Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts is an author and consultant with over two decades of experience teaching and leading schools at all levels.

The Forgotten Question

Three is a magic number. I know that because Schoolhouse Rock! said so. There is a holy trinity, time is split into three parts (past, present, and future). There are three branches to the United States government. Goldilocks faced down three bears; the Big Bad Wolf battled three little pigs. Lord of the Rings was a trilogy. Rush and Nirvana were power trios.

There is nothing special about four. Four is just another number. Even four’s Schoolhouse Rock! stinks. Don’t believe me? Look up “The Four-Legged Zoo.”

So, if Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, Many, and Mattos wrote that professional learning communities have four essential questions to answer, there must be a good reason. Of course, there is a good reason: all four questions are essential. All four questions need to be answered to ensure all students are learning at the highest level possible.

  1. What do we want our students to know or be able to do?
  2. How will we know if each student has learned it?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not learn it?
  4. How will we extend the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency?

Learning By Doing (3rd edition), Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, Many, Mattos (2016, p. 59) There is no fat in those questions to be trimmed. Collaborative teams need to answer all four questions to address the needs of all students and be operating at the highest collaborative level.

However, in my experience helping build two professional learning communities and supporting U.S. schools growing their PLCs, I have found that one question often gets left out. The forgotten question. The last among equals.

Teams thoughtfully discuss what they want their students to know and be able to do, which assessments will show if the students have learned the material, and how to support the students who have yet to learn it. Yet, these teams still struggle to answer how to extend learning for proficient students. This struggle is often for one of three reasons.


Teams simply run out of it. Collaborative teams work hard on selecting essential standards, writing common formative assessments, and reviewing the data the assessments have produced. Teams then discuss how intervene to support students who are not yet proficient, and then … they are out of time. Meeting over.

In 2015, Carol Ann Tomlinson noted that teams are more effective at planning interventions after they plan their extensions. What Tomlinson does not say, is this makes them more effective in planning extensions as well, since they have an allotted time to specifically address proficient students’ needs. Yet, most teams plan interventions first, leaving no time for the students who would be supported by Question 4.

The Language Schools Use Around Additional Support

Schools and teams often discuss “intervention time” or “additional support time.” If the language were to change to “intervention/extension time” or “additional learning time,” then the semantics of a school would change to support proficient students as well.

Some schools use WIN (What I Need) time as the language of their additional learning time block. But, I have yet to be at a school where teams discussed anything other than interventions when talking about WIN time. Genius hour is another often-used name for extra time. However, this name implies giftedness, and most proficient students are not identified as gifted. Question 4 students are simply students who have achieved proficiency on a standard and need to have their learning continued. So, even here the language does not fully support all proficient students.

How to Extend Learning for Proficient Students

Often teams struggle with how to extend proficient students’ learning. Do they use next year’s standards? Allow the students to pick their own work? Put them on a computer for a self-paced program?

Instead of having fifth graders work on sixth-grade standards, for example, teams should look to their grade-level standards. Specifically, the standards left over after the team has selected their essential standards. Standards which are not deemed to be essential for all students to learn can be referred to as extension standards. These standards, which were compacted or dropped to ensure coverage of essential standards, are a fertile place for teams to build extensions around. By using extension standards, teams will continue to advance the learning of proficient students without compromising vertical articulation and still give students the structure and support they need.

I once heard someone say that proficient students are on third base academically and that these students will be okay without much support from collaborative teams. However, anyone who has played baseball knows how frustrating it can be to be stranded on third base and not score. By effectively answering all four essential questions of a professional learning community, schools will ensure that all children get the support they need to cross home plate.

Although four is not a magic number, thoughtfully answering Question 4 can get magical results for the students of teams who intentionally plan how to extend the learning of students who have demonstrated proficiency … and that would truly make a schoolhouse rock.


DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2015, January 27). Differentiation does, in fact, work. Education Week. Accessed at https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/01/28/differentiation-does-in-fact-work.html on December 5, 2018.

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