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July 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 9

"So, How Are We Going to Teach This?"

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Instructional Strategies
Professional Learning
I spend my days training professional learning community facilitators in what authentic PLCs do, how they do it, and how to lead other teachers in doing it. When these working teams of educators are done well, they are a force to be reckoned with in terms of their ability to make a real difference in student learning. They are the "surest, fastest path to instructional improvement" (Schmoker, 2006). But though they have become commonplace in schools across the United States, this ubiquity has led to PLCs that are PLCs in title only, operating as a diluted version of the original principles of authentic PLCs. In my day job traveling to schools and districts, I get to see this problem up close and firsthand. In fact, the reason schools most often invite me in is to fix this very problem.
One of the primary reasons that teams become dysfunctional is that most of their meeting time is allocated to planning the what and the when. As in: What are we doing next week? When should we start the fractions unit? When should we test on the Civil War unit? What review materials should we use? What do we do about the assembly on Friday? Should we wait to test? Should we wait to start Chapter 4?
You get the idea.
To be fair, all of these issues—and many more—need to be discussed and decided on. The problem resides in how seldom teams get around to addressing the how of instruction. This leaves teachers to their own devices and perpetuates that status quo.
I don't proclaim to have an exact number, but I'm willing to bet that in an overwhelming number of circumstances, teachers, alone or in teams, generally fall back on the default mode of teaching a given topic, which is to teach the lesson (or unit) the way they did last year. This default mode, while time-saving and convenient, generally circumvents any questioning of the effectiveness of last year's lesson. Yet this is exactly what authentic PLCs do. Unless and until teacher teams commit to continually addressing the question, So, how are we going to teach this?, they may never be high-functioning. Therein lies the key to effective PLCs. Authentic PLCs spend the lion's share of their time discussing and deciding the best way to teach concept X. They're not spending meeting after meeting belaboring SMART goals or filling out forms and templates or drafting lofty shared vision statements; they are creating lessons, finding lessons online, scoring these lessons using the rubric suggested later in this article, and deliberating the best way to teach a particular topic. And this does not require that everyone in the PLC teaches the same thing; in most small schools, this is not even possible.
The byproduct of this labor of love is the creation of a culture that enables teachers to develop and teach amazing lessons. This is how schools improve; this is how student learning improves. PLCs have the ability to greatly impact what is happening at ground zero: the classroom.

Social Versus Human Capital

Let's face it: If you want to improve schools, you have to improve what is happening in schools, what is happening in classrooms, and what is happening with individual teachers. School policy, curriculum, community support, even school leadership—while important—do not change schools to the same degree that improving classroom instruction does (Center for Public Education, 2005; Hattie, 2008; Leana, 2011).
We used to think that improving the effectiveness of individual teachers meant sending those teachers to conferences, graduate courses, summer workshops, and so forth. And, in many cases, these professional learning opportunities turned out to do just that. But we now know that, in terms of net effect on student learning, improving human capital—the talents and skill sets of individual teachers—pales in comparison to improving social capital—the quality of the interactions among teachers within a school. In her extensive research involving 6,000 teachers and 200 schools, University of Pittsburgh professor Carrie Leanna has repeatedly demonstrated that it is the quality of the social interactions among teachers that best predicts student achievement in a school. She explains:
After decades of failed programs aimed at improving student achievement through teacher human capital and principal leadership, investments in social capital are cheap by comparison and offer far more promise of measurable gains for students. (Leanna, 2011, p. 6)
So how do we do this? How do we improve the quality of interactions among teachers?

