Guest post by David Johns

Numerous tools exist to help Professional Learning Communities (PLC) grow. There are checklists to ensure that the right roles are assigned. There are accountability documents to ensure that teams meet on time and in a common location. There are even the four timeless guiding questions from Rick DuFour to keep PLCs focused on the work of improving achievement. So why then do most PLC conversations stall out once we’ve looked at student work? Why don’t we turn our attention to actions we need to take as educators to address what we see?

My colleagues and I identified this as the central challenge most PLCs face as we gathered over the last three years for The Wallace Foundation’s Principal’s Convening. Our research led us to the realization that there were limited resources in the field to serve as guidance for teams in this area. Our task was to create a tool or design a system that would help teams push through this very real challenge so that the full benefits of PLCs could be realized for all students.

Leveraging Collaborative Systems
Our work is founded on some preconditions among PLCs—ample time for collaboration, norms to guide the work, teacher-created common assessments aligned with standards, and protocols in place to analyze the resulting student work. Our tool, the Collaborative Conversation Performance Guide, leverages these strong collaborative systems already in place in schools to steer them through the “what are we going to do now?” phase of collaboration.

The Collaborative Conversation Performance Guide is organized into three domains, with the understanding that a team may only focus on one domain at a time or the entire tool holistically. One domain is Instructional Grouping. This section allows a team to self-assess the ways they organize students for learning after the analysis of student work. It is meant to push educators toward differentiated approaches during core instruction as well as when additional intervention is needed. The desired outcomes with instructional grouping are fluid with flexible groupings of students based on their needs relative to the standards.

Another domain is Instructional Delivery. It is here where teams can work toward the desired outcomes of increased student engagement in the lessons, deeper connections between the research and instructional strategies (effect sizes, etc.), and the use of differentiated resources to meet the needs of each learner or group of learners.

Our third domain, Collaborative Culture, keeps those preconditions on our radar as a team. This section reminds us of the importance of our norms, the collective and individual capacity of our team, and the importance of engaging in all of this work as reflective practitioners. We found that as teams take on new depths and levels of work as collaborators, success or failure is more dependent on the collaborative culture of the team than it is on learning new techniques and skills.

Team Formation
We created the Collaborative Conversation Performance Guide to be used entirely for formative purposes by teams. It is not intended to be used as an evaluative tool or a checklist. Its name defines its purpose and we trust that, through its use, teams will grow in their capacity as collaborators and realize the full potential of PLCs to impact student learning.

When you think about your involvement in PLCs, where are you challenged? How much of that challenge is based on the culture of collaboration in your school and how much of that challenge is based on the need for new knowledge and skills as an educator? Our approach honors the adult learning that needs to be a part of an effective Professional Learning Community. The Collaborative Conversation Performance Guide doesn’t do the work for you, but it should point to new and deeper areas for learning for those who are interested in growing as a PLC.

David Johns was most recently the principal at Meredith Middle School in the Des Moines Public School district, Des Moines, IA. He is a participant in The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline PLC and will soon be starting a new role as a principal supervisor working with the K–12 Network of International Baccalaureate Schools in Des Moines.

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