March 15, 2009

Damn Trains

One of the last speakers I heard at the PLC conference in Phoenix was Robert Eaker. He talked about what it means to "be" a PLC. His words, I believe, summarized the challenges of becoming a PLC community...but they are challenges worth tackling. Just as Anthony Muhammed suggested at our division PD event, Eaker stressed that we as the educational community need to move away from traditional school thinking. At the heart of this is the shift from teaching to learning...we need to focus on learning rather than teaching - an idea that is at the heart of PLC's. He emphasized this point by stating that what we teach and what students learn are sometimes two very different things (he showed some funny slide examples but I cannot remember them...they must not have been too funny). He then ran over to Rick DuFour and bumped chests...not really but that would have been exciting.

Eaker asked if we ever wake up feeling energized and refreshed only to be "beat down" later by wave after wave of criticism and negativity. His point? The road to becoming a true PLC community will be bumpy...and I don't mean like highway #4 bumpy, I mean like 100th street in spring time bumpy. Like lose your car in a pothole bumpy. But that's okay, really... what we need to do is move from knowing to doing. In other words, first we have to change our ways of knowing. We need proper training - we need to immerse ourselves in the ideas associated with PLC and educational shift, and we need to do this in a stimulating way (may I suggest attending a conference in Phoenix headlined by some of the biggest names in educational shift?). Once we change our ways of knowing we then need to change our ways of doing. However, simply "doing" is not enough. In order to achieve the much coveted true PLC environment we need to enter a state of simply being. That is, we have to "be" a the point of not thinking about it. Sounds easy.

Eaker then went on to say that the work is far more important than the label. Actually, it is often counterproductive to "label drop". Have you ever had anyone in your school attend a conference on something new only to come back and drop a bunch of new terms and not actually convey anything meaningful? Eaker said that this happens all to often. He said that we need to be a PLC, don't worry about terms (e.g. SMART goals)...don't emphasize buzz words - people tend to think that new things are a fad.

But PLC's are not a fad. We already do PLC's...and have been doing them for years. We build common assessments, we align our curriculums...we just do not do it on a deep basis and most importantly, a routine basis. He suggested that we stop focusing so much on accountability of the "sticky icky", (e.g. year plans, lesson plans) and focus on making PLC culture a routine part of our school atmosphere. He also commented on placing to much importance on teacher's feelings. We need student learning to be our main objective. For instance, when trying something new instead of asking "how do we/you like it?", ask first "how is this affecting student learning?"

Finally, he talked about "teaching to the test". He had a unique perspective...and gasp...I do not agree with it. He said there is nothing wrong with it. He used a Tiger Woods analogy. Tiger practices the things he will need to do in a tournament. He also practices on the courses he will be playing on. Nobody would ever accuse him of cheating or imply that what he is doing is wrong. Then why do we say teaching to the test is wrong? Students are simply gaining skills and practicing those skills. However, that's all fine and dandy assuming that the test is curriculum based (which it most likely is), relevant to student's cultural background (which it most likely isn't), and will not be used for purposes of rating or in any other harmful ways. Whenever I think about large scale assessment I always think of my farming friend from high school. He was a farmer, he was going to be a farmer and that was that. He sometimes had trouble in math (especially on standardized tests). One day I was helping him haul grain. He was figuring out how much room was left in the bins (with advanced geometry), how many bushels he had taken off of each field, what the wheat was running, and how much fuel they had burned through....all in his head...and fast! I told him that he was doing math far beyond what we were learning in school, why wasn't he getting better marks. His response...those tests talk about trains (e.g. if a train leaves this station at...) and cylinders (e.g. if you take 1/3 of a cylinder...) - what the hell do I know about trains. In other words, if the math questions had been worded within an agricultural context he would have been getting far better marks. Too bad standardized tests can't achieve this. And that's why I like the idea of teacher made common assessments being the most important.


  1. So we have to stop trying to do PLCs and just start being PLC's? Should I call you Yoda or Mr. Miyagi? A lot of what you are saying is ringing true. I think it is easier to join forces with the nay-sayers than to truly effect change. It takes a lot of work and effort to move through negativity. You truly need to believe in what you are doing.

    As for the value of buzz words, I really feel that they help unleash developmentally appropriate outcomes and streamline proactive learning.

  2. Nice use of the jargon generator Gary. And yes, the basis of PLC's can sound like a bad self help book...but once people buy in I think the direction oriented collaborative atmosphere that they would create is what teachers are truly looking for.