These teams, if properly managed, can assist teachers in innovating in the classroom and improving student outcomes. Many teachers work to encourage students to take academic risks in order to learn. Can schools apply this concept to teacher education as well?
The answer may be found in professional learning communities’ collaboration (PLCs). PLCs, which are defined as “an ongoing process in which educators collaborate collectively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve,” are a common and proven practice for encouraging teacher collaboration and increasing student achievement.
It is possible, however, to fall into collaborative work that stifles innovation. This can occur, for example, if PLCs place an overabundance of emphasis on common assessments and a shared understanding of what students are learning, resulting in common everything—students receiving the same lesson plan in each class. When establishing expectations for teaching and learning, I’ve heard administrators use the phrase “common experience.” That seems excessive to me.
Although this is motivated by a desire to ensure student success through consistency, it can stifle innovation, which is one of the goals of a PLC. Because the PLC is intended for teacher learning, the team must strike a balance between risk-taking and teacher autonomy and shared expectations for student learning. It is critical for teachers in a team to have a clear understanding of purpose so that everyone feels safe taking risks.
A learning team is constantly engaged in a cycle of learning, which includes data analysis, goal setting, individual and collaborative learning, as well as implementing and adjusting practices to meet the needs of all learners. This process allows teachers to experiment with new teaching methods and learn what works and what doesn’t.
DETERMINING COMMON LEARNING AND ASSESSMENTS
The fundamental questions that teachers investigate in PLCs are: “What do we want students to learn?” as well as “How will we know if they’ve learned it?” These questions are fundamental to any PLC because they require teachers to reach a common understanding of the learning as well as common assessments that check for comprehension.
PLC accomplishes this by prioritizing standards based on specific criteria and then unpacking those standards, analyzing the nouns and verbs in the standards to determine which skills and concepts students will need to learn to be successful.
Teachers identify what is difficult to teach and difficult to learn in the standards so that they can plan interventions and extensions.
It is important to note that some aspects of this process necessitate tight alignment among teachers and do not allow for the creativity and autonomy that teachers may be accustomed to. We do need some common practices in order to achieve success for students.
We can, however, set the stage for teacher autonomy and exploration of the art of teaching and instructional practice by agreeing as a team on what should be tightly aligned.
MAKING SPACE FOR INNOVATION
Individuals within a PLC must be given space to innovate because the team is constantly trying out new strategies to improve student learning. The PLC should be only loosely aligned here.
Teachers will never know what teaching methods work best for their students unless they are given the freedom to experiment with new approaches. PLCs can facilitate this by requiring teachers to collect evidence from common assessments and using data protocols to determine which strategies were most effective.
ENSURING THAT TEAMS WORK EFFECTIVELY
Sam Kaner coined the term Groan Zone to describe the space between posing a problem and reaching a solution, as well as the divergent and convergent thinking that occurs there.
Teachers in a PLC may be afraid to engage in conflict or explore new ideas because they believe that even productive conflict indicates that they are “not a team player.” Teachers, on the other hand, may be under time constraints and believe they do not have time to engage in conflict resolution.
However, productive conflict can help us develop better ideas and stronger teams, and PLCs should embrace and create a space for it in order to innovate. PLCs can make this happen by establishing clear norms and protocols to ensure that all voices are heard and that engaging in this conflict is safe.
It’s also a good idea to make sure the meeting’s intended outcome is clear: are we “generating ideas” or “making a decision”? This clarity can make room for open dialogue.
To engage in conversations that promote learning, risk-taking, and innovation, PLCs require strong facilitators. The facilitators or leaders of those teams, on the other hand, may be conflicted between advocating for ideas and managing the complex process of moving the team forward.
This can result in situations where team members have a facilitator who strongly advocates for a particular idea rather than allowing all voices to be heard, and team members may not feel safe speaking up or taking risks. If facilitators need to advocate, they should delegate the task to someone else so that they can continue to balance advocacy for new ideas against team consensus and integration.
I advocate for a clear decision-making process, such as the Gradients of Agreement structure, which allows for decisions that honor the Groan Zone and divergent thinking while moving toward convergent thinking and consensus decision-making.
PLCs are the lifeblood of school-based innovation and risk-taking. When properly structured, they can be learning teams that constantly collaborate to discover what is best for students.