Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dysfunctional PLCs

When I taught middle school, I was a part of what we called "Team 8" which was where all the grade 8 teachers would come together on Monday morning to discuss the coming week and our students' needs. There were usually 4 or 5 of us. I taught half the kids science and language arts while someone else taught the other half. There was usually one math teacher for all 4 classes and two social teachers with two classes each.

When I taught grade 6 exclusively, I taught half of the grade 6s all their core subjects while my grade-level partner taught the other half. We were a two-man team that met daily to discuss our students and our teaching.

Now I teach at a children's psychiatric assessment unit where I'm the only teacher. I work with a multi-disciplinary team of nurses, doctors, recreation therapists, phycologists and social workers. I am in daily contact with my team to discuss our students' special needs.

As I enter my 12th year of teaching, these are the three teaching environments that I have had the pleasure of working in, and in each case I have had the opportunity to be a part of a work environment filled with professionals who were committed to help children. In each environment, efforts were made to help nurture a culture of collaboration. We were there to support each other.

But I have come to see a disturbing trend among some teachers' work environments. I've come to hear how some teachers feel like prisoners to their Professional Learning Communities.

Here's what I mean:

I have always been fortunate enough to be a part of a team where we respected each other enough to know that our instructional and assessment practices would differ based on our individual students' needs. But not all teachers are afforded this professional autonomy. In fact, for too many teachers the P in PLC doesn't seem to stand for Professional or Personal.

Some PLCs, grade level teams or subject departments operate in a manner that places standardization as their primary function. Some PLCs meet for no other reason than to arrive at a "consensus" for how all the teachers will instruct and assess their students. A kind of pseudo-democracy driven by majority rules is enforced to justify a consistent (read: standardized), one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning.

Some claim that the strength of this approach is to decrease the likelihood that a student or parent might complain about one teacher or favor another. Such complaints can be easily tossed aside because it is assumed that two different students with two different teachers are receiving an identical experience. Complaints simply aren't registered because the PLC makes each teacher interchangeable. In this scenario, fair and equal become the same thing.

But this is a farce.

We all know that each student's classroom experiences often hinge on their teacher's pedagogical beliefs. Even if two teachers are mandated to use the same course outline, grading scheme, disciplinary policy, seating arrangement, textbook and final exam, these two teachers will likely still offer two different learning experiences for their students.

This is unavoidably true because these two teachers will teach different students.

I'm all for teachers coming together to collaborate in an effort to improve, but that's not the same as having teachers come together to vote on their instructional and assessment practices. The idea that a teacher could some how meet each of their individual students' needs by voting with a committee of teachers, who may not even teach the same students, is a relic of the factory model of school.

In this system, the children are treated as if they were interchangeable widgets -- cogs in a machine where the machine's needs trump the needs of the learners' needs.

There's a lot wrong with a PLC that standardizes teaching and learning, but perhaps at the heart of the problem is a misguided belief that in order to provide an excellent education for all children, all children must get the same education. Ultimately, these dysfunctional PLCs fail because we know that we can't meet the needs of all learners by pretending all learners have the same needs.


  1. Enter Myrna Cooper:

    "Who's culture is it anyway? If teachers are told what to be professional about, how, where, and with whom to collaborate and what blueprint of professional conduct to follow, then the culture that evolves will be foreign to the setting. They will once again have "received" a culture."

    True collaborative cultures are: spontaneous, voluntary, development-oriented, and most importantly, pervasive across time and space.

    Contrived collaboration is: administratively-oriented, compulsory and most importantly, implementation-oriented.

    Paul Kelba

  2. A powerful comment Paul. Thank you.

  3. My experience with recent PLCs has been dysfunctional. PLCs are mandated from above with very specific functions and guidelines about what can be talked about. Often times there is a requirement to produce product which is then handed in as evidence of the good work being done by the PLC. Most of this is not been about improving teaching and learning but about subsequent layers of admin and bureaucracy justifying to the layer above them that they are doing what they've been told.

