Gap-Thinking in a Professional Learning Community

In recent years a number of writers and researchers have utilized the phrase "habits of mind." The idea that we develop "habits" in the way we think raises an interesting question. How do we think about improving our schools within the professional learning community framework? Reculturing schools to function as professional learning communities involves more than a checklist. It requires a conceptual understanding that goes far deeper any mere recipe. While there is no "correct" way to think about changing schools, one way that we have found to be helpful is to think in terms of closing various "gaps" that exists in schools. If we are constantly and consistently engaging in collaborative processes to close various gaps that are related to school improvement, we are going a long way towards creating a culture of continuous improvement based on best practices, which is an important characteristic of a professional learning community. Here are a few examples:

The Current Reality-Shared Vision Gap

Schools that function as professional learning communities engage in processes to develop a shared vision of the school they seek to become. They quite literally "describe their school of the future" in fairly specific detail. But, an important aspect of this process is that it begins by first gaining "shared knowledge"-- a deep, rich understanding of best practice. This is an important difference between professional learning communities and their more traditional counterparts. Traditional schools tend to "average opinions" while professional learning communities engage in collective inquiry designed to learn about best practices. In this case, the effective schools research forms the basis for understanding what a school should "look like." We once heard someone remark, "But we really don’t know what a good school looks like, do we?" Well, the answer is an unequivocal, "Yes, we do!" Over 35 years of research provides a clear and consistent picture of effective schooling practices. (For example, see Robert Marzano’s What Works in Schools, 2003.) A deep understanding of how effective schools work and what they look like creates a natural gap between the current reality of a school as it exists and a school based on the effective schools research. Leaders in professional learning communities engage faculty in, first, understanding current reality,”the good and the not so good, and second, comparing current reality to a description of the desired school of the future that is based on a deep understanding of the research on effective schools, and third, collaboratively developing a plan to close the gap that exist between the two.

The Knowing-Doing Gap

However, intentions are never enough. In The Knowing-Doing Gap (2000), Pfeffer and Sutton observe that one of the great mysteries of organizational life is the disconnect between what we know and what we do. As we think about reculturing schools to function as professional learning communities at some point we must "do the work." However, we would like to offer a word of caution here. There is a tremendous difference between doing the "right work" and being "busy." The issue in many schools is often not an issue of the lack of work, but rather the lack of focused work. What is the work of a professional learning community? The answer is this; collaboratively pursuing answers to the critical questions associated with ensuring high levels of learning for all students and adults. One of the questions leaders in professional learning communities ask is this; what plans have been collaboratively developed to close the gaps between what we "know" about schools that function as professional learning communities and what we are "doing" day in and day out in our school?

The Expectation-Acceptance Gap

Even doing isn’t enough. Many schools are attempting to do the work of a professional learning community but find they are having only marginal results. We have learned that the problem may be one of quality, that is, the culture of the school may be one in which the expectations are clear and explicit, but what we are willing to accept is far less. This phenomenon gets played out in virtually all aspects of school culture from student work, to teaching practices as well as leadership and management behavior. To echo Pfeffer and Sutton and their thinking about the knowing-doing gap, how can we close the gap between what we say we value and expect and what we are willing to accept? Here are a few ideas to think about: First, we must be clear in what we expect, what it should look like. Teams of teachers should work collaboratively to develop rubrics for student performances and products. Administrators should meet regularly to develop clear product and performance standards. But, most important rubrics and standards must be built into the assessment systems for both students and adults.

Also, we would suggest a deep discussion about the role shared values and commitments can play in raising the quality of what we are willing to accept. This involves a willingness to promote, protect and defend the things we say we value and are committed to, as well as a willingness, to confront behavior that is incongruent or not up to the level of quality with what we say we value, expect and care about. It also involves public recognition and celebration of the best examples of what we say we value when it occurs. And, importantly, we must be willing to give both students and adults additional time and support when the quality of their work does not meet our expectations.

We hope these ideas will encourage you to think about these and other "gaps" that exists in schools. But more important, we hope these comments will cause you to reflect on how your school is attempting to close these gaps and how you are monitoring results. We look forward to your comments and the ensuing dialogue.


3 R's

Hi Mary,

We recommend collaborative teams meet at minimum an hour each week - we consider this job-embedded professional development, focused on student learning, to be the best training - learning by doing.

When school calendars are created to give teams and additional Professional Development Days at least once each quarter for extended time to work together this is certainly icing on the cake. We also encourage principals to devote most of the traditional faculty meeting time to the work of collaborative teams focused on learning.

Regarding student contact time, we know that most states and districts have clearly defined parameters to work within. However, what we discovered when working with educators throughout North America, the actual instructional minutes vary greatly from state to state/province to province and often from school to school within districts that perceive instructional time to be 'standard."

If you have not already done so, we encourage you to do a "Site Search" for the word "Time" on this site - we've devoted past blog articles and comments to this topic.

We hope this helps and wish you luck as you work with your committee members to allocate the precious resource of time to learn for students and adults in your district.

Becky, Rick, and Bob

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mary lougee


I am a member of a calendar committee in a district aiming for PLC. Is there a recommended amount of staff training, and student contact time (per day and per year)?


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