Mark Weichel

Mark Weichel, EdD, an assistant superintendent, is a former high school building administrator and junior high school teacher who played a vital leadership role as his school transformed into a successful PLC.

Four Ways to Stop Ignoring the Forgotten Fourth Critical Question of a PLC

One of the first pieces of common vocabulary educators acquire when learning about Professional Learning Communities are the four critical questions. These questions serve as both a big picture framework and a constant reminder of what collaborative teams in a PLC should address.

The Four Critical Questions:

  1. What is it we expect students to learn?
  2. How will we know students have learned it?
  3. What do we do when students don’t learn it?
  4. What do we do when students already know it?

Many professionals and teams with whom I have worked are clear, or at least somewhat clear, on what is expected of them with regard to the first three questions. While implementation can be challenging and educators may encounter obstacles, most teams understand the idea of engaging in a collaborative process. Conversations continually cycle as they discuss topics such as a guaranteed and viable curriculum, the development, implementation, and analysis of common formative assessments, and strategies for students who struggle. However, I have found that not all teams clearly understand or spend time on the fourth question.

At a recent Professional Learning Community Institute, I asked a number of experienced participants what they do to address "critical question four." Most answered that the fourth question is not a common part of their PLCs for a variety of reasons, which included time, priorities, and know-how. 

The following are some of the details they shared in explaining why question four is often left for “another day.”

Time

Teams have limited amounts of time for PLCs. Even when teams are given forty-five minutes to an hour during the regular school day, the time can go very quickly. Elementary teachers said they typically have time to discuss the full cycle of critical questions one through three but only briefly talk about question four. If there is time left in a meeting, they said, they are more likely to discuss another subject than to devote time to question four.

Priorities

Closely linked to time, they also raised concerns about priorities. The critical questions can be thought of as a continuum with each question relying on the question before.  It is difficult to address question two without question one, question three without question two, and so on.  For teams just beginning the process, question four is the last one to be addressed. Participants said they generally don’t have as much practice with question four because they often move on to the next unit of study before they have made their way down the continuum. And when teams set priorities, concerns about students who already have mastered concepts such as reading and addition often don’t rise to the top of the list.

Know-how

Participants said they don’t always know what to do for students who “already know it.” One participant said she knows many resources exist online, but she is unsure how to access them or find time to make sure they are high quality. Another said students who already know the content can go work on whatever they choose. They don’t require much direction.

With time, priorities, and know-how as obstacles to fully implementing critical question four, I can see how this area of a PLC can be a challenge. I contend that a thoughtful and intentional consideration of question four is a valuable and worthy exercise to help support teaching and learning in schools and classrooms. To bolster this conclusion, I offer some highlights from a larger list of recommendations that my colleagues, Michelle Patterson and Blane McCann, and I developed while working with a group of teachers in our district, the Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Nebraska.

Here are four things to try:

1. Know your students: A great deal of potential for personalizing learning lies in being intentional about getting to know the students in your classrooms. Bray and McClaskey (2015) offer a simple and easy-to-use template for learning about how students prefer to access, engage in, and express their learning. I have seen wonderful, well-designed student learning activities come about because of thoughtful conversations between students and teachers. Developing strategies to learn about students is only one part of the battle. The next is to make sure this important information isn’t put in the back of a filing cabinet a few weeks into the school year. I have seen expert teachers utilize reminder strategies, such as creating an easy-to-view daily poster of every student’s strengths as a way to keep such valuable information close at hand.

2. Make question four a part of your routine: As a PLC team, make sure that the documentation you use for your own team and/or submit to administrators at your school includes question four. Keep track of the dates and types of conversations that take place in this area to ensure that it is not forgotten or glossed over.   

3. Use your resources: Ask colleagues both within and outside of your district for resources that can help make your job easier when it comes to question four. In the district where I work, our Excellence in Youth department created a website full of amazing resources. It’s just one example of the many that you could use with your team.

4. Think about question four in a different light: By far the most challenging recommendation I can make is to urge you to begin thinking differently about critical question four. The types of extension, engagement, and learning that takes place “when a student already knows it” is good for all students.  Strategies such as Schoolwide Enrichment and Genius Hour are great systems that illustrate this point. What might your classroom look like if you thought about question four this way: How do I extend learning for all students in my classroom?

There are many practical reasons why teams work through critical questions one through three and pay a small amount of attention to question four. But during my time in the Westside schools, I have seen the power of systems in which collaborative teams intentionally plan for student voice and choice in their own learning. I urge your schools and teams to reserve time for conversations about enrichment and engagement for students who “already know it” as well as for all students.  

I would be happy to field questions and learn more about the “question four” strategies that have worked in your PLC teams.

Comments

Cassie Sellman

Mark,

My school has a PLC time each week, but we are far from where we need to be. Right now, we don’t even discuss the first 3 questions on a regular basis. There have been meetings in which we discuss what we expect the students to learn (question 1), but most meetings are focused on question 2. We spend most of our time talking about FIP (formative instruction practices) and sharing with one another. Even though we do not regularly discuss a the first three questions, I know that teachers in my school have expectations, assess, and then use strategies to re-teach when students are not grasping the content.

