ask if they are doing it well.
-The underlying concepts of focused collaboration, aiming at greater overall student success & educating the whole person, community-based approach, and shared leadership are well rooted in respected theory and are a natural evolution for conscientious schools and school systems.

PLCs in our district -- problems
-The collaborative model is being "tasked" out to schools. When dealing with a shift in guiding ideas which is ultimately meant to impact classroom practice, a top-down approach is probably not the way to go. With any change, the "buy-in" window is narrow and, if those heralding the change haven't covered all the angles, can turn what could be a groundswell movement into a perceived mandate or imposition. If the ideas have merit in the classroom, they need to be field tested in the classroom by volunteers with support.
-The DuFour model is a "total package" system. As such, it has the potential to exclude those who don't understand it, accept it, or have differing views. This is not the same as resisting change, this is simply that change of "governing" ideas often involves dispensing with the old order and marginalizing alternate voices. If the old order was yesterday's "good news," there can be justifiable scepticism about rapid cycles of change.
-Shared leadership, in the business world, often involves pushing decision-making to the lowest acceptable level... While this is not necessarily a feature of the PLC concept, our district is reluctant to let go of centralized decision-making (not saying this is good or bad, simply that it creates a philosophic tension with shared leadership ideas)
-An important emphasis on diversity, site-specific transformation of PLC lingo & practices, and student responsibility for learning appears to be missing or of secondary concern. The PLC concept, as it has been passed on, has the danger of being a "one size fits all" solution to problems which have not been very well articulated.
-The depth to which new ideas enter the educational scene will be a good test of the PLC concept's merit. Will it just involve use of new lingo (out with department meetings, in with collaborative team meetings), or will a new attitude about teaching & learning sink in on the front line (classrooms)? What makes the difference? Where does hoop-jumping turn to meaningful change? Much of it has to do with meaningful questions and data. If the questions asked by staff are arbitrary or determined in 3-minute think & paste activities, the results will be limited engagement and cynicism. Similarly, if the data (on which to build goals or examine practice) is not relevant to the daily classroom experience and broad questions pursued by teachers and students, it will be ignored.
-Formalizing the mentor relationships that occur spontaneously throughout schools, and formalizing the collaboration
-Time, energy, and will... what is it that individual classroom teachers need to improve their practice and affect student success? What barriers exist in supplying these needs? Starting by asking these questions could create problems for PLCs because the results will reflect tremendous diversity and will reflect a variety of philosophies. One teacher may need more collaboration time with others, one might need access to technology, one might need specific training, etc. This could all fit within the PLC concept, but it might not, therefore it is problematic to ask these questions unless we are ready to see the PLC concept as a set of ideas to evaluate, deconstruct, and allow to re-emerge where it makes sense to do so.
-These problems, I think, are worth the trouble of examination and response because the PLC concept has enough merit that it should be taken seriously. If it didn't, it wouldn't be worth evaluating (i.e. extract value).

What I plan to take away from the PLC concept:
- some powerful questions... I really like the one "what do we want our students to learn?" -- follow this one through and it has the potential to transform practice -- it is at once practical and highly philosophic. For me, it pushes me back to another question "what characteristics do I want members of society to exhibit?" and "how does what I teach show of my view of human nature?"
- some tools for collaboration... I have higher expectations for department and staff meetings now; I want to move past business and information and get to issues and beliefs.
- some renewed focus on theory & practice & identity... where is my classroom centered? teacher/student/subject? how does this affect student success? who is the self that imagines this reality and what do I want to learn by being a teacher?

3 comments:

Jp Martin said...

Glen,

I took the time to read your post because I too am interested in this topic - but perhaps on a bit of a different level. I have not participated in the PLC model that started this year at my school. It is not that I don't believe in it, in fact, it is quite the opposite. I think this is exactly what we desperately need in our current school settings. Our time of 'Master Teacher' at the top helping, guiding, leading is (sadly) long gone and, to me, it seems we never sit down and discuss the very 'meat' of our job. We sit in staff meetings to discuss business (all fine and good) but we never talk about our jobs and what we do, how we do it and probably most importantly, why we do what we do. Pro-d has been a pet-peeve of mine for awhile now because I find it so wasted - rarely is there a session that I can pull good resources from (those resources being real and tangible items (software, books, etc) to the mental side (instrinsic). And so, I find I am drawn to the idea of the PLC and what it can offer us as a profession.

However, I am sadly dismayed with the delivery of this model at my school. Our PLC has taken on the notion of meeting during class time. We use coverage to get together. It seems completely ironic to me... "let's get together to discuss strategies, best practices, thoughts, desires, et cetera, by leaving our classrooms and students while stretching our teaching resources to do it". Huh? I don't get it. You mean to tell me that we don't have enough vested interest that we can't meet during our lunch, before school, after school? We'll only meet when we can get out of our room - does this mean we can't stand being in our classrooms (scary), we want to meet only on 'company' time (scary) or we don't really care all that much for the idea of a Profession Learing Community but I'll do it if I don't have to take up any of 'my' time. It is for these reasons that I have resisted attending because I don't enjoy being out of my classroom - I'm gone enough with coaching and other school endeavours (like QLG, tech fair, etc) and would rather spend time in my students.

The questions you ask in your article and the points you make are very good and truly valid. I'de reiterate that this needs to come from within - we cannot be told to take part in a Professional Conversation - what part of being a professional is that? The lingo (as you point out) has to mean and develop into more than just a transformation of the current jargon.

I like and support the idea. I think it can be great. Mentorship does happen but to 'formalize it' can be powerful and should be done. As long as we continue to use the blossomed one-room school house (which is basically what we still use in our system) then why not go to the strength of it which had Master Teachers developing and working with others in a quest for them to become the Master Teacher - or at least pursue qualities of that.

An interesting side-line to this will be the 'big-brother' of BCESIS and how that may force our professionalism. Accountability will become (or at least the potential of accountability) much more real with the notion that parents can 'peek' into our classrooms much easier than ever before. How will we handle that and will we work on our game because we want to or because we have to? Thanks Glen,

Jp Martin

Anonymous said...

What is old is new again and what is new is old. Our school saw these ideas 20 years ago. When we tried to use them the district said "don't" because we were undermining authority.

Lewis said...

Glen,

I think you hit at the real heart of PLCs with the part of your post about describing what you plan to take away. I think like any theory, practice, philosophy etc. as it becomes mainstream it begins to morph into many different shapes. Unfortunately, many people see the PLC model as a more of a way to organize people than a way to support learning and empower educators.

JP,

I could not agree with you more about meeting time within the school day. It is one of the tenants of Dufour's PLC model that collaboration time be built into the work day. However, I don't believe this is sustainable through release time. The work does not go away for the teacher when they are not in their class and time away often results in addition work. Personally, I don't really need release from anything I need the time I spend on anything to be valuable.

Rob