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.

On What Kind of PLC Journey Are You: Learning...or Doing?

Becoming a PLC is a journey of transformation. It requires that we nurture and cultivate a collaborative culture anchored around a shared commitment of one thing: learning.  

However, it is amazing how many times I see folks engaged in what they believe to be the work of a collaborative team in a professional learning community. Yet, through their conversations about their work, they demonstrate the only thing that has really changed is what they call their meeting time. They used to call their meeting time a grade-level meeting; now, they call it “collaboration time,” but little else has changed about how they work together.  

Let me give you an example. I recently visited a school site during “collaboration” time. The principal and I were visiting teams as they met. Here is the kind of conversation we heard over and over again:  

Teacher 1: “Well, we finished chapter seven last week and we all gave the chapter test—how did our kids do overall?”  

Teacher 2: “I think that they did pretty well. Actually, some of them struggled a bit, but I am pretty happy with their grades, for the most part.”  

Teacher 3: “I would agree that overall, we did okay. I would have liked to see more kids pass, but I can live with our results.”  

Teacher 1: “Okay, we need to start chapter eight next week. Any thoughts about that?”  

Teacher 2: “Yes, I think we can finish the chapter in about six days, and I really like the mid-chapter review questions. I am for sure going to have my kids answer those.” 

Teacher 3: “I like those, too, and I have a worksheet I can share with you that will keep them busy. It really worked well for me the last time I used it.”  

Teacher 1: “Great idea, and thanks for being willing to share your worksheet, which is why we are a great team!”  

Teacher 2: “By the way, we probably better think about giving our kids some kind of a quiz before we give them the chapter test so we have two assessment grades in the grade book.”

Teacher 1: “That sounds great. Any questions? ... All right, see you all at our next collaboration meeting.”  

The whole conversation of that team was anchored around doing: How did our kids do? Now what are we going to have them do next?  

It was a planning meeting that never once referenced learning. Needless to say, the principal and I had a long conversation about focus and support to shift the teams to a learning journey, rather than a doing journey, so that his teams were truly collaborating as a team rather than planning as a group.  

The team conversation on a collaborative learning journey would sound very different. It would be anchored in describing the team actions needed to truly answer the four critical questions that frame a Professional Learning Community at Work®.  

  1. What do we want our students to learn (really know and be able to do)?
  • In the next unit of study, which standards are the “must know” standards that we will ensure our kids have mastered, and which ones are the “nice to know” standards that we will support during instruction?
  • What are the learning targets in the “must know” standards that will drive our instruction, monitoring, and response?
  1. How will we know that learning has occurred?
  • What is the common formative assessment we will use to monitor our students learning?
  • What is our SMART goal (strategic and specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and time-bound) that will define how long we will focus on this learning? When we will monitor the learning, and how will we support all students in the learning?
  • How will each of us formatively monitor learning daily during instruction to identify students who are struggling, and then provide them the extra support needed to be successful?
  • When will we come together as a team with our formative assessment data ready to be looked at so we can identify students needing support for learning and those who are ready to go deeper, and then identify best instructional practices as supported by the data?
  1. How will we respond when learning did not occur?
  • How will we as a team provide the extra time and support for our students that our common formative data shows are struggling with mastery of the “must-know” concepts?
  • How and when will we provide our struggling learners with another opportunity to demonstrate they have learned the “must-know” concepts?
  1. How will we respond when learning has occurred?
  • For our students who have demonstrated mastery of the “must-know” concepts, how can we extend and deepen their learning?
  • How can we give those students a chance to apply their learning and create a product to show mastery?

The difference between the first team conversation and the second team conversation is that learning is only at the core of the second conversation point. Ensuring learning for all anchors the actions of the team. This is what it takes to be on a learning journey rather than a doing journey!  

The next time you meet with your team, think about what drives your conversation and commitments. Is it really learning, or just doing? Principals, as each of you listen to your team conversations and examine team artifacts that document their work, ask yourselves, “How do I guide the work of my teams to keep them on a learning journey, and how do I help them deepen their understanding and actions?”  

Learning for all will never be the outcome of a doing journey. May we all commit to and actually achieve a learning journey! 

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