Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson, an educator for more than 40 years, is codirector of the Central Valley Education Leadership Institute at California State University, Fresno. He is former superintendent of Sanger Unified School District.

Are You On A “Learning By Labeling” Journey?

You can call your goat a chicken, but you won’t be eating eggs for breakfast!  You may be thinking…what the heck does that mean?  Quite simply put, changing the label does not change the outcome!  We all should be able to agree with that statement, and yet, I am amazed at how many times I encounter settings where labels change, but practice does not.


I think back to the first time I had the opportunity to hear Rick and Becky DuFour present an overview of the PLC concept.  It was May of 2005, and our district was searching for a pathway to improved outcomes for our students.  The message delivered in those two days provided a clear picture of the pathway we would need to walk, the structure we would build, and who we would need to become to make this our reality. 


We began a “Learning By Doing” journey of implementation…and everything about us changed.  Learning became our central focus, and results the key driver.  We developed a collaborative culture that was cultivated daily until it defined us.  Every step of the journey resulted in improved learning outcomes for our kids, and those results became the motivator that made us seek continuous improvement on our learning and doing journey; we became a Professional Learning Community.


Unfortunately, our journey is not always the case, as different systems embark on the same pathway.  Many times, well-intended individuals hear the same message we did and develop the same intentions, but don’t arrive at the same destination.  They know there is a better way, but for some reason fail to close the “knowing and doing” gap, settling instead for changing labels rather than actions.  Michael Fullan, in his recent book, Coherence, mentions teachers all across North America are frustrated with PLCs because they aren’t making a difference.  Fullan is not labeling PLCs as a failed concept; he is calling out, in many cases, the implementation failure to change anything other than a label.  Let me give you a few examples of what I mean.



We just call our already existing meetings PLC meetings. 

All too often when implementing, the only change that occurs is we call our meetings something different.  Grade level or department teams have been the norm in schools all across America for decades.  Usually the focus is on planning; we answer the question of what are we going to do rather than what do we want our students to learn.  We focus on activities rather than essentials.  When we change the name of the meeting without developing clear understanding of what we do when we meet, we cannot expect outcomes to change.  By labeling the collaborative team the Professional Learning Community, we also fail to recognize that while collaborative teams are the key to effective Professional Learning Communities, the school site as a whole is the professional learning community.


We call the process of completing a meeting agenda and turning it in our version of answering the Four Key Questions of a Professional Learning Community

On more than one occasion, I have asked a site leader “How do you monitor your teams’ effectiveness?” The response has been, “Oh, that’s easy…they turn in their meeting agendas and I file them in a binder.”  On one occasion when that response was given, I asked to see some samples, and found a second grade team agenda that read as follows regarding the four key questions:


What do we want our students to learn?  We want our students to learn Frosty the Snowman.

How will we know that learning has occurred?  We will listen to our students rehearse.

How will we respond when learning did not occur?  We will rehearse more frequently.

How will we respond when learning has occurred?  We will perform at the Winter Program.


Answering the questions was a compliance activity for the team; they filled in the agenda. Subsequently, monitoring team performance was a compliance activity for the principal, who in turn filed the agenda. 


Teams must answer the four key questions through their actions, not by writing on paper.  They identify essential standards and learning targets, develop common formative assessments aligned to the essentials, analyze the data, and provide additional support for kids who are struggling, or extensions for those who are successful.


We call our adopted textbooks our guaranteed viable curriculum.

Adopting curriculum is a huge investment for districts; it is natural to want it to be used.  The expectation should be that the adopted materials would serve as the primary resource to deliver the guaranteed viable curriculum, which is the agreed-upon essential standards and learning targets (what every child must know and be able to do) for each grade level and course.  Failing to establish the essentials and then aligning the available resources in the adopted materials to support the mastery of the essentials by every student will result in returning to a practice of simply covering content. 


I could continue to give examples of how labels didn't change outcomes, but I think you can see my point by now and can probably think of a couple of examples of your own.   The question becomes, then, how do we avoid labeling and actually commit to doing?  The first step is to develop clarity around what we should actually be doing, and then ask how we gauge our effectiveness at the doing.  I had the opportunity to hear Rick DuFour present recently; in his session, he pointed out a tool that can help answer that question.  Learning by Doing, now in its third edition, is unquestionably the best guide there is to understanding the Professional Learning Community journey.  Rick commented that the two pages titled “Critical Issues for Team Consideration” might be the two most important pages in the book.  The eighteen items listed on those two pages clearly define the work we must be doing. According to Rick, items one, two, and eighteen focus on team structure and commitments; items three through seventeen focus on team actions to increase student achievement. 


If you are not seeing the results you want on your PLC journey, maybe it is time you revisited this resource and make sure you uncover the areas where you may be label rich and action poor.  Instead, become label poor and action rich!

No responses yet.