Most of our schools have been engaged in PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) over the past few years. Cultures Built to Last: Systemic PLCs at Work by Richard DuFour and Michael Fullan (2013) examine the phenomenon and offer suggestions for making PLCs more relevant and effective.
The authors posit that PLCs need to make cultural change their focus. Structural change can be mandated top-down such as a change in policy or processes. Cultural change, on the other hand is much more difficult to institute and manage. Changing Culture—simply defined as “the way we do things around here”—involves trial and error and conflict. The authors believe PLCs are the key to changing and shaping a school’s culture.
The authors maintain a simple justification for PLCs—engagement. When 95 percent of kindergartners like school but only 37 percent of 9th graders, there is a problem in our school systems. (4) PLCs work to increase leadership capacity, meaning that all stakeholders collaborate on solving the issues surrounding learning and engagement.
The focus of a PLC must center on the following 3 pillars (pp. 14-15):
1. Relentless focus on learning for all students. This focus on all students doesn’t leave any student behind. The questions which drive this:
a. What is it we want students to learn?
b. How will we know if students are learning?
c. How will we respond when some of our students aren’t learning?
d. How will we enrich and extend learning for students who are already proficient?
2. Collaborative culture and collective effort to support student and adult learning. Notice that “adult learning” is included. We must all become lifelong learners.
3. Results orientation to improve practice and drive continuous improvement. Our WCEA accreditation process can work to support this, too.
The authors then turn their attention to clarification and coherence. They recommend the following strategies (30-31):
1. Focusing on a small number of strategies. If you try to do too much, you will fail at everyting.
2. Making instruction and student achievement the daily agenda. How will any change affect student learning?
3. Organizing continuous capacity building around that agenda. How can we get all stakeholders buying into our strategies.
4. Cultivating a sense of systemness on the part of all. One of our biggest struggles in Catholic schools is getting our site-based schools to think of themselves as part of something bigger and how that kind of system thinking will benefit their school.
The authors then examine the “too loose-too tight” dilemma, meaning that schools which are given too much freedom (or too much autonomy to teachers) or schools which try to mandate too much top-down guidelines. Schools must pay attention to this tension and examine where they must challenge their own assumptions in their culture. Ultimately, we can become schools where we can be autonomous and work interdependently. (38)
The key to this analysis is paying attention to a few principles (53):
• Why are we doing this?
• What will this involve?
• How do we proceed?
• When will we find time to do this?
• Which problems are we trying to solve?
• What criteria will be used to measure success?
Effective PLCs are the vehicle to examine these questions. PLCs build leadership capacity in a school by providing a collaborative vehicle to focus stakeholders on the essential questions and building coherence. PLCs promote adult learning in order to analyze and improve a school’s culture. The leader’s role is to keep the PLCs focused on the important principles to examine a school’s culture.
If you’re looking to institute (or re-energize) PLCs in your school, I recommend Cultures Built to Last: Systemic PLCs at Work.