Starting a Movement: A Book Review (Chapter 5- Connecting: The How)

Starting A Movement: Building Culture from the Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities

Written by Kenneth C. Williams and Tom Hierck

In my last post I reviewed Chapter 4, which provides instructions on how to create a meaningful and effective shared vision. If you miss that post, you can read it here.

If you feel like you just need to buy this book now, please click on the image below.

The Breakdown:  Chapter 5- Connecting: The How

Whether you create it or you condone it, you own it.

-Tom Hierck

This chapter explains how to strengthen the third pillar of a Professional Learning Community: values. At this point you should have already created a shared mission with a guiding school mantra (see chapter 3 post) and created a clear shared vision for your school (see chapter 4 post). If these two things are not in place, then you will not move forward with the plan you create here.

When creating a plan it is important to do the following:

  1. Create a collaborative culture
  2. Clearly define what every student needs to learn
  3. Constantly measure effectiveness
  4. Have a systematic plan for responding when students do and do not learn

Often schools will begin the work without a plan and will leave teachers to their own devices trusting that they will use the mission and vision to guide their work independently. While I am all for teacher autonomy, I agree that school staff always need some guidance when deciding how they teach. Often educators do not fully understand where their students are headed as they move to the next grade, and while they have the best intentions, it is easy to lose focus on the essentials. Often leaving teachers to their own devices ends in teacher isolation, which is the opposite of what is required in creating an effective Professional Learning Community.

One way to do this is to help staff explore best practices that fit the following criteria:

  • Reflects the shared mission
  • Aligns with the compelling shared vision
  • Communicates the belief that every student can learn at high levels
  • Demonstrates ownership to ensure learning for every student
  • Promotes learning for all
  • Improves student AND teacher learning

There are hundreds of practices that will fit into these categories, which is why you will need to narrow it down. You will want to focus on what the authors call “the essential work: the agreed-on behavioural commitments for staff members.” (p.95). It is important to ensure that you and the staff understand that the final list of best practices is not optional. These are the essential practices that every staff member must do in order for the school and its students to succeed. Therefore in order to create a functional Professional Learning Community, your staff must understand that the four items listed in this post are non-negotiable and EVERYONE must be on board. The authors provide more detail on each of these later in the chapter.

What Is Your Relationship Status? Are You Flirting, Dating, Or Engaged To The PLC?

There is a secondary focus in developing the How, which is to explore some of the common characteristics of schools where Professional Learning Communities flourish and where they are not working. This is important because there are many situations where school staff believe that they are successfully implementing the Professional Learning Community process, but in fact, are falling short in various areas.

You can assess your effectiveness by asking the following questions:

  • Is your school flirting with Professional Learning Communities?
  • Is your school dating Professional Learning Communities?
  • Is your school engaged to Professional Learning Communities?

Flirting: You are flirting with the idea of a PLC if you are exploring it at a surface level. This means that your staff make excuses, are not always compliant, implement poorly, are not connected with the moral imperative, and are not aligning their work with the the shared mission or vision. This happens due to a lack of understanding and trust in the PLC process, or are simply doing it because they were told they must.

Dating: If you are dating a PLC process, you are a little further along than the flirting stage, but are still exhibiting some of the same behaviours of the flirts. If you are dating, you will often create the products associated with a PLC but may not be getting the results you expect. If you find yourself in this stage, it is likely that something went wrong when completing the first two steps, as you are lacking the commitment necessary to move past the dating phase.

Engaged: This is where you want to be! In this phase, all staff are demonstrating the commitment necessary for proper implementation of a PLC. If you are at this phase, it means that you have established a culture of collective responsibility and are using your shared vision (see chapter 4) as your primary focus. You will create products associated with PLCs and see the learning results you expect. When you are engaged, it means you are using authentic alignment (see chapter 2) to strengthen the collective responsibility necessary for a PLC.

When determining your relationship status, it is important to be objective and honest. It can be tough to have to take a step backwards, but in the end, your students and staff will be better off.

The 4 Must-Haves of HOW

As was listed above, there are four things you must do in order to be engaged to a PLC:

  1. Create a collaborative culture
  2. Clearly define what every student needs to learn
  3. Constantly measure effectiveness
  4. Have a systematic plan for responding when students do and do not learn

The following section provides you with tools to assess your relationship status with each of these categories. Remember, in order to access the templates linked in this post, you will need to create an account with Solution Tree.

Creating a Collaborative Culture

In order for a PLC to be effective, staff need to be committed to collaborating with others. This allows you to make better use of the various levels of expertise and perspectives that exist within a school. When we allow teachers to work in isolation, we are essentially allowing them to make excuses. If they cannot figure out how to reach a group of students on their own, they can say they have tried everything they can think of, and feel better about it. Once you open the doors and make collaboration an essential practice, teachers will be empowered to find new solutions and strategies to improve student learning.

Use this template to assess your school’s relationship status with building a collaborative culture.

Clearly Defining What Every Student Must Learn

The first step here is to create a list of essential outcomes for each subject. We cannot expect teachers to cover every standard in the curriculum, there is too much there. In order to ensure students are learning at high levels, we must determine which standards are essential for their success in the future, and focus on ensuring all students are proficient in those areas.

Keep in mind this can take a long time, and in the interest of not overwhelming staff, you might want to do one subject first, to demonstrate its effectiveness. When we started this process, we used the math curriculum because the learning outcomes are more concrete so it is easier for staff to see how learning progresses from grade to grade. This was very successful because staff were able to see the results right away, and will be more motivated to continue with the work of creating essential outcomes for the other core subjects.

