July 17, 2013

Teacher Autonomy & Experimentation in a PLC

So, I have some great discussions with numerous educators on Twitter and they have a wide variety of opinions.  I love hearing the varying opinions, ideas and experiences. They make me stronger and better for soaking up all of the insights they share.  One of the topics that has been discussed repeatedly is that of teacher autonomy and the need for experimentation in instructional strategies without the fear of failure or worse losing your job due to poor student performance on standardized tests.  

Of course, one of the many chats I participate in is the #atplc chat that focuses on the use, implementation and best practices of Professional Learning Communities.  I have heard concerns that teacher autonomy and experimentation cannot exist in a PLC as the idea of a PLC is to create a uniform curriculum and delivery method in each classroom (of the same grade or subject area).  

Now, I'm not sure where this idea came from, but I can honestly say I have never heard any of the PLC "gurus" utter that phrase.  I have never read anything like that in my, too numerous to count, books about PLCs.  While I know PLCs are very much about using common formative and common summative assessments, I don't recall reading that each teacher needs to deliver instruction or curriculum in an identical manner.  Sure, we may want to discuss methods that seem to be very successful according to assessment data, but no where does it say we "need" to be teaching identically; using all the same books, strategies, technologies or whatever else.  I do believe we all need to teach the same standards, and using common assessments helps to ensure that students are (or are not) learning those standards.  But my experience has been mostly at the Elementary and Middle School level where I believe students need the same skills at a basic level to be successful in a variety of careers or to prepare them for college success.  When students get to high school, maybe there is another side to this coin.....Career paths? Topic for another day......

The graphic above actually lays out the PLC cycle fairly simply. The opportunity for staff to come together and examine student data will allow teachers to determine which practices are working better than others. Again, this doesn't force teaching style changes, or even resource changes, but it could surely lead to that if the team has become comfortable with that shift. Most importantly it brings the team together and these conversations can take place.  

I suppose my passion and belief in the Professional Learning Community model is evident from many of my previous posts and if you happen to follow me on Twitter I know you have heard me encourage its use in schools.  Part of that support and belief comes from my strong experiences with teams.  I have always greatly enjoyed working in teams, whether it be in sports or in education, there is something supportive, strengthening, and secure in working toward a common goal with a group of like minded individuals.  It builds on the experiences and strengths of the group and it is based on relationships of the team members.  I guess that is why I view my Twitter PLN as my "other PLC."  I feel very close with the people that I have connected with on Twitter.  Not all of them teach or lead like I do or would....but they each come with great strengths, experiences and passion for educating our students to the highest levels, and if I can glean something from them I will.  We can argue and disagree, but when it's over, what is important is that have we learned something from it.  I know I have.  

So, I'm unclear where the idea came from that a viable curriculum and common assessments somehow equals cloned teaching practices, or that everyone must use the same resources.  Maybe it began with the fears of the Common Core State Standards.  I know some people feel that the CCSS will put limits on student learning and teaching, but that doesn't seem to be the case in Finland.  I'd also add that the standards aren't meant to limit, but instead to raise the bar, provide a common goal, and give us some consistency from state to state.   The standards don't say, "You must stop here."  They do not declare that you can only teach these skills.  But I know those fears exist and that somehow it feels that the CCSS will take away autonomy and experimentation.  Truthfully, I think the opposite is true.  However, I can easily say this....if you were in my idea of a PLC, I would highly encourage a variety of strategies, resources and yes even some experimentation taking place in our classrooms.  How can we be sure we are using the best possible instructional methods or resources, if we are all using the same resources and methods?  At best, we will just be sure that we are doing the best at what we know and do already.  That concept would seem to inhibit growth.  I am always in search of growth.  For myself, my staff and my students.  I believe the conversations that take place in PLCs help make that growth possible, and eventually strengthen everyone in the community.  Am I wrong on this?  Is there a perspective on PLCs that I'm missing out on? If so, please leave me your thoughts in the comments below. 


  1. Tom,

    Nicely done my friend - loved reading this post! I could not agree more with so many of the points you made here. One that I would speak to is the idea of people learning and growing and experimenting as part of a group - PLC, PLN, cohort, etc. Research shows that people learn best when they learn in teams where they can bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm about best practices. Furthermore, when working in a group, people can personalize what they have learned and apply in their own setting in the way that makes most sense for them - and then they can debrief with the PLC/PLN/cohort, which brings a layer of "accountability" to the group experience. What I mean by "accountability" is that people are more apt to try things when they have the support of a group in their corner and know they can turn to that group to flush things out. We dont have to be cookie cutter - I have never read that about the Power of PLCs or PLNs but when part of a group, we are exposed to many idea - many great ideas that can stretch our thinking and enhance our craft! I believe in the power of the group!

    Thanks again for writing this Tom - you got me thinking nice and early in the morning!


  2. Tom,
    I share your frustration with people who argue that the CCSS and/or PLCs will limit teacher creativity and innovation and lead to scripted "teacher -proof" curriculum. I think the misconception about PLCs comes from teachers in places where leaders have plucked th spacing guide idea from a PLC workshop they attended and turned in into "everyone must be on this page in the textbook on this day" pacing mandate. I was part of the teamed that developed pacing guides for high school math courses with our last text book adoption. The pacing guide was very helpful for teachers to know what sections of this monster textbook they need to teach in order to meet our district/state standards, but it was a guide. Many teachers didn't get this, no matter how many times they were told. You'd often hear comment about teachers being "behind" in the pacing guide, or that they needed to move on even though students still weren't completely grasping a concept. In addition to the pacing guides, we created common final exams for each course, which teachers dutifully gave at the end of each term, but that was where it stopped. Early on we had meetings to talk about the quality of the exams, did some revisions, etc. but we never discussed student performance of the tests or how that reflected what was happening in individual classrooms. We also never developed any additional common summative or formative assessments. So much for "doing" PLCs. This year we are renewing our commitment to PLCs and will finally have some scheduled collaboration time at the high school level. I am extremely hopeful that we can create some strong teams that are able to do great things for kids thru their collaboration, and hopefully renew their individual passion and commitment for teaching.

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Hi Tom,

    Great post! Thanks so much for sharing. I especially like the quote at the end regarding watering your own grass. Having learned the hard way on some occasions, the grass certainly is not necessarily always greener on the other side. I appreciate you reminding me of this. :)