When is a PLC really a PLC?

Education is a profession where jargon is thrown around like leaves during a northeastern autumn (possibly even more so). And, while the use of jargon isn’t unique to education, in our line of work it creates some complications. Take the use of the term “professional learning community,” or “PLC.” It is probably fair to say that a good number of PLCs don’t operate as Peter Senge had first envisioned them, and as Rick DuFour and Bob Eaker described in detail in the 1990s.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except for the fact that our profession is famous (or infamous) for assuming that any phrase or abbreviation is a potential silver bullet, regardless of how well the actual ideas are implemented. After all, it is much easier to say that we make use of professional learning communities than it is to make use of them well.

One of Rick DuFour’s earlier pieces on the topic describe three key components that any PLC worth its salt needs: First, PLCs are focused on student learning by working towards timely interventions for students that require students and educators to work to make change. Second, true PLCs operate as a collaborative community; all members are ruled by two key “As” (accountability and action). Members understand that they are important to the functioning of the group and therefore are willing to take action for students and for the community as a whole. Finally, DuFour writes about the need for PLCs to be results-oriented. The group welcomes and works with data, making decisions and taking action based on evidence. Whether working through collaborative inquiry à la Nancy Love or welcoming data through some other means, results matter for real PLCs.

When we take a step back and think about these three key ingredients, it becomes much easier to see that what we thought of as a PLC may be so in name only. How can we build and design collaborative learning teams that hold truer to the ideals of PLCs as Senge, DuFour and Eaker proposed? Here are three steps we’ve taken (or are beginning to take) to provide better examples of PLCs in action.

  • Emphasize the “C” in “PLC.” We’ve realized over the last few years that our PLC groups (or collegial circles, as we call them in our region) benefit from feeling like their cohort sessions are like a second home. This feeling of comfort and support has helped to make these groups not only incredibly popular for educators across the northern New York City region, but has also allowed for incredibly important and genuine discussions and problem-solving to take place. We’ve taken a number of steps to further emphasize the “C” in “PLC” -- from designing list-servs for our circles to assist in group communication to making meetings half-days in length to allow for ample time to network, share resources, study and learn together. We’ve also widened the scope of these circles to go beyond content-area support networks to include groups focused on relevant practices like effective feedback generation and appropriate grading techniques.
  • Design with data. We know that our collegial circle groups only grow when data is shared and analyzed. Our facilitators do an amazing job with members by helping them not only consider important ideas and the evidence that supports them, but also providing opportunities for members to share their concerns and allow for the group collective to provide feedback and support strategies, sometimes through the use of a protocol, other times through open discussion. Both front and center and behind the scenes, we work with our facilitators to analyze collegial circle feedback data, so they can further refine the design of their sessions and help their members take even more meaning from the time they have together. This year we’re placing an additional emphasis on outcome and impact data by surveying collegial circle attendees a number of months after the circle concludes to see how the ideas and data shared during sessions have impacted their practice and the learning of their students.
  • Account for and act. Everything we’ve learned about PLCs indicates that groups are most fully committed and most likely to spur change when members are accountable to each other and are given opportunities to take action. To that end, we look for most of our collegial circles to be designed in the long term, with groups meeting a number of times over the course of the year, with ample reflection and work time in between to explore ideas, resources and strategies. Many of our collegial circles begin meetings with reporting out, a process that encourages members to try something between one session and another, so they have something to share. Sometimes this is enough to spark a large trend, as our elementary math leaders group discovered when they committed to engage in a math-related book talk. Their commitment to the book and the work it spoke to resulted in the group putting more emphasis on reading together; led many participants to put the ideas into practice; and, helped us encourage the author of the text to join our region for a day of learning last year.

I have no doubt that those with tremendous expertise in designing and implementing true PLCs could find ways for us to strengthen our approach. And yet, through growth in our approach to our collegial circles, our members appear to see them as more than just regular meetings. Instead, feedback shows that many see them as robust communities of learning that are focused on eventual outcomes for students, all in a manner that fosters and leads to professional growth.

If that isn’t a professional learning community in more than name only, then I don’t know what is.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:www.fredende.com.

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