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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Re-examining PLCs through a Cultural and Structural Lens

Written by Loriann Salmon, Director of Inclusive Education

I had the opportunity to attend the Leadership Now Conference and listen to names such as Dufour, Williams, Warrick, Reeves, and Cruz. A common theme resonated throughout – that of the power of PLCs. While the concept is certainly not new, I was challenged by the speakers to critically examine the essential conditions of our current PLCs both through a cultural and structural lens. 

Warrick noted five factors of high reliability schools, with the first three being foundational.  A safe
collaborative culture, he contended is best met by committing individual teachers into better performance through the traditional classroom observation and evaluation process” (Dufour and Marzano, Leaders of Learning: How District, School and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement, 2011).   Warrick challenged us as leaders to question how have we built capacity to work in these collaborative teams?   Effective collaboration doesn’t occur just because you put a group of educators together; we must take the time to build capacity for effective collaboration. 

Prior to building capacity conditions of safety must be met first and foremost.  Reeves noted part of developing a safe and collaborative culture means that members of the PLC must feel safe to admit failures.  Taking risks within PLCs supports creativity:  The process of experimentation, evaluation and follow through that leads to a significant discovery, insight or contribution.  A zero error environment is a zero learning environment.  Teachers, like students, need to make mistakes, takes risks and learn from them.  This supports both creativity and resiliency.  Encourage risk free zones where it’s ok to try new ideas, give feedback and try again.  Have confidence in the value of failure including public displays of “I used to think…and now I think” (Elmore, 2011).  Leaders have the responsibility to model this and develop that culture.

Williams also argued for another foundational piece before effective PLCs could take hold; all of our behaviors must be tied to a moral imperative.  Our values and beliefs must be identified and clarified.  Only then will can our behaviors be tied to those values.  Our work needs to continually embody these values and purposes in everything we do.  Williams gave the example if we believe all kids can learn what are we doing about it?   What behaviors are we engaging in that are in line with that belief?  Not only is tying our behaviors to purpose essential for those purpose driven people, but is essential in keeping us motivated and driven when the work gets more difficult.  The why of the work and the work itself need to be interwoven; the culture of the school will always influence what is thought, said and done.

The work then involves building the structures and supports that allow people to function in ways that are consistent with theses beliefs.  This should involve, according to Warrick, building the capacity of collaborating.   In doing so, Warrick’s leading indicators support us in making the success criteria of PLCs visible.  As I was reflecting on these essential conditions of PLCs the connection to our Foothills School Division vision became apparent.

Developing Understanding of Curricula & Designing for Understanding:  Dufour noted the work within PLCs must ensure a guaranteed and viable curriculum, also considered to be one of the three foundational factors of high reliability schools according to Warrick.  There must be clarity with regards to what students must learn. The school curriculum must be focused enough – essential outcomes and essential vocabulary are determined first and foremost in answering, “What do we want students to learn?” In determining what is essential we must consider endurance (is it needed beyond the single test date), leverage (is it needed across disciplines) and is the knowledge or skill required for the next level.  Every PLC should begin with these questions.  A leading indicator in developing a guaranteed and viable curriculum is that all students must have the opportunity to learn the critical content.  Have we identified this critical content throughout the continuum in supporting all students?

Embedding Assessment of and for Learning:  The second essential question of PLCs focuses on, “How will we know if they know it?” All students have access to it with clear and measurable goals directly tied to those outcomes and data is continually monitored in assessing progress towards those goals.  We must ensure again that this is considered across the continuum in supporting all students.   Are we carefully monitoring student achievement across the continuum, analyzing the data carefully and providing next steps based on that data?  It is essential that we not only examine the data carefully but are responsive to it.

TPAC:  According to Dufour, now we move into pedagogical practice and strategies.   This, according to Warrick, is considered the third foundational factor of highly reliable schools - effective teaching in every classroom.  He suggests clearly laying out what effective teaching looks like and clearly defining this to the teachers.  This instructional model must be clearly visible and understood to all teachers.  In Dufour’s words, “Clarity precedes competence.”  Warrick noted the school leader communicates a clear vision as to how instruction should be addressed in the school.  We won’t move schools by focusing on everything.  These are things we expect instructionally.  Make it clear - don’t leave it to chance.  Warrick suggests using a chart below to make those essential instructional practices visible and known to all.  Our lagging indicator will be our walkthrough data that shows teachers clearly understand and are practicing what has been identified as essential in the school’s instructional framework.

Response to Intervention:  Finally, our PLCs must answer “What do we do for those who get it and those who don’t?”  Interventions must be systematic – not dependent on whose class the student is in. Making these interventions visible to all on a continuum of supports will help provide systematic interventions throughout the school.  Every teacher in every class needs to know of and be able to implement these interventions.  Every school must have in place a continuum of supports that will ensure interventions are research based, timely, targeted, systematic, directive, administered by a trained professional. 

I was challenged to critically reflect on our PLCs:  are we meeting the essential components of PLCs for all students or are we creating the illusion of effective collaboration?  The longer we do PLCs with endurance and fidelity around the PLC questions the better our work will get.   The more we intentionally focus on these questions throughout the continuum the more likely will we ensure success for ALL students.

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