Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Well-Designed PLC.... Really

In my previous post ("Professional Learning Communities... really"), I raved about the St. Vrain Valley School District’s PLC model, the Digital Learning Collaborative. I can only hint at the intricate detail of the DLC’s excellent learning design here; if you want to know more, check the resources at the end of the previous post. But I want to touch briefly on three elements of the design: blended learning, structured process, and teacher inquiry.

Blended Learning. The DLC’s hybrid online/face-to-face approach may be an essential design element for “online” professional development. In addition to the blogs and Google Apps that participants learn to use for ongoing collaborative work, building teams (four teachers in a building) meet face-to-face once a month. Team leaders (one from each building team) also meet face-to-face once a month. That connection creates community in ways that digital connection by itself cannot — at least, it seems so to this digital immigrant.

Structured Process. The DLC’s dynamic structure for shaping the processes of learning can free the mind. Project leaders Bud Hunt and Michelle Bourgeois put their primary attention on clarifying how they want participants to do the work rather than on what participants will learn from doing it. They believe — and observations by my excellent colleague, Dixie Good, and I confirm — that if the work is well-structured, the learning will be powerful. The DLC process structure includes:
  • requirements about meeting frequency and length;
  • a template agenda for meetings;
  • guidance on team process issues;
  • forms for teams’ progress and outcome reports;
  • frequent required pauses for written reflection;
  • coaching on how to conduct teacher inquiry and collaborative work.
Notice that the process structure is not a restraint; it’s a support system. Template and forms are adapted to suit individual needs. Reflections both cement what’s being learned and raise new questions. Rules, for the most part, are made to be bent. This explicit, dynamic structure enables participants to become more skillful at the work of learning, of course. But it also allays many of the anxieties associated with learning, and, as a result, makes it easier for the participants to learn boldly.

Teacher Inquiry. This aspect is especially significant. In the first year of DLC participation, teachers are encouraged to explore tools and acquire some mastery in using them. In the second year, each teacher (or building teams collectively) conducts an action research project. If I use Tool X with Strategy Y, what measurable outcome will occur? Of course, the explicit outcomes sought are increases in student achievement. But the broader outcomes that also occur — and frequently in much more dramatic, albeit more subjectively measured, fashion — are changes in the nature of both the students’ and the teachers’ learning. As one elementary school teacher told me,
It’s making a difference in the kids. Just putting the work under the document camera. Is it proficient? Is it really ready for you to share with the other students? Then they go back to look at it some more. Their work is better because of it. Plus, other kids comment and make suggestions. So my class is becoming a student-led class. And you know what a control freak I am. I maybe instruct for two days, then they teach each other for three.
This teacher credits the technology. I’ve observed her class; it’s the teaching that’s changed.

It seems obvious that the learning districts provide for the adults will find its way to the children. That assumption is typically reflected in what districts ask the adults to learn. The DLC demonstrates that how the adults learn matters more — and that how they the adults learn can help to transform how they mediate the learning of their students.

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