If you want to assess how effective your PLC’s have become, one of the most valuable places to start is the level of student work and how it has improved over time. This is one of the most used activities in a PLC, but often used inefficiently in terms of formatively assessing practice and making improvements. The reasons it can be ineffective are simple and two major factors contribute greatly to it. The first is competence and the second is trust. Our author, Daniel Venables, discusses building trust through norms and protocols in Chapter 2, but extends the discussion through several examples of protocols that could be used to look at student/teacher work during a PLC. On page 46, the author mentions feedback as “the lifeblood on nearly every aspect of PLC work, most notably, the lifeblood of looking at student and teacher work.” However, the word of caution remains that the quality of the feedback is dependent on the willingness of the groups to give and receive honest feedback regarding the quality of the work. At the very bottom of pg. 46, Venables offers reasoning for why teachers do not give critical feedback and quite frankly, it stings a little bit. It is because the often not thinking deeply enough about the work and going through a series of compliance steps to satisfy administrative requirements and they are not truly invested in the process. If that is the case we have not done a sufficient enough job of establishing a learning culture in the PLC. The protocols will help, but teachers must have the trust and the willingness to make them thrive. The second reason, competence, is not specifically addressed by the author in Chapter 3, but one that must be addressed to reach the end goal of increased teacher and student performance. If the participants, especially the facilitator, of the PLC are not competent in their knowledge of both curriculum and instruction, the protocols and the activities become a well-intended activity without the desired results. While it is true that the PLC in itself is embedded professional learning, when examining both teacher and student work there must be a standard of excellence in which the group is striving. If that is not the case, it makes it difficult for the critical feedback to occur. One of the first things a facilitator of a PLC must assess, are the individuals in the group “willing and able”, “willing but unable”, or in the worse-case scenario “able, but unwilling.”
Besides the protocols for looking at student work, Chapter 3 also offers several examples of looking at “teacher work”. Figure 3:10 on pg. 58 is a great list of the various forms of teacher work that can be completed during a PLC. While it is hopeful that many of the activities listed would not be done in isolation, but rather as a group, the protocols listed in the book do call for some individual presentations and accountability. Too often we sit and plan lessons, assessments, rubrics, etc. together but never take the time to put them through any sort of “quality control” check to make sure they are meeting the objectives we want them to. In our District, we have used some protocols such as “pre-lesson shares” or the “Targeted Planning Process”, however it those are “events” rather than embedded as part of the culture or don’t have the trust and feedback noted above, they will not push the limits of new learning and progress.
The final piece on teacher learning that Venables discusses in Chapter 3 is Peer Observation. Perhaps nothing has the potential to be more beneficial to teachers than feedback on the implementation of their planning than respected peers observing them teach and offering honest feedback. There are so many models of this, including the use of video, that are popular right now, that it is hard to imagine a teacher in NISD that hasn’t participated in peer observation in some form or fashion. Let’s take two of the more established protocols, Instructional Rounds and Focused Walkthroughs. Both of these provide time for structured observation however they come with very different purposes. Instructional Rounds are less about individual teachers and more about determining trends of instruction around the campus. Our focused-walks have several specific protocols that determine the type of feedback the individual teacher is to be given. Both of these protocols can be very helpful, IF: They are used on a regular basis and not every once in a while, and IF all the participants understand the purpose and are willing to give critical feedback. Again, the challenge lies in the instructional culture of building. Other effective examples of peer observation are when the receiving teacher identifies and asks for observers to look for specific areas in which they hope to improve or focus. This allows the teacher to “own” the learning and can be more beneficial to individual growth. The worse thing we can do has have teachers “go watch” a great teacher and expect results! They most observe with a purpose.
Chapter 3 is full of ideas (some old and some new) of ways to improve our PLC culture and the craft of improvement. However, never is the skill of the facilitator nor the trust of the PLC put more to the challenge then when looking at student and teacher work. Remember the lessons from the first two chapters…it won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen without intentional planning.
1. Picture the PLC in which you spend the most time, are the participants both “willing and able” to do the work necessary? If the answer is no to either “willing” or “able”, what steps will be necessary to build capacity for the team?
2. When you “plan” as a team in your PLC, could you or would you use a protocol that allows for some sort of “quality control” before the lesson is ever presented to students?
3. When participating in “peer observation” what protocols do you feel are most beneficial and why?