    This is in stark contrast to the meetings I had with colleagues prior to them being called PLC's. Those meetings were much more flexible, much less accountable to admin and much more useful to teachers.

    A lot of teachers at our current PLC's just go through the motions and do the bare minimum or less and I understand that. They want to be treated like the professionals they are and instead are being treated like people with no integrity or honesty.

    For PLCs to work we need to start putting the emphasis back on 'Professional'.

    1. This resonates strongly with my own beliefs about the character of PLC's as they are mandated in my own school division. Thanks for articulating this.

  4. I think we need to be careful to say that PLCs *are* very useful, but as the author indicates, they're not to be used to enforce standardization of practice. Instead, PLCs are structures that encourage teachers to try out instructional strategies, etc., in collaboration with other teachers as a short action research project. The goal is not to make sure everyone is doing the same thing; rather, one goal is to explore what works! Putting student work at the centre of the conversation is also an essential component of a PLC.
    PLCs can be great, but the author's warnings are excellent - refocus at the start of each PLC meeting, and speak up if your colleagues are diverging from the intended path.

  5. A Functional PLC

    My push back on Joe's post. A PLC can collaborate closely on curriculum and still provide great differentiated instruction to students.

    1. They might, but how often do they? Structured PLC's are generally too rigid and driven by accountability. My personal networks are dynamic and functional. The resulting collaborations and mentorships result in diversity.

  6. This post and the comments are interesting to me as a public school board trustee. The parents want teachers to be accountable for the PLC time, as they do not necessarily see PLC time as educational time - they certainly don't see it as "instructional time" i.e. face time for their kids with teachers. I think - and we're working on this in our district - there needs to be more communication and feedback. Admin needs to trust teachers - they are the pedagogues. Teachers need to understand that the other members of their community are curious about what they are up to...and it's okay if sometimes it doesn't work... but no one should be marking time!

  7. I find the idea that parents want teachers to be accountable for PLC time interesting. Why? If a doctor goes to a meeting with other doctors to talk about new treatment methods do the patients want an account of what they talked about? How is this any different? In what other situations are professionals asked to accountable for the time they spend keeping up to date by their clients? There isn't one. So why is it for teachers?

  8. Hey Andrew, that's a good question. My doctor will actually tell me about news from such consultations and conferences.

    I think that it is part of the transition from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side". It's a whole new philosophy, a whole new culture. Accountable is only a part of it. I find parents are curious and supportive of teachers; primary and secondary school education
    will be substantially different from the parents' experience, they want to understand and assist. If teachers believe in collaboration with each other, why not then also with parents, school councils and trustees? :-)

  9. There's a significant difference between a professional choosing to share relevant information with a client, and a client holding a professional accountable. I have no problem with discussing any part of what I do with anyone and try to be open. But when the hierarchy forces accountability it prevents professional growth.

    In PLCs we need a culture where teachers can ask questions, clarify understanding and take risks to learn new things, the same things we want for the students in our classrooms. That can't happen when teachers feel they are under the microscope and being evaluated in the PLC.

  10. Andrew, sounds like you may have had a bad experience. Teachers absolutely need the culture you describe. To get the collaboration and cooperation from "the hierarchy" (I think that's me, my colleagues, and senior admin?) that you need to embed the time for PLCs, teachers need to share their learning, to be transparent, to teach us...without patronizing us. We are on your side, believe it or not, and we all seek to provide the best learning for the students, no?

  11. My experience with PLCs, and that of my colleagues, is that they are a 'top down' exercise where the agenda and the process is dictated by a principal. The principal does this because they are required by board admin and trustees to provide proof that PLCs are being done in the approved way.

    At my last PLC I needed to hand in data sheets to show where my students started, what their goals were and how they performed and these are passed along up the chain of command.

    That doesn't have much to do with teacher learning or professional development and everything to do with accountability. Unless I come to it freely and am able to share what I feel safe sharing then it isn't really sharing. It's a requirement. Sharing is something you are invited to participate in not something you are entitled to see.

