No Need for a Fifth Question: How A Collaborative Team Improves Instruction In A PLC
Collaborative teams in a PLC are asked to engage in weekly job-embedded professional development and build shared knowledge in the areas of curriculum, assessment, data analysis, intervention, and extension. They do this by answering the following four questions:
- What knowledge, skills, and dispositions should every student acquire as a result of this unit, this course, or this grade level?
- How will we know when each student has acquired the essential knowledge and skills?
- How will we respond when some students don’t learn?
- How will we extend the learning of students who are already proficient?
These questions act as a guide to ensure that the collaborative efforts of teacher teams are focused on improving foundational knowledge in areas that will actually impact classroom instruction and student learning. However, when I teach schools or districts about how to create a PLC culture, I am occasionally asked a fairly logical question regarding the four critical questions. Many educators want to know why there is not a question for teams to answer dealing specifically with best instructional practice. In other words, after we have determined what students needed to learn (question 1), shouldn’t we ask what is the best way to teach it? After all, ensuring high levels of learning for all students requires excellent classroom instruction, so this seems like a fairly significant omission. The answer to this question may surprise you, as the exclusion of the fifth question was not an oversight. Instead, it was omitted by design.
Thirteen years ago, when I was a new associate, I attended a PLC associate retreat led by Dr. Rick DuFour at Adlai Stevenson High School. On the agenda for this retreat was a new item for discussion: should a fifth question that specifically addresses classroom instruction be added to the existing four critical questions collaborative teams were asked to answer as part of the PLC process. After posing the question, the room discussed the pros and cons of adding this fifth question. If I recall correctly, many of the associates, myself included, were in favor of adding a question dealing with instruction. However, after much debate, Rick spoke to why he felt it would be a mistake to make this change to the PLC process. He clearly articulated that if we chose to add a fifth question, schools would overemphasize answering this question, ignore the other four, and reproduce what they already had: a focus on teaching, not learning.
There is a commonly held belief among educators that focusing on instruction will lead to improved student learning. In theory, this makes sense--if teachers could learn and apply research-based, high-effect instructional strategies, then student achievement should improve. This belief is so pervasive that it is the primary improvement strategy of most schools and districts in North America. Regularly, teachers are sent to professional development sessions to learn the latest and greatest instructional methods. The narrative is always the same: forget what you did before, teach the children with this new method, and they will all learn. Unfortunately, despite the huge amount of time, energy, effort, and money invested in this strategy, the results for students have been lacking.
There are three reasons why the strategy of focusing on teaching has not yielded the changes in practice required to improve student learning. The first problem with having teachers attend sessions on instruction deals with how the content of the PD was selected. Who decides what instructional methods will be taught to the teachers? More often than not, the decision is top down, far away from the walls of a classroom, which results in teachers not understanding the need for the change. At best, districts get compliance rather than a commitment toward using the strategy back in their classrooms, because teachers feel stripped of their autonomy when they are not involved in the decision-making process.
The second problem with the traditional practice of focusing on teaching is that rarely are teachers given the time necessary to learn how to apply the strategy in their classrooms. When teachers attend one-off PD days, the amount of knowledge they are expected to absorb is usually fairly significant. Even if the day is well thought out and expertly delivered, teachers will still need time for practice and feedback back at their schools if they are expected to change their current classroom habits. Changing instructional practice requires a teacher to internalize and apply the strategy for it to be effective, which requires time and support. All learners, including adults, need practice and feedback to learn, yet most schools provide very little support once the PD day is over.
Realizing the flaws in this strategy, some districts have hired instructional coaches to work alongside teachers, to directly support classroom teachers in their instructional improvement. While an instructional coach is definitely an improvement over leaving teachers alone to figure it out by themselves, it is not enough to ensure all students learn at high levels. Too often, the instructional coach is successful at changing practice but not achievement. The reason for this can be explained by examining the third problem with focusing on teaching. As educators, we have been conditioned to believe that because research indicates that a strategy has high effect, it will work with all kids. Unfortunately, educational research is not as conclusive as other areas of science. If you knock a water bottle off a desk, you can be reasonably sure that it will hit the floor because of the law of gravity. You could repeat this experiment any number of times and observe the same result, because science has predictable laws. However, you may have noticed that children don’t follow predictable patterns. In fact, most of the time, they are anything but predictable in how they learn. Every teacher will tell you that each student in his or her class has learning needs that are unique and specific to them. Unlike research into the laws of nature, educational research isn’t quite as cut and dried. Because of the contextual nature of educational research, there is simply no guarantee that applying a research-based strategy will yield the same result in your classroom. Too often, changing a classroom strategy doesn’t change the number of students who learn, it simply changes which students learn. This is especially true if you are already using good instructional methodology. My argument is not intended to undermine the importance of using research to improve instruction. In fact, I believe it should be is an essential component of all schools’ improvement efforts. However, accepting the research at face value without measuring its effectiveness in your context means you can’t be sure if the new strategy is any better than the old strategy. Investing in district- or schoolwide PD around a new strategy doesn’t guarantee improvement because the needs and context of each school and individual classroom are different.
A collaborative team working through the PLC process takes a very different approach to instructional improvement. Rather than changing instruction in the hope that the new strategy will be more effective, a collaborative team seeks to use data to drive instructional decisions. Answering the second critical question requires teams to create common formative assessments. Not only will this data tell the team which students need help on which essential standards, but more importantly, it will drive the teams' instructional improvement efforts. Sometimes called the linchpin of the PLC process, common formative assessments help a team improve instruction in two specific ways. First, because the assessments are common, an “apples to apples” comparison of instructional effectiveness can be determined by examining the individual results of each teacher. What the team discovers is that they all have areas of strength and areas for growth in their instructional practice, and they take these opportunities to learn from each other. Secondly, when the team is collectively unhappy with their results, they engage in collective inquiry regarding how to improve in their area of collective need. For example, after analyzing their common assessment data, a grade 1 team determines that despite their best efforts, their students are not demonstrating the proficiency they require in reading decoding. Having exhausted all of the strategies they know, the team determines that they will need to engage in new learning in the areas of phonemic awareness and phonics. They determine a course of action, which includes reading current research and consulting experts in the field of reading research. They learn different approaches to teaching these skills and put them into practice. Finally, they determine the success of their efforts by measuring the effectiveness of their new instructional methods against their agreed-upon proficiency. This is an evidence-based decision-making process that ensures all teachers on the team acquire new skills. In a PLC, the collaborative teams drive instructional improvement in areas of actual need, instead of having someone else determine the need for them. The autonomy afforded teacher teams to make decisions promotes commitment to their improvement plan and ownership for the results, a very different approach from the predominant ideology.
Dr. DuFour knew that the path to school improvement ran directly through each and every teacher’s classroom. Rather than follow existing top-down improvement efforts, the PLC process puts decision-making in the hands of teacher teams and builds teacher capacity through collective inquiry and action research. This process is a powerful method of ensuring high levels of learning for every student, resulting in empowered teacher teams that examine their practice and make evidence-based decisions about their instructional effectiveness. It builds belief, commitment, and collective efficacy in teachers as they see the results of their collaborative work. Rick was right: there was no need for a fifth question. Instructional improvement is driven by the existing process.