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What’s a PLC without action?

New York recently revamped its process for how educators tally up their professional learning hours. One of the key elements requires that professional development hours only be awarded if a session, meeting or workshop is one where “learning” takes place. “Learning” can be a tricky word. We tend to use it freely without always considering what needs to happen in order for learning to actually be taking place.

Take, for example, a “professional learning network” or PLN. The acronym is used freely for any group of educators that influence each other’s “learning.” Same with the abundantly used “professional learning committee” or PLC. And yet, I would contend that not every use of these terms is an appropriate one. In many cases, PLN could be shortened to PN -- or simply "professional Network" --, and PLC might be reduced to professional community, or PC.

I write this because I think we sometimes assume that since we are systematically meeting together and talking together learning is happening. If we are in the same space, speaking the same language, and doing so regularly, aren’t we learning? I might say, “No, not necessarily.” In my humble opinion, learning is not a passive experience. It isn’t done TO us. It is done BY us.

That means that when we are learning, we are taking action and actually “doing.” This is an important distinction, because plenty of PLCs spend their time sitting together and discussing, without any real action taking place. Sorry, but I’m not a believer that, in this case, talking together is action-taking. We need to move beyond simply discussing to making changes to what we do, with an understanding of why we’re doing it.

Part of the reason why PLCs and PLNs often don’t make this difficult distinction is because it feels good to discuss ideas in a repeated format. The scheduled nature of regular meetings, and the ability to continue to talk about the same subjects many times, simply feels comfortable.

Take Twitter chats, for instance. I’m a big fan of Twitter chats, and connecting with people from all over the world. I also tend to use a lot of clichés when I tweet. I really feel the way I tweet, but it is so much easier to tweet it than to change my practice. The problem is, I don’t see Twitter chats as learning. Instead, I see the changes we make to our practice as a result of a chat as the actual learning. And, if I’m being honest with myself -- and everyone reading this --, I don’t tend to make a lot of change from simply connecting and communicating.

I need accountability.

It doesn’t have to be a dirty word. We can be accountable to ourselves, and to others, in a positive manner, right? We can set small goals, ask for assistance, and push each other to do great things. That is accountability in a nutshell: something that holds us to a path, and prompts us to measure our progress.

A Twitter chat without change isn’t learning. A PLC without action and accountability to each other and ourselves is simply a PC. And learning only happens when we pair accountability with action.

We should never force a PLC or PLN. Instead, we need to do justice to the “L” in the center, and remember that simply because we are in the same space, same place and speaking at the same pace, it doesn’t mean we are truly learning.

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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