Professional Learning Communities: Reigniting Passion and Purpose: When Educators Focus on Why Some Students Are Not Learning, Rather Than on Pedagogy, the Fundamental Purpose of the Education Profession Is Revived

By Buffum, Austin; Hinman, Charles | Leadership, May-June 2006 | Go to article overview

Professional Learning Communities: Reigniting Passion and Purpose: When Educators Focus on Why Some Students Are Not Learning, Rather Than on Pedagogy, the Fundamental Purpose of the Education Profession Is Revived


Buffum, Austin, Hinman, Charles, Leadership


Every year across America, thousands of new teachers enter the classroom full of passion and purpose, excited about making a difference in the lives of children. But as years wear on, passion and purpose are all too often replaced by complacency and cynicism.

The Capistrano Unified School District in Southern Orange County has taken a hard look at the realities of complacency and cynicism among its teachers and has found a way to rekindle that spark so they may rediscover their original passion for the profession. Top-down, politically driven educational decisions have been replaced by a pedagogy based on a new paradigm--the professional learning community.

Symptoms of cynicism

Some teachers see themselves as pawns, subject to the whims of local, state and federal mandates. Regardless of which political party is in power, education continues to be among the driving issues. You can count on the political party on the outside to criticize the party on the inside's educational plan and paint it as a dismal failure.

With each political swing, teachers will be told once again to get in line with the ruling pedagogy because, tragically, they've been doing it all wrong. It does not take educators long to become cynical of reform and of the officials who ride the coattails of such reform.

This cycle is common not only at the state and federal levels but at district and school sites as well. Ask veteran teachers how many superintendents or principals they have worked for, each having his or her own "vision" for the district or school. The list can often be longer than memory itself.

If this were not enough to frustrate educators, we certainly accomplish the task by placing additional obstacles in front of them, such as inadequate funding, large class sizes, fewer support staff, onerous state testing, little planning time, facilities in need of repair, lack of technology and outdated textbooks and materials.

Three fundamental questions

No longer can a teaching staff be asked to implement the "reform du jour." They must both take and be given the responsibility to determine the path that will lead to the academic success of their students. This paradigm is based on the simple cliche of going "back to basics." Rick DuFour, champion of the Professional Learning Community (DuFour, 1998) has gone back to basics by asking teachers to consider three fundamental questions:

1. What is it that we want students to learn?

2. How will we know if students have learned it?

3. What will we do if students haven't learned?

Through seeking to answer these fundamental questions, teachers once again can feel empowered to improve student academic success and become a passion- and purpose-driven professional learning community.

In today's political climate, the answers to questions one and two are foregone conclusions. State and federal governments, with input from teachers, have identified the standards to be learned and these standards are continually assessed through a battery of tests. However, the process of teacher collaboration in addressing questions one and two is the foundation of the paradigm shift needed to truly become a professional learning community.

Developing collaborative teams

In the professional learning community, teachers begin to meet in core teams to determine which standards should be given priority, and then develop common assessments to check for understanding of those key standards.

This process is aided by the fact that the standards have already been defined by each state and/or local system. It is in the answering of question three, however, that the magic of the PLC truly takes flight.

Collaborating on why some students are not learning, rather than on pedagogy, revives the fundamental purpose of our profession. This process of collaboration allows teachers to look at longitudinal data relative to student failure at both a macro (school wide) and micro (common assessment) level and rediscover their passion to help all students learn. …

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