During the course of our conversation, Will asked me a ton of questions about the impact that professional learning communities were having on teaching and learning in schools largely because he wasn’t completely convinced that PLCs were reaching their potential as tools for powerful change.
While PLCs may have a clear impact on the way that teachers work with one another, he argued, they often aren’t having the same significant impact on the learning environments that our students experience.
That conversation has stuck in the back of my mind for months because in many ways, I know that Will is right. There are a TON of really traditional buildings proudly waving the PLC banner yet doing little to truly prepare kids for the knowledge-driven futures that they are going to inherit.
The good news is that there is a simple explanation for this disconnect between what our PLCs ARE versus what our PLCs SHOULD BE:
No matter how much we try to convince our collaborative selves that we are changing education, we’ve sold out to standardized tests.
Think about it: when learning teams sit down to decide where they are going to spend their collaborative time and attention, the first thing they dig out are charts and graphs and reports tracking student progress on last year’s end-of-grade exams, right?
Sure, we give lip-service to the importance of communication, collaboration and global awareness. Sure, we say that we want to teach our students to access information connected to their interests and passions. Sure, we preach the importance of self-direction and customization in learning spaces.
But when the rubber hits the road, we spend the VAST majority of our time studying the simplistic skills that are tested.
We spend most of April and all of May giving practice tests to spot weaknesses in things like computation and content recall. We look at previous exams for hints as to what might be on this year’s test. We ask questions that mirror those that kids are likely to face during our upcoming testing season and we design interventions with nothing other than end of grade exams in mind.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing that the kinds of skills and knowledge that are currently tested are COMPLETELY useless.
Our students DO need to master the fundamental bits of knowledge that standardized exams are good at measuring. Assessment experts would call those fundamental bits of knowledge “readiness objectives” because they are designed to make sure that our kids are prepared to succeed in the next grade level and/or the next course.
I also know all too well the moral tightrope that educators are forced to walk in a high-stakes world that seeks to shame and humiliate schools and teachers with students who struggle on yearly exams. It’s the reason I walked away from the tested classroom two years ago.
But what we miss when we spend EVERY collaborative moment studying readiness objectives is the opportunity to shift the focus of the work that we do with students to the kinds of skills that will be important LONG AFTER they’ve left our buildings.
When you are more concerned as a collaborative community with whether or not your kids can regurgitate basic facts than you are with whether or not your kids can find connections across domains, collaboratively solve knotty problems or use social spaces as customized opportunities to explore interests, your PLC is failing, plain and simple.
It’s important to note that this notion isn’t new to the leaders of the #atplc movement. Heck, my favorite moment in any Rick DuFour presentation is when he asks audiences how many of them memorized the 50 states and their capitals when they were kids.
Inevitably, every hand goes up.
Then, he asks the same audience how many people would be willing to come to the stage to recite them in front of everyone.
Rick’s point is a simple one: When you are trying to make time for the skills that REALLY matter, you’ve got to stop WASTING time on the skills that don’t. He calls it “organized abandonment,” and it is a process that’s built around one simple question:
What DO we want students to know and be able to do?
How does your building currently answer that question, y’all? Are you stuck in the “tests matter more than kids” cycle that Will openly challenges? Are you so concerned with your own position and/or reputation that you’ve stopped advocating for what is right for our students?
Do you make ANY time for skills that AREN’T easily tested but ARE incredibly important?
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