You know, I’m not sure that PLC advocates and supporters realize just how difficult collaboration really is for classroom teachers.

It’s not that we don’t want to work together to ensure the success of our students.  Our hearts have almost always been in the right places. The hitch is that collaborative work requires a measure of coordination that can be downright frustrating for teachers on novice learning teams.

Over the past six years, my own learning team has had to learn how to coordinate the following actions:

  • The development of common assessments.
  • The development of shared sets of essential outcomes.
  • The publication of shared sets of lessons and materials.
  • The organization of team-based collections of web sources.
  • The organization of team-based websites for communicating with parents and other interested parties.
  • The development of team-based approaches and philosophies about key issues like remediation, enrichment, grading and homework.

While managing team-based resource collections, engaging in meaningful conversations, and collaborating on shared documents are all essential practices for PLCs, they require time and energy that most teachers and teams just don’t have.  Making matters worse is the common perception on the part of school leaders that PLCs are a cheap-and-easy reform strategy that carry no costs!

Organizational theorists—including Clay Shirky, one of my favorite thinkers—recognize that the time, attention and energy that teams invest in coordinating their work ARE costs of doing business.

For many learning teams, these “transaction costs” can be crippling.

Teachers quickly decide whether or not coordination is worthwhile—and if the time and energy necessary to coordinate team efforts don’t outweigh the perceived benefits of collaborative work, commitment to shared learning dies, plