PLCs -NOT Las Vegas

New Rule:  PLCs – NOT Las Vegas

Shirley Hord coined the term PLC (Professional Learning Community) and published articles at SEDL. PLCs have been a concept with great power and, from my experience, not practiced very well.  Milbury McLaughlin, Stanford, supported the concept years ago and said PLCs could be the change schools need for better learning. She was right depending upon how PLCs are structured and used in real time. Several others have touted the possibility of PLCs to increase profession learning and then by extension, student learning.  Some consultants have focused on collaboration (building community).  As Shirley said years ago, it is about LEARNING.

Las Vegas is known for saying, ‘what goes on here, stays here.’  PLCs should be just the opposite.  WE SHOULD TELL EVERYONE WHO WILL LISTEN WHAT GOES ON IN THESE PLCs. If it is a good practice, tell everyone so they can add it to their teaching repertoire or be happy for the confirmation you are using effective learning processes.  If it is not working, for crying out loud, tell people.  Let’s not waste time doing something that is not working.  Professionals might be able to modify the strategy to make it work.  Tell people what you are doing so you and others can learn from your efforts.

PLCs can save time with this kind of learning community. I don’t know one professional, working in schools, that has more time than they need to meet the demands.  Share repertoire and results, save time, please.

I had lunch with Shirley last week, and at age 90, she continues to be thoughtful and reflective. I am grateful for her friendship and teaching me.  She has been a strong advocate in favor of professionals learning together.  In our book, Leading Professional Learning Communities (2008) we addressed some of the issues that were keeping PLCs from being more influential.  A lot of money has been spent on training. The result, in several places, was PLCs turned into just another meeting. PLCs can be SOL if we are not careful or we focus on the wrong things.

When either of us would get called for assistance to make PLCs more relevant and useful, we would ask, ‘what are you learning?’  The normal response was, we are meeting on Tuesdays.  That is not what we asked.  What are you learning?  The response would be, we are doing a book study.  That is not what we asked.  What are you learning?  Many times there would be silence.  If you can’t say what you are learning, I don’t believe you have a PLC.  You do have a meeting. So, I ask you, what are you learning in your PLCs?

At other times a response might be we are collaborating.  I remember Shirley saying, you can collaborate about a banana bread recipe. We developed four questions to try to determine if the school, department, or group really had a PLC or it was a meeting.

  1. What are you learning?
  2. Why are you learning that?
  3. How are you learning?
  4. How is what you are learning in the PLC, resulting in teacher and/or student learning?

These questions helped define and focus on the goal of learning in a PLC.

  1. What are you learning? Read Drago-Severson’s work (2016), and her four stages of teacher development which supports why PLCs are important. I highly recommend it. Stage Three is self-authoring – very efficacious teachers of high quality. Yes, we want that. As a school, we want the system to benefit from good teaching.  That is why her Stage Four, self-transforming, is where the best ideas are shared school or system-wide.
  2. Why are you learning that? This is where data becomes important. What is driving your learning?  If there is a group of kids not learning, let’s find out more about that group and try something that might work. Let’s not wait until the end of the school year to find out our idea isn’t working.  Tests give us lagging indicators.  We need leading indicators and formative assessments to give us results with a shorter feedback loop. One caution – be specific about what data you use.  Don’t drink from the firehose which is what normally is provided. Collect the data that will inform your assessment.
  3. How are you learning? Book studies are one way. Microprojects is another. Try something, get student feedback. When I taught in a lab school in the 60s, we interviewed kids to find out what helped, what got in the way, and what recommendations they would make.  Hmmm, maybe we could do that today as well.  I am sure some place is already doing this. I also suggest mining the minds of those in the school.  Are there staff who are being successful with the same kids some say can’t learn?  Positive Deviance would be a strategy I recommend.  Then, learn from other schools in your district or adjacent to yours.  Then, state or national consultants.
  4. How, is what you are doing in the PLC, resulting in teacher and/or student learning? There will always be a need for an assessment plan. Somebody will always ask; how do you know this works?  I recommend qualitative as well as quantitative assessments.  SEL (Brackett, Yale), Learned Optimism (Seligman 2011), Grit (Duckworth 2016), Mindset (Dweck 2006), Creativity, etc. can be used to widen assessments to include desired behavior for life rather than typical test scores.

One of the best PLCs I have ever seen was at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, MI.  This has been written about by the CEO, Richard Sheridan.  After I read his book Joy, Inc. Art Costa, Skip Olsen, and I traveled to Ann Arbor to see this in action.  This is a software development company.  They do not use email.  If you want to talk to someone, get up out of your chair, go over, and talk to them.  There are about 45-50 people working in a large room without walls, moveable tables, and chairs on rollers. (OK, there are a couple of walls for toilets and personnel issues as well as a training room).

Everyone works on a team of two people.  They get one computer.  They have to collaborate on the project.  This was amazing to see.  The PLC came in the form of “Hey, Menlo.”  At about 10:00 am, everyone forms a circle in the middle of the big room.  There is a Viking helmet (two horns) that moves around the circle to each team. Each person on the team holds one horn.  They answer three questions: (I paraphrase)

  1. What are you working on?
  2. What are you learning?
  3. Where are you having difficulty?

The whole process was completed in about 20-30 minutes.  As soon as the reports were done, people would go to a person who might be working on similar problems and share what they did previously.  IT WAS OUTSTANDING.  I recommend reading Joy, Inc.  I just ordered Sheridan’s newest book, Chief Joy Officer (2018).  I can’t wait to read it and joyfully learn more.

I think we need to put JOY back into schools and learning. Thank you, Rich, for writing about your vision and company.  I am grateful.

Make PLCs the best learning in schools for staff.  I trust the professionals to do it for kids, colleagues, and community. Transferring knowledge between professionals increases everyones knowledge, skills, and applications.


Brackett, Marc. Center for Emotional Intelligence.  Yale University.

Drago-Severson, Eleanor. (2016). Tell Me So I Can Hear You.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Duckworth, Angela. (2016). Grit: The Power and Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hord, S.M. & Sommers, W.A. (2008). Leading Professional Learning Communities:  Voice of Research and Practice.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press, Inc.

Sheridan, Richard. (2013).  Joy, Inc.  New York:  Penguin

Seligman, M.  (1990).  Learned optimism.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish.  New York:  Free Press


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