It is suggested that when determining which standards are essential, you consider three things:

  • Endurance: Is the standard related to a concept or skill that will remain with the learner long after the test? In other words, will this be something they will need to be successful in their every day life?
  • Leverage: These are the concepts or skills that are present in more than one curricular area (i.e. problem solving or critical thinking skills).
  •  Readiness for the next level of learning: We need to ensure that we are aligning out essential outcomes with the grades that come before and after. As teachers, we need to be aware of the outcomes in other grade levels to gain an understanding of where students are coming from, and where they are headed.

Developing an essential standards chart, and ensuring that there is vertical alignment between each grade level does not mean the other standards are not taught. You will still cover the rest as time allows. The reason it is important to create essential standards is that they become the “product guarantee” they are the things that ALL students will learn.

In order to assess your relationship status with creating essential standards, have each staff member complete this survey individually. Any item they list as “true” must be supported with evidence. Once everyone has completed this list, come together as a staff and use the data to plan your next steps as a team.

Constantly Measuring Effectiveness

This is where you assess how you assess. Historically, assessment has been used as a way to rank and sort and had little to do with student learning or growth. In a PLC, the focus of assessment is on student learning, which means that in addition to measuring student growth, teachers need to assess whether or not their teaching strategies are effective.

In a PLC, the evidence of student learning must be used to collaborate with colleagues to identify teaching strengths and areas of concern. While the authors don’t go into detail about how to create effective assessment strategies, they do stress that it is important to ensure that staff understand the purpose of assessment. If you want to learn more about effective assessment strategies here are a few books you can read:

  • Visible Learning for Literacy by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie: This book focuses on Literacy, but has many assessment strategies that would work across subjects. The thing I loved most about this book, is that it provides you with a tool that allows teachers to assess their own effect on student learning. I will link pages to the other books at the end of this post if you are interested in getting all of them.
  • Sandra Herbst’s “Making Classroom Assessment Work” and her “Knowing What Counts” Series: Book 1, Book 2, Book 3 and Book 4: This series is amazing because it provides you with templates, tools and exemplars that are easy to use. It provides clear definitions of how to triangulate your assessments and ensure you are using the data effectively. I love these books because they are easy to read cover to cover but also work well as quick reference guides when you don’t have time to read a whole book.

In order to assess your relationship status with measuring your effectiveness, use this rating scale. Again, you want each staff member to complete the scale, with evidence to support their claims, and then come together to reflect on the data.

Systematically Responding When Students Do or Do Not Learn

In this section, the authors make a case for implementing a Response to Intervention system within your school. Essentially this is a three-tier system that ensures that all students are learning at high levels by putting interventions in place before the problems arise, thus anticipating the needs of students and allowing for immediate interventions when needed. I will be expanding on RTI in future posts, but if you want to learn more about it, you can read Pyramid Response to Intervention and Simplifying Response to Intervention  by Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos and Chris Weber.

You may also be interested in looking at a Collaborative Response framework, which is very similar to Response to Intervention, but was developed with an additional tier. “Envisioning a Collaborative Response Model” by Kurtis Hewing would be a great start if you want to learn more about this model. Which adds an additional tier to the 3-tier model of RTI.

I think that either model could be effective but recommend you look into which one is right for your school. Hierck and Williams suggest using this rating scale to assess your school’s readiness to respond when students do and do not learn.

Clarifying Shared Collective Commitments

At this point your staff should understand the difference between doing PLCs and being a PLC. They should know whether or not they are flirting, dating or engaged. Once you reach this point, you are ready to clarify the collective commitments of the team using this review exercise.

The Review Exercise for Shared Collective Commitments will help you review the four pillars of a PLC. First, you will consider the Why- is everyone on your team clear on why this collective commitment is aligned with a the commitment to learning for all? Next you will consider the How- are you clear on the process associated with the commitment? If someone requires support in either of these areas, have them check the “Question” column. Once all things have been considered, and all questions have been addressed, have staff members initial in the final column indicating their investment in the collective commitment.

Elevating All Students

Learning for all means you’ll do whatever it takes to make that so-not by lowering your standards, but by elevating all students to reach them.

p.121

This is the stage where you need to walk the walk! All teachers and staff must commit to implementing the PLC work into their every day teaching practices. Hierck and Williams go into more depth about this in chapter 6 when they discuss the final pillar of a PLC: the Now.

Final Thoughts:

This chapter is where the wheels finally start hitting the ground! I really appreciated the rating scales and surveys embedded in each step because it reinforces the idea that we need to continuously self assess our effectiveness as educators. I also appreciate that the authors make it clear that we should be able to guarantee to parents and students that regardless of which teacher they have, they will receive the same standard of learning as in any other classroom.

Implementing a Response to Interventions system (or a Collaborative Response Model) is another huge undertaking, but well worth the work if you want your staff to follow through on their collective commitments and is a must for any effective PLC to thrive.

In my next post, I will review Chapter 6- Integrating: The Now which provides you with strategies on how to ensure you are embedding your mission, your vision, and your collective commitments into existing school structures to ensure your school operates as a PLC and soars rather than stalls.

If you would like to read along, please purchase the book here. If you have already read the book and have questions, comments, or would like to elaborate on anything I just wrote, please comment below!

Visible Learning Series:

Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn

Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning

10 Mindframes for Visible Learning: Teaching for Success

Visible Learning for Literacy

Visible Learning for Mathematics

Visible Learning for Science

Questions/Comments/Suggestions
Let me know what you think, if you have book suggestions, or if you want me to elaborate on a specific topic. Feedback is always welcome!