I found this blog very interesting because you focused on question 4 (what do you do when students already know it), a question that most PLCs fail to discuss. I think that as teachers, we have a hard time with enrichment. It is our job to teach and to re-teach our students. When a student comes along and they know more than the others, we are not always sure what to do with them. Sure, this question may be skipped because of time, but it might also be that it makes teachers uncomfortable. We can easily talk about how we re-teach something because we do it often. What we fail to do sometimes is to enrich the students who are already where they need to be. I loved this blog and really think that you offer some great ideas when it comes to question 4. I am going to share this blog with my colleagues and try to focus on all 4 questions.

Cassie Sellman

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Jasmin Rowdy

Hello Mark,

Thank you for the great information and advice. I agree, discussing what to do if the students already know the content during PLC is just as powerful as the other three questions. What would you recommend for split classes where half of the class has already mastered the content but the other half has never been exposed to the content? I find that small group instruction works best for extending the learning for the first group of students. However, they are certainly not as engaged during the whole-group lesson since it is essentially review for them.

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Timothy Turner

Hello Mark,

I enjoyed your blog comments. I teach at a school which doesn't have many resources. Our school is currently in a major shifty to become more Data Driven Learning. One thing that we found essential is to enhance our PLC at our school. The four ideas that you recommend will serve as a great starting point for our future PLC meetings as we begin to share our collected data. Having the ground work for our meetings and a template to use for our students will save considerable amounts of time. The comments you shared from others who have implemented your ideas are extremely helpful. To help make our PLC time more efficient we will seek outside sources that possess the skills we need to address our student needs. Thanks for your insight.

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Laraunde Brinkley

Hi Mark,

Thank you for writing this article and sharing strategies on how to stop ignoring the fourth critical question of a PLC, "what do we do when students already know it?" As an educator whose motto is "meet students where they are" and "take them as a far as they go", it is my responsibility to ensure that even my best and brightest students, the high achievers, the above grade level students, are just as engaged and challenged to learn at high levels, as the on grade level and struggling students. Two solutions you suggested, making questions apart of the PLC routine and using your resources, are strategies I will employ in my grade level team meetings. Perhaps selecting certain team members to bring resources targeted for advanced students to the PLC would help in this endeavor, as well as moving question 4 to the front of the agenda may help as well. Educators can't afford to not address question 4 in the PLC. Avoidance of this question can lead to disengagement in the learning process for these students. They may become bored because they aren't being challenged and may start to exhibit behavior problems because of their boredom.

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Leanne Smith

Hi Mark,

As an educator who agrees that PLCs often neglect question four, I am also wondering what the next step is. For example, my team and I have always had "early finishers" activities for those students who seemed to know the content. Should question four be driving teachers to provide just any enrichment activities or should we be providing learning experiences that build upon the same concept that the students are showing they already know? For example, if a student knows skip counting, do you suggest that rather than force him to continue learning that along with the other students, we provide him with more challenging and scaffolded material, such as beginning multiplication? Or do we provide just any enrichment activity altogether that also matches the student's learning interests?

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Mark Weichel

Hi, Shirley. In the district where I work, Omaha Westside Community Schools, we have taken this slowly. Schools interested in School Wide Enrichment began learning about and incorporating these strategies a few years ago. Next, we started with small groups of teachers we call "early adopters" who learned about personalized learning. This group is really blazing a trail of what this can look like for others. For a small first step, I would consider finding out your team's current reality, what does question four look like today? If you don't "get to" question four, what are the barriers? From there, I think you will begin to see next steps. Stay in touch, maybe I could help you think through some of the steps.

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Shirley Lindburg Lindburg

Great article! If you had 2 hours to share with elementary PLCs how best to address question 4, what would you share (beyond what you shared above.) I love the idea of Genius Hour and have materials to use to help with question 4 but teachers want to walk out with something they can do the next day. Any thoughts? (I have also checked into the personalized learning website.)

Thanks!

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diana bhadgal

Hi Mark,

I totally agree with your comments and as a teacher for 20 odd years recognise the neglect that exists pertaining to question 4. I feel, also that it must be considered in the historical context in which we find ourselves.... I feel that the current political climate that favors standardized testing has put considerable strain on our school resources and teachers alike.
We, as an institution are trying to cope with so many new issues and at least where I teach our focus is on the changing nature of our school population. ELL is a big focus group for us and we are diverting energies,the best we can, to help and improve ELL`s achievement. However, teacher resources are limited and cuts are being made and as you say we are neglecting the brighter students who already know material as we know they are "fine" and will do well. Instead,at my school, we are all more focused (and directed to do so) and aware that it has become increasingly important to recognize and affirm the native language of these new ELL learners as it directly leads to better achievement and improvements in student welfare and overall school grades and therefore performance.

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