Throughout history, there have been many examples of well-known groups of four, such as:
- The Four Seasons, a mid-1960s pop band led by Frankie Valli
- The Fantastic Four, the fictional superhero team created by Stan Lee
- The Fab Four or The Beatles
- The Final Four, the finals of a basketball tournament which occurs in late March every year (and one of my personal favorites)
While this list isn’t inclusive of all the important “fours” in history, it would be wrong to ignore one of the most impactful foursomes in the history of education: the four critical questions of a professional learning community.
Before identifying and explaining the four critical questions that have transformed education, it is absolutely imperative to begin with purpose. As a PLC, we agree that our fundamental purpose in education is to ensure a focus and commitment to the learning for all students. Without this common agreement, we will continue to operate within a structure that continues to focus on providing opportunities for student learning instead of ensuring learning for all. This perpetuates the traditional system of sorting children via the bell curve rather than preparing them to be college and career ready beyond their K–12 education.
When we collaborate and focus our work around this purpose and move from a focus on teaching to a focus on student learning, our focus shifts to the four critical questions of a PLC:
- What is it we expect our students to learn?
- How will we know when they have learned it?
- How will we respond when some students do not learn?
- How will we respond when some students already know it?
While the music by the Four Seasons is fun to listen to, it doesn’t translate well for today’s students, and we no longer live in December 1963. In education, we must look at things through a new lens, and we must identify what is essential for children to learn and be able to do before moving on to the next grade or class. Critical question number one asks us to clearly determine what we want our students to know; if we aren’t clear about this, the other three questions are nearly impossible to answer with any clarity. Without answering question number one, we will be transporting our students back over 50 years ago to an educational system that looks eerily similar to the one many educators continue to embrace.
A member of the Fantastic Four is Invisible Woman and, as her name implies, she is able to become completely transparent. This trait becomes extremely helpful and powerful as she collaborates with her team to maintain peace and order throughout the universe—yet our schools and teams struggle with transparency around question number two. If we fail to utilize common assessments within our teams and resist the need to become transparent as teams, we will not truly understand how our students perform academically. Ultimately, we will be unable to respond appropriately to the needs of individual students as questions three and four require.
One of my all-time favorite songs is “Let It Be” by the Fab Four (a.k.a. John, Paul, George, and Ringo). “Let It Be” appears to be a fairly simplistic song when listening for the first time because of the single piano and drums with Paul McCartney singing the lyrics. That being said, the song is much more complex with deeper meaning; this combination has made it an all-time classic. If we really wanted to ensure high levels of learning for all students, why would we just let it be with our students and not respond when they need us? Traditionally, schools have assessed students in a summative manner. When students failed to achieve at an appropriate level, we had the attitude of let it be and moved on. Learning, just like the song, is much more complex and beautiful; if we do not intervene when students do not learn, we are failing our students and ultimately failing our future.
Finally, the fourth question pushes us to reflect and change our practice to respond when students already know the content. As stated earlier, I love the Final Four basketball tournament. Certain teams and coaches reach the Final Four on a regular basis, and there are many reasons for this—ranging from the quality of the players to their performance throughout the regular season and the matchups within the tournament. If you were to ask these teams and coaches why they return to the Final Four so frequently, you would find it is because of their high level of focus on continuous improvement from the first game of the season to the very last, always dedicated to raising the bar and improving. Why wouldn’t we give our students opportunities for continuous improvement in their learning instead of giving them packets of work to keep them busy? As the coaching legend John Wooden stated, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” Keeping students who have mastered the subject busy instead of truly engaging them in higher levels of learning is wrong and fails to address our fundamental purpose: a focus and commitment to the learning of each and every student.
We must move beyond the “Let It Be” mentality, quit teaching students like it is December 1963, work like the Invisible Woman (becoming transparent for the benefit of student learning), and halt the practice of insisting on compliance rather than engagement for our students who already have mastered the content. By maintaining a clear focus on our purpose of ensuring high levels of learning for all students and using the four critical questions of a PLC to guide our process for accomplishing this, we will transform education.