Beyond Show and Tell

When I began my teaching career in (cough) 1980, very little was shared between teachers of a common subject. If anything was shared at all, it was done so during brief hallway meetings while kids passed by or during an after-school department meeting in which teachers, in turn, shared what they were working on with their students. Since, at that time, teaching anything outside of an ordinary textbook lecture was considered novel, teachers often brought these new activities to share at their meetings. But no feedback was ever given, no suggestions ever made. Each teacher's exposé of the cool "project" she intended to give her students was met with thunderous applause, but nary a single word to help make that project even better. These were not collaborative teams. These were not professional learning communities. These were individuals at a department meeting who were asked to share something they were planning to try with their students. And because there was no format or structure for giving feedback, none was given.
Fast-forward to the present. The walls of teacher isolation are coming down. Though these walls still exist in pockets of American public education, and in disturbingly disproportionate frequency in high schools, initiatives to break down isolation and boost collaboration—such as teacher teams, common planning periods, and PLCs—have become the norm most everywhere I am asked to visit. This is good news. It is a testament to a changing culture in and among faculties that shouts, "We are more than the sum of our parts."
This collaborative shift is, of course, not new in education. As far back as the late 1980s, famed progressive educator Ted Sizer and his colleagues (a team of which I am proud to have been a part) knew that teachers could benefit from more intentional interaction, and CFGs (Critical Friends Groups) were born. These groups, in which teachers came together and critically looked at each other's work, were arguably the earliest incarnation of PLCs. And while CFGs are still around today in concentrated areas in public education, their derivative offspring, PLCs, are much more widespread.
So now that teacher collaboration is the new norm, the questions we must consider are, What are teachers collaborating about? (DuFour, 2006) and How are they collaborating? (Venables, 2011).

Beyond the What and the When

If teachers are granted collaborative planning time during the school day, without guidance about how to use that time, most collaboration tends to be reduced to planning the what and the when—the scheduling and logistical issues that, as I've pointed out, often bog down teams' productivity. This is better than not collaborating at all; it ensures some degree of solidarity about what teachers of a common subject are doing in the classroom. But it does little or nothing to help these teachers teach in the best and most effective ways possible. That conversation—the how we will teach it—is not embodied in conversations that hover in the what and the when stratosphere. For this, we have to dig deeper.
If PLCs are going to make a difference for kids and really affect student achievement, it goes without saying that at some point they must ask of each other, "How will we teach this?" Therein lies the impetus for real instructional improvement. But just asking how is still not enough. Teams need to be able to evaluate the instructional options available. What is the litmus test for deciding that one way of teaching a topic is better than another way of teaching it?
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, but the rubric I created (see fig. 1) can help teachers assess the potential value of any particular learning activity. Teacher teams can use the rubric as a guidepost to discern learning activities that may look good on paper (or on the internet) from those that are actually good in practice.

Figure 1. Learning-Activity Planning Rubric

Dimension

1

2

3

4

Alignment to StandardsBarely aligned or not alignedSomewhat alignedMostly alignedCompletely aligned
Impact on LearningLow impactMedium-low impactMedium-high impactHigh impact
Student EngagementLow engagement for most studentsModerate engagement for some studentsModerate engagement for most studentsHigh engagement for most students
Depth of Knowledge LevelRecallSkill/conceptStrategic reasoningExtended reasoning
Technology IntegrationNo integration of technologySome integration of technologyEffective and prominent integration of technologyEffective and innovative integration of technology
Teacher FriendlinessHigh-maintenance (lots of materials and prep work)Low-maintenance (few materials or little prep work)
Rigor and RelevanceTeacher worksStudents workStudents thinkStudents think and work
DifferentiationNot suited for differentiationSuited for differentiation with fairly significant modificationsWell suited for differentiation with minor modificationsWell suited for differentiation as is, with natural tiers built in
Time-Benefit AnalysisToo much instructional time required for relatively little learningQuestionable amount of time required for expected amount of learningAmount of time required and amount of learning are commensurateSmall amount of time required for amount of learning that exceeds expectations
ConnectionsNo connections to previous or future standards or to other subjectsA few genuine connections to other standards or subjectsGenuine connections to other standards and/or subjects embedded in various componentsStrong, authentic connections to previous and future standards and to other subjects
Source: Venables, D. (2018). Facilitating teacher teams and authentic PLCs: The human side of leading people, protocols, and practices Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Read a full explanation of each rubric dimension here. Copyright 2013–2017 by Daniel R. Venables.
When teacher teams use this rubric to discuss a learning activity or lesson they are planning to try with their students, I have consistently witnessed several advantages: (1) the learning activity is analyzed much more deeply and done so on the basis of things that matter (alignment to standards, impact on learning, and so on), (2) the meeting tends to be highly focused with few, if any, divergent discussions, and (3) the discussion produces as its most valuable reward a collective understanding of what these teachers mean by rigor or student engagement or other such terms. This is what I call constructing community knowledge, and its value and reach extend far beyond the merits of a single learning activity scored with the rubric and into every future conversation the PLC might have involving these lesson characteristics (Venables, 2011).

