Monday, September 19, 2011

The Pink PLC

Over the past ten years, I have been an advocate for the concepts of the Professional Learning Community.  I have read countless books on the PLC and taken or sent dozens of teachers and administrators from my schools to PLC Conferences.  I have worked with a number of different staffs in different districts on developing a collaborative culture, as well as creating structures within the school and time within the timetable for teachers to collaborate effectively with their peers about curriculum, instruction and assessment.  I have several Solution Tree T-Shirts.

We provide weekly collaborative time for teachers in our school.  In previous collaborative models I was very crystallized in terms of what I envisioned happening during this time.  In following the PLC Model verbatim as I thought I should when I started working on ideas from the Professional Learning Community several years ago, I wanted my different staffs to establish norms (which I still believe to be important), to develop common learning outcomes, common assessments, analyze data...the gambit of ideas described in the PLC.  I had weekly feedback sheets that my team leaders would diligently fill out, debriefing at coordinators meetings, I wanted to be 'in the loop' each step of the way. 

But I have noticed an evolution in the way that I have approached the Professional Learning Community.  As time has passed, and most notably in the last two years, I have changed my approach to our learning community model at SKSS.  I am attributing this to some different points of view that are shaping my thinking right now.   Many of these points of influence have come from people and theories that are circulating around my Personal Learning Network; one of these being Daniel Pink and his RSA Animate video on motivation.

Pink talks about a variety of things in this clip, but what truly resonated with me was his description of how a software company (Atlassian) gives their employees time to innovate and come up with different ideas.  To quote Daniel Pink on this concept-- "You probably want to do something interesting, let me get out of the way".  As Pink describes his own challenges with accepting this, I struggled with my not having a finger in all of the pies.  To completely 'get out of the way' was a challenge for me, mostly because I want to believe that I am not 'in anyone's way'.  I want to feel as though I am just an actively interested member of the team.  But looking at how things were going at that time with our Learning Community, I have to admit that I likely was 'getting in the way'.  As a result, I have made some changes to the way I approach collaborative time, and how we work together in our learning community.

As time has passed, I have been able to reflect on our journey toward a more collaborative culture. I realized that it has been a long, windy, and bumpy road with many opportunities for detours.  There were a number of occasions where it seemed as though I was really driving the PLC bus, and at some points, I was getting out of the driver's seat, walking around the back, and pushing on the bumper without a great deal of movement.  Furthermore, a number of staff members were not particularly engaged in (and sometimes incredibly frustrated with) the collaborative process, which made the collaborative meetings a bit 'hit and miss'.  And finally, some (not all) the products of collaborative time were disjointed, with varying levels of involvement by members of different departments.  The learning community that I so valued (and still value) was not always firing on all cylinders. We needed to something to change.

The learning community continues to thrive at our school, but it has a very different feel.  I attribute this change to our Coordinators and our departments putting their stamp on the structure and makeup of collaborative time.  Coordinators host weekly meetings, and set up the tutorial schedule that allows for them to give support to students in a way that works for their department.  The departments develop norms for their collaborative meetings that serve the needs of their group.  They have worked collectively to develop goals via measures that they developed on issues that they determined were vital to the success of students in their areas.  The coordinators track progress, and will present to the school (and the public through our School Improvement Blog) the things that they are proud of in their departments with respect to student and teacher achievement in the goal area they have come up with (here is an example from Math).

I would like to think that Rick Dufour might call this a loose-tight approach.  While I am tight on the fact that I want each department to have norms for their meetings, but how they set up those norms is up to them.  I am tight on the fact that I want departments to set SMART goals for their departments, but what those goals actually look like comes from the particular department.  I need to have our staff give students support in our tutorials, but how they schedule so that it is fair and equitable to students and staff is up to them. I want them to report out on their progress, but in a manner that they feel puts their best foot forward to students, parents, and the rest of our partners in the community. The list goes on. 

However (and clearly I can't speak for him), Dr. Dufour might also call what we do in terms of collaboration at our school 'collaboration lite' - where portions of our collaborative meetings are comprised of more sharing than action, more brainstorming than results.  But I believe that is where I have changed, and where I want to take ideas from Daniel Pink.   Of course I want our departments to improve teacher achievement and student achievement by working together; of that there is no doubt.  But I also want our staff to use some of the time that we have created to be CREATIVE, to come up with points of inquiry to investigate in their classes, and to really 'think outside of the box' to establish a rich learning environment for their students. 

We are not Google, and not able to free our staff up for one day per week to work together and 'create' as some companies do.  However, we are able to provide a bit of time for teachers to look at curriculum, instruction and assessment as a collective to improve the learning at our school.

I think we will try to call it 'Dufour with a touch of Pink', or 'The Pink PLC'.


  1. Cale
    Another fine post! You hit on a bit of tension that I have been feeling these days as well. As a someone who believes in the in practice of PLC's and all its elements (SMART Goals, student achievement, team norms, etc), lately I've been looking to motivate and empower the staff with something "more". To follow on your metaphor - not only do I not want drive, push or pull the bus - I'm looking to have them "choose their own bus."
    We are trying some of what you talk about this year at our school (Building Experts). Just yesterday I was meeting with someone to discuss how these teams will "function". The temptation was to over prescribe (drive the bus) and provide the road map. At the end of the day, I am not sure how successful this will be (I'll trust the research - Dan Pink and others). But I am willing to take a some chances.

    I really appreciate your post and take some comfort in knowing that you are also having some similar thoughts when it comes to PLC's.

    Thanks again

  2. I often think the role of the leader is to lead results, not methods, and what I see you doing is allowing your team to shape their own experieince. To pick up on Johnny's metaphor, why do they even have to use a bus? You as the leader set the destination and they decide on the method of transportation...the destination is the 'common' piece - the piece that pulls it all together, but the depts. are able to direct their methods - the way in which they get there... assuming they don't take too long ;-)

    Awesome post Cale...simply one of the most thoughtful posts I've read in a while!

  3. Cale,

    As a PLC guy through and through, I've got to tell you that this is the best bit on the leadership tensions that principals of PLCs feel that I've ever read.

    More importantly, I've got to tell you that you're getting this right for the most part!

    I think the only changes that I'd suggest to your plan for approaching PLCs is to have your school develop very clear, actionable vision statements kind of like these:

    And then ask your learning teams to focus their innovative work around one or two of the vision statements that your school has written together.

    By doing so, you firm up the loose-tight-ness of what you are doing. You are enabling your learning teams to explore and to set their own direction, but their direction fits within a framework of what your school community believes that good teaching and learning really looks like in action.

    Is structured and targeted innovation.

    Does that make sense?

    Most importantly, your teachers and teams should always be able to connect their work back to student learning. If they can't show you that they are tracking how their choices are impacting the most important result schools should care about---student learning---they're working in the wrong direction.

    Good stuff, Pal. I'm proud of the work you're doing.


  4. Great post, Cale. I sense that you have a very keen sense of what works best for your school's collaborative culture. There is no fail-proof formula to be plugged into every situation. I've evolved as well in my approaches to the process. The basic principles of successful PLCs remain entrenched in our school, but the tinkering is continuous.

  5. Having read this I believed it was rather informative. I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this informative article together. I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!
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