    1. Gak! That sounds like the antithesis of a PLC to me. I learn from PLCs, when teachers come to a Board meeting, or principals describe what is going on. There must be a discipline to a PLC (Dufour) but it is about the exploration and the learning. It's a long process to educate folks about what needs to happen. Sometimes it is very frustrating and taxes one's patience. Believe me I know - it makes me crazy when we KNOW what works and don't do it.

    2. It's the unfortunate product of a system where people think they know the best way to do something and so tell everyone to do it that way (e.g. best practices). The best way to do something is to let the people who do it figure it out. Every situation is unique and things work better when people (students, teachers, etc.) feel ownership.

      The culture for us around PLCs is so damaged that it's a lost cause. I seek professional development and growth outside the system and wait for the "next thing", with a new process and acronym, to come along and wipe the slate clean so we can start over and hopefully build the appropriate culture.

    3. Oh - that makes me sad. You sound like you've lost faith in your system and its hierarchy. I do not see the PLC as a fad; in our district we hope it will be "the way we do things here." We really need to be doing things so it works best for teachers so teachers can do their best for the kids. I hope that some day your faith will be restored. Here's the guest post I did for Joe that expresses how I feel about this, in depth All the best to you.

  12. Not all PLCs are created equal. Some are built by teachers, to empower teachers & support good teaching & real learning.

    Others are mandated from above to create a bureaucracy of accountability that enslaves teachers to serve the needs of policy makers who have no desire to trouble themselves with the complexities of the classroom.

    The purpose of my post is to bring more light on the differing characteristics & purposes of these PLCs.

  13. I work in a school district where PLC's are mandated. The idea of getting teachers together to share materials and approaches, to solve problems with the teaching of the content or to explore the multitude of new Web 2.0 venues, well, it just isn't the focus. I'm not sure where it all went wrong, but it certainly did.

    I prefer to call the weekly get together "Chorus Line." It more accurately describes what goes one. Everyone kick at the same time!

  14. Thanks for alerting me to this post, Joe. I was most interested in this section:

    "Some PLCs, grade level teams or subject departments operate in a manner that places standardization as their primary function. Some PLCs meet for no other reason than to arrive at a "consensus" for how all the teachers will instruct and assess their students. A kind of pseudo-democracy driven by majority rules is enforced to justify a consistent (read: standardized), one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning.

    "Some claim that the strength of this approach is to decrease the likelihood that a student or parent might complain about one teacher or favor another. Such complaints can be easily tossed aside because it is assumed that two different students with two different teachers are receiving an identical experience. Complaints simply aren't registered because the PLC makes each teacher interchangeable. In this scenario, fair and equal become the same thing.

    But this is a farce."

    I don't think it has to be a farce (and I get you're not saying it always is). I'm still faithful that PLCs can work, but only if a few crucial pieces are in place:

    1. The principal holds the leader of the PLC accountable for demonstrating that s/he understands and is implementing in meetings the vision of PLCs and, crucially, of the UbD framework that (at least my current) PLCs are supposed to follow.

    Why? Because if you start with good standards--e.g., citing textual evidence from multiple sources to support a larger claim about bigger meanings involved in the issue at hand--then parents are assured that their kid with Teacher A is developing the same important skills as they would with Teacher B. I think parents have a right to know their kid will leave any teachers' class with the same prioritized set of essential skills and understandings that are necessary to success in future classes and in life. But the skills and understandings have to be really essential.

    This means the principal needs to assure that skills and understandings agreed upon in PLCs are actually important and engaging. God knows, many "time-markers" are happy enough with "read the chapter and take a multiple choice test with a canned time essay about shite even I am bored by"--and will willingly vote for that status quo because they're complacent or lazy or unimaginative or [fill in the blank].

    If PLCs are left to run by "democratic vote," you've got trouble. The options of the vote should be constrained by an insistence that they meet standards of essential skills, engaging learning, and quality, not crappy, assessments.