Collaborative Analysis of Teacher Work

There is a push in education these days to look at and analyze student work in order to make decisions about what teachers are doing or should be doing in the classroom. This is a good thing; after all, student work produced as a result of instruction is the ultimate artifact in determining if the instruction was effective. This represents a wonderful paradigm shift from days in which "coverage" of the material was the focus rather than learning of the material. This paradigm shift reinforces the popular adage that "if it wasn't learned, it wasn't taught."
However, although looking critically at student work should be an essential part of any PLC, it is largely a reactive endeavor insofar as it is an analysis of what has already taken place: the teacher has taught, the students have produced work. By looking at teacher work before it is implemented in the classroom with students, we stand the chance of making a difference preemptively; that is, making changes before the teaching happens. In my experience working with PLCs and teacher teams across the nation, looking at teacher work—lesson plans and activities—before it is implemented produces a far greater impact on student learning than does looking only at student work produced after the fact. I suggest to PLCs that for each time they review and analyze student work, they should review and analyze teacher work twice. I have found a 2:1 ratio to be a healthy balance between looking at teacher work and looking at student work.

The How Mindset

As educators, we have come a long way in working collaboratively rather than in isolation. Schools are structuring daily schedules to permit teacher collaboration; common planning periods are becoming just that, common; even some recent district- and state-level teacher evaluation instruments are reflecting the importance of teacher collaboration and PLCs in teacher evaluation rubrics. But while we have moved steadily across the isolation-collaboration continuum, we still have a ways to go.
So long as teacher collaboration focuses on only the what (will be taught) and the when (it will be taught), and pays little or no attention to the how (it will be taught), schools have significantly less opportunity to improve what is happening in the classroom and how it is happening. In order to face head-on collaborative discussions surrounding the how, teachers and teacher teams need to acquire a new set of skills regarding how to communicate with one another, how to give and receive feedback, and how to develop a mindset centered on examining the best ways to teach specific concepts and standards.

Guiding Questions

➛ Do your PLC meetings tend to focus more on logistics—what will be taught and when it will be taught—than on how a lesson or activity will be taught? If so, how could you make the switch?
➛ Venables suggests that for each time PLCs review and analyze student work, they should review and analyze teacher work twice. How could you make teacher work the focus of your PLCs?
➛ Work with your team to analyze a learning activity against the included rubric. Could the rubric be a helpful tool for future PLC meetings?
References

Center for Public Education. (2005). Teacher quality and student achievement: Research review. Author.

DuFour, R. (2006). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Hattie J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Leana, C. R. (2011). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9(4), 30–35.

Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now: How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Venables, D. (2011). The practice of authentic PLCs: A guide to effective teacher teams. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Venables, D. (2018). Facilitating teacher teams and authentic PLCs: The human side of leading people, protocols, and practices. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Daniel R. Venables is founder and executive director of the Center for Authentic PLCs, an independent consulting firm committed to assisting schools in building, leading, and sustaining authentic professional learning communities (PLCs). 

During his career of more than 30 years in education, Venables has been a classroom teacher in both public and independent schools in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Connecticut for 24 years, serving as a math department chair for 18 of those years. He was a professional development coordinator with the nation's 18th-largest district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Daniel holds a master's degree in mathematics from Wesleyan University. In 1994, he was trained as a Math/Science Fellow with the Coalition of Essential Schools, where he began his working experience with PLCs. In 2002, he was named South Carolina Independent School Teacher of the Year.

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