Professional Learning Communities

Apparently this is becoming more and more common in Massachusetts. Our students got a four-day weekend in January, but the faculty only had a three-day weekend, in order to schedule a day of professional development. Not that that’s a bad thing. Just saying.

Our focus today (as in all of Weston’s professional development this year) was Professional Learning Communities, usually known as PLCs. You may be wondering what this latest piece of jargon means. Google produces thousands of hits (172,000 as of this moment, or so it claims), but let’s look at, which sounds like (and is) a good source. Although I labeled this as the “latest piece of jargon,” in fact it‘s not particularly knew. For instance, the site includes an article from six years ago by Richard DuFour. Here is an excerpt from it:

The idea of improving schools by developing professional learning communities is currently in vogue. People use this term to describe every imaginable combination of individuals with an interest in education… The term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.

The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift — from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning — has profound implications for schools… Every professional in the building must engage with colleagues in the ongoing exploration of three crucial questions that drive the work of those within a professional learning community:

  • What do we want each student to learn?
  • How will we know when each student has learned it?
  • How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?

This emphasis, of course, fits in perfectly with the current national obsession with No Child Left Behind, statewide standardized testing, and other related initiatives. But it’s much more reasonable than No Child Left Behind or statewide standardized testing, since the three questions are clearly important and don’t suggest a dumbed-down or cookie-cutter approach, leading to teaching-to-the-test.

To my mind, however, the issue isn’t the three questions. The real issue is buried within the quotation above — a simple three-word phrase: engage with colleagues. Throughout my entire teaching career of 36 years I have enjoyed working with colleagues and have considered it to be an essential ingredient of our success. This observation flies in the face of the common (mis)perception that the teacher closes the classroom door and is a solo practitioner in charge of a group of students, but I’ve never believed in that model. Everywhere I’ve taught, the math department shares a common office and works together on curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For whatever reason, not all departments have operated like this, but it is always a major plus for math teachers. What hasn’t always happened is an emphasis on any of the three questions above. I look forward to further work in this area.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston