We began working with the PLC model about 10-12 years ago in Weber School District. Initially, the focus of our work within PLC’s was curriculum design. We posed a series of four questions:
- What do we want students to know and understand?
- What will we accept as evidence that students have learned?
- What are the most effective teaching strategies and learning experiences that will help students learn?
- How can we differentiate instruction to meet the specific needs of each student?
Although we have begun to use PLC time successfully for things other than curriculum design (e.g., child study teams, lesson study, collaborative analysis of student work, etc.) I would like to revisit those original questions and share several suggestions.
With each unit, teachers should be able to answer the first question with absolute clarity. Rather than simply defaulting to the standard or objective in the core as the answer to question one, teachers can work together to “unpack” the standard in such a way that they are able to clearly articulate the big ideas or enduring understandings that get right at the heart of the unit. Sometimes, we erroneously substitute the topic under study for the actual learning goal. For instance, a social studies teacher might say, “I’m teaching the Civil War.” Or, an English teacher might say, “I’m teaching A Tale of Two Cities. In actuality, those are the topics we’re teaching but they are not the learning goals. The learning goals for teaching a Civil War unit might include: 1) Students are able to identify key social, political and economic issues that Americans confronted during the Civil War era; and, 2) Students are able to describe opposing views on the issue of states’ rights and how those disputes contributed to the Civil War. Similarly, the learning goals for the English teacher would be much more specific in nature and could get at analysis of theme or describing character development through conflict resolution.
As it relates to the learning goal, there should be consistency among grade level teams or in a department. That consistency is established as teams of teachers collaboratively identify what is most important for students to know and understand. Please note, that for a language arts team or grade level team, it is not even necessary that they read the same novel! A team of teachers might read different novels (or short stories, poetry, or drama for that matter) and yet have consistent learning goals dealing with character development, analysis of theme, resolution of conflict, etc.
The second question gets us thinking like assessors. We’re looking for reliable, robust evidence that students have really learned. The easy default on question two is to utilize a publisher-produced test or quiz. I’m going to give a caution here. There has been talk of “common assessments” and some have falsely assumed that the goal is simply to have every teacher giving the same test or quiz. This assumes that merely giving the same test achieves the expectation. Not true! The real litmus test of a quality assessment strategy is whether it permits a student to authentically demonstrate what he/she really knows and understands. Publisher-produced tests generally don’t achieve that high standard. Rather, they tend to measure surface-level knowledge only. Therefore, it’s quite possible for a student with relatively deep understanding to score poorly on a multiple choice test. Similarly, it’s possible for a student with shallow knowledge to score average or above through guessing on a multiple choice quiz.
Once again, as it relates to evidence supporting student learning on a specific goal or objective there should be consistency among grade-level teams or subject area teachers. There is great value in coming together as a team to discuss those assessment strategies which will best yield authentic feedback on student learning. Collaboration at this stage is valuable because developing assessment strategies that permit students to genuinely demonstrate what they know and understand is not easy work. And, we don’t do our best work in isolation! Frankly speaking, we’re usually smarter together.
The third question gets at pedagogy and strategy. Here we strongly encourage teachers to use their creativity in planning teaching strategies and learning experiences that will capture students’ hearts and imaginations in ways that excite learning. We value teachers’ expertise and innovative spirit. Teachers know their students. They know what their interests, strengths and deficiencies are and understand how to adapt instruction to meet their students’ unique needs. Under no circumstances would we encourage every teacher to teach the same lesson on the same day using the same methodology. In implementing the PLC model, some make this false assumption. But it goes against best practice. We know that each student learns at a different pace and in different ways. Suggesting that every teacher teach the same thing on the same day and in the same way contradicts that reality.
The final question implies that students are different and adjusting instruction around those differences is appropriate. Some students may already know the content we’re teaching. With these students, teachers are able to design learning experiences that permit them to go deeper in their understanding. Others may require additional instructional support to successfully acquire knowledge. Skilled teachers are capable of providing students with different avenues to learning so that all students can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.
I once read an article titled, “Teaching is Rocket Science!” I agree. It’s not easy to plan and deliver instruction around so many variables. A framework for curriculum design assists in that process. Collaboration in PLC’s with productive, meaningful dialogue is crucial to bringing out the best in both teachers and students.