A Book Review: PLC+ Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design
I became a champion of the PLC process fifteen years ago, when I started working in a school that opened as a professional learning community.
What left me so jazzed about the PLC process was that it is built on the notion that the answers to improving schools rest in the hearts and minds of classroom teachers who are willing to study their practice with one another. That was a fundamentally empowering message that I could totally embrace.
Since then, I’ve done a TON of reading and writing and presenting and consulting around the PLC at Work model — which was first advanced by Rick DuFour and his colleague Bob Eaker way back in 1997.
I think what makes me unique as both an author and a presenter is that I’m still a full time classroom teacher — so my insights and suggestions are always informed by work I’m actually doing in a school and on a team.
I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself “an expert” — I’m constantly learning and polishing and reflecting, after all — but I know that is a term that other people use to describe me.
As a part of the constant learning and polishing and reflecting that I do, I decided to pick up PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design — a new PLC book published by Corwin Press.
Early in PLC+, the authors make a bold claim when describing their work:
“In that vein, we have extended the past 60 years’ worth of work and propose a new type of professional learning community. In lay terms, we’re not interested in building a better mousetrap, but rather defining a new way of catching mice. That’s a tall order, given the efforts that have existed to this point. We believe that schools, and the people who work and learn there, are ready to take PLCs to the next level." (p. 27)
The primary difference between their “new type of professional learning community” and the work advanced in other models, the PLC+ authors explain, is a deliberate effort to focus the collaborative work of teachers on instruction.
In fact, that point is emphasized time and again throughout the text.
Here are just a few examples:
“Yet there remains a crucial gap in the exclusive examination of student learning, and that is the examination of our teaching.” (p.7)
“We believe that you, the teacher, have been missing from the professional learning community. We don’t mean your attendance or even your cognitive engagement, but rather the fact that the history of the PLC movement has been almost exclusively focused on students and what they were or were not learning.” (p. 13)
In some systems, teachers do not talk with their peers about effective instruction and its impact on learning. Instead, they only spend time focused on what students need to learn and how they will know whether students learned it.” (p. 90)
The core work of teams in a PLC+ is built around choosing a “challenge question” or “problem of practice” and answering “five guiding questions” together.
Those questions are:
- Where are we going?
- Where are we now?
- How do we move learning forward?
- What did we learn today?
- Who benefited and who did not benefit?
These questions are answered sequentially in a PLC+ — and the goal of that sequenced study is for teachers to learn more about the effectiveness of their instruction and to help students to learn at higher levels. As one teacher cited in the book explains:
Our PLC+ team meetings are part of a continual process. We are never finished. As a team, we circle back around and use the five essential questions as an iterative process for our ongoing learning and embedded professional development. (p.33)
Now, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the work advanced in PLC+.
In fact, I’d argue that if you could get teams to use those five essential questions as a part of an iterative process to improve both their instruction and outcomes for kids, you would most definitely have a positive impact on schools.
But make no mistake about it: There’s nothing new about any of this work, either — and for a book that opens by making the claim that they aren’t “interested in building a better mousetrap, but rather defining a new way of catching mice,” that’s kind of a big deal.
Let me give you a few examples.
The PLC+ authors don’t just spend significant portions of their text explaining that what makes their model unique is that it gives teachers permission to study instruction, they go as far as to argue that studying instruction doesn’t happen in other PLC models.
“The plus emphasizes not only the learning that we want to occur in students, but also the teaching and learning component for ourselves as educators. This has been missing from past PLC structures.” (pp. 8-9)
They also write:
In some PLC models, teams are discouraged from discussing instruction, because there is a fear that teachers may be told how to teach or because the focus might shift from learning to teaching. (p. 79)
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that there really are PLC schools who see learning teams as nothing more than a way to improve standardized test scores — and that in those schools, the notion of studying your practice is not a priority.
But to suggest that studying instruction is “discouraged” or “missing from other models” is simply not true.
