Jonathan G. Vander Els

Jonathan G. Vander Els specializes in supporting teachers and administrators in schools and districts across the country in developing, sustaining, and enhancing structures to support all learners.

Understanding the 'What'

While I was a school principal, our teams went into the PLC process with the aim of meeting each and every student where they were. Our mission was to collectively support all learners in moving forward by collaboratively providing them with the support each needed.

But we ended up having to take a few steps back when we realized that we didn’t have the clarity about where our students were, because we hadn’t yet identified what was crucial for them to know, understand, and be able to demonstrate.

As an associate at Solution Tree, I have supported many schools and districts in their change efforts, all aimed at something similar to what we were working at achieving at our school. Although each school and district I now support is unique, there are commonalities that unite these efforts. Focusing on learning, and being clear on “what it is we want students to learn” is an absolute necessity, and the key for all other components of the Professional Learning Community at Work® process to be built off of.

The four critical questions

In their book Learning By Doing, 3rd Edition (2016), DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, and Mattos outline the Four Critical Questions of a Professional Learning Community as follows:

  1. What is it we want students to learn?
  2. How will we know if they’ve learned it?
  3. What will we do if we haven’t learned it?
  4. What will we do if they already know it?

Everything starts with Question #1. If we are not clear on what it is we want students to learn, then many teachers and teams feel like they are spinning their wheels as they attempt to delve further into the PLC at Work process. Being clear on Question #1 is imperative to building clear essential standard alignment, both vertically and horizontally, for the collaborative work of teams to occur.

‘What’ is the teacher’s role

It is critical for teachers to not only be a part of the process of determining the “what,” but to be the driving force behind determining what the essential standards actually are. In some cases, when working with teams, I am told by district personnel that they already have a guaranteed and viable curriculum. But sometimes, what has happened is, a document has been created by a curriculum coordinator and handed out to teachers. The plan, on paper, may be in place, but nothing has changed in the classroom. When teachers go through the process of identifying essential standards in teams together, the end result is a curriculum that has been developed collaboratively with those who will actually be instructing-the teachers.

This process takes time. I have worked with schools in which it has taken a solid year, with continued, targeted support, to build the pacing for their essential standards. In some cases, administrators (and teachers) have felt like that was too long. I’ve encouraged patience; in fact, it is a must. Having a clearly defined scope and sequence of essential standards, which teaching teams understand and have collaboratively developed, is the foundation for all that is to follow.

Everything else our teachers are doing to support student learning is built off of the essential standards. From these essential standards, we can then think about our assessment practices. How will we know if students have learned it? With clear essential standards, and subsequent learning targets breaking these essential standards down, a team can develop common formative (and ultimately summative) assessments that drive the work of their interventions and extensions.

The next steps of supporting students

Questions 3 and 4 (“what will we do if students haven’t learned it?” and “what will we do if they already know it?”) are directly tied to the essential standards. Our response as teams and as a school is triggered based off of the evidence we are collecting specific to these essential standards and learning targets. Without a clear, focused data picture, RTI becomes scattered and murky rather than laser-focused and clear.

All standards are not created equal. It is impossible to teach (and for students to learn) the multitude of existing standards “equally.” Therefore, it is imperative to identify those essential leverage standards that will provide students with the skills and knowledge to move forward in their learning, both today and in the future. Once teachers have identified the “what,” all other efforts to provide each student with the appropriate support becomes more focused, timely, and articulated.


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.

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