    Right now, this is the huge flaw in my PLC. Majority vote wins. Majority votes for a gazillion multiple choice questions and a trillion facts force-fed through the cliche coverage firehose, mile-wide, inch-deep, a thousand miles (and years, in my world history team) an hour--and PLC works on pursuing a horrible vision with which it's very comfortable, because that's the way we've always done it in this factory.

    So to me, this highlights the crucial role of leadership on the admin/principal level, and the PLC leader level. Principals who trust a PLC is pursuing the right vision are setting themselves and PLCs up for failure because, as you say, "consistency" is prioritized before "quality control." PLCs then go on to write great rubrics for shitty assessments. Collaboration at its saddest--especially for the minority who sees richer alternatives.

    With the right leaders on both levels, I think school transformation can happen. The right teachers get weeded out for clinging to the wrong vision, and are replaced by ones who create a vision-aligned majority within a couple of years.

    [More to follow]

    1. [continued from above]

      2. Notice I said nothing above about "knowledge of common content." UbD puts "students will know" after "students will understand" and "essential questions." Are we teaching classical empires? The knee-jerk traditionalists will cover every single one in the textbook, sacrificing depth and focus and reflective time, and give them a list of terms from each one to "know" like phone numbers in a phone book. Memorize them and you're doing "history."

      The non-traditional alternative is to say "teach whatever empire (or two) you like teaching best. Make sure the essential question connects to the standard and enduring understanding. The facts necessary to answer the question with complexity will surface in the process of seeking those answers. We won't have a common Multiple Choice fact-based assessment. We'll assess understandings instead.

      By doing this, parents are satisfied that their kid in no matter what class has gained an understanding of the concept of empire--and that their kid's teacher isn't telling cool stories from college all day or teaching dinosaurs while all the other kids are gaining an understanding of what empires are. And teachers are not being forced to teach an empire they don't want to, or at a pace they're opposed to.

      I could go on, but I'll stop here. Leadership and vision constraining wrong-headed "democracy"--those, to me, are the crux.


  15. Far as I can tell this is a pretty clear definition of what PLCs are as they were originally intended to be. "The term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning" is the statement DuFour made near the beginning of the doc that I think tells the real story. Without getting into the pros and cons of PLCs (for another conversation) I think DuFour is on the mark with his statement; one that could apply to any number of educational reforms that have been reduced by lack of understanding and unwillingness to commit to an authentic and purposeful effort to apply them, then reflect and retool to make them even better.

    There have been many ideas to improve education that have not been given a fair shake owing to a lack of commitment to applying them with vigor, and with a critical perspective. I'm not a fan of boxed reforms, I prefer reforms that extend beyond the box seeking asymptotic improvement... there's always a better way or something we can improve upon. So ensuring students learn, strong collaboration and focus on results is obviously good stuff, but is it as good as it can be? How can we extend DuFour's big ideas to make them even bigger is the real question to me. It's not in the "what" are we going to do, but really the "how" are we going to do it that seems to lead to effective 'on the ground' efforts to support student learning.

  16. I think Sean has identified one of the main problems with PLCs - there is a lack of definition about them, their purpose and their work beyond some broad sweeping statements and warm -fuzzy concepts like collaboration and distributed leadership and the like. This is consistent across much of the literature about them (I've written a bit about this here: I do think there is room for them to generate some valuable professional learning for educators but values underpinning them need to reflect the educator's priorities for improvement as well as the system's priorities and the purpose or focus of their work needs to emerge from a robust understanding (based on the learning experiences, pedagogical practices, policy, data etc.) of the context the PLC is working within. If the work doesn't relate to this as it is understood by the people involved then the PLC is merely implementing or auditing a managerial agenda. In some of the literature there is a suggestion that the PLC can be a disruptive force, creating dissonances and challenges to accepted practices. I've never seen this happen in my limited experience and study so far. I'd be interested to know if anyone else has?
    This is a great thread, BTW, thanks for opening it up!

    Catriona Oates