Take the Professional Learning Community at Work model — which is likely the biggest competitor to PLC+ — for example. The original architects of the model — Rick DuFour and Bob Eaker — always believed that the core work of a learning team should lead to improved instruction for all teachers.
Check out this quote from an Educational Leadership article titled What is a Professional Learning Community? that was written by Rick DuFour in 2004 — a full sixteen years before PLC+ was written:
Collaborative conversations call on team members to make public what has traditionally been private—goals, strategies, materials, pacing, questions, concerns, and results.
These discussions give every teacher someone to turn to and talk to, and they are explicitly structured to improve the classroom practice of teachers— individually and collectively.
Teams must focus their efforts on crucial questions related to learning and generate products that reflect that focus, such as lists of essential outcomes, different kinds of assessment, analyses of student achievement, and strategies for improving results.
Later in the same article, DuFour writes:
The powerful collaboration that characterizes professional learning communities is a systematic process in which teachers work together to analyze and improve their classroom practice.
Teachers work in teams, engaging in an ongoing cycle of questions that promote deep team learning. This process, in turn, leads to higher levels of student achievement.
And in a separate article written in 2004, school change expert Mike Schmoker described the “right work” for collaborative teams in this way:
“Mere collegiality won’t cut it. Even discussions about curricular issues or popular strategies can feel good but go nowhere.
The right image to embrace is of a group of teachers who meet regularly to share, refine, and assess the impact of lessons and strategies continuously to help increasing numbers of students learn at higher levels.”
Schmoker, M. (2004). “Start Here for Improving Teaching,”, The School Administrator 61(10), 48–49
Contrary to what the PLC+ authors contend, not only do other models of professional learning communities encourage teachers to engage in an “ongoing cycle of questions” to “analyze and improve their classroom practice,” those models have been promoting continuous cycles of collective inquiry around practice for decades.
Now, let’s take a look at “questions that promote deep team learning” proposed by DuFour and Eaker in the PLC at Work Model.
They are called the Four Critical Questions of Learning — and versions of them have been around since the first edition of Learning by Doing: A Handbook for PLCs at Work, was published in 2006.
Here is how they are currently worded:
- What knowledge, skills and dispositions should students acquire as a result of this unit of instruction?
- How will we know when each student has learned the knowledge, skills and dispositions we identified as essential?
- How will we respond if students don’t learn the knowledge, skills and dispositions we identified as essential?
- How will we extend learning for students who are already proficient with the knowledge, skills and dispositions we identified as essential?
Now, let’s lay those side by side with the Five Guiding Questions of a PLC+.
Five Guiding Questions of a PLC+
First detailed in Fisher et al., (2020).
Four Critical Questions of Learning in a PLC at Work™
First detailed in DuFour et al., (2006).
Pretty similar, right?
If anything, the main difference seems to be the emphasis on taking action in the Four Critical Questions proposed by DuFour and his colleagues back in 2006.
While the PLC+ authors do make it clear in their text that studying practice should lead to action on behalf of students, that emphasis on action is not nearly as explicit in their Five Guiding Questions as it is in the questions that guide collaboration in a building functioning as a PLC at Work™.
So, what does this all mean?
In the end, it’s good news, I think.
It means that schools who already have a solid grasp of just what the core work of PLCs is supposed to be don’t need to spend any time digging into the PLC+ process. The work that they are proposing is not fundamentally different from or better than the work you are already doing, as long as you are doing the right work.
And it also means that schools new to professional learning communities who decide to pursue the PLC+ process aren’t heading off in the wrong direction. If you could help teams hone the practices that they propose, you will have a positive impact on the learning of both teachers and students.
But please don’t believe that “the plus” makes the PLC+ process something new and different.
Despite the authors’ claims, there’s nothing that makes this model significantly different from the core work that has been proposed and polished by countless authors, experts, and schools over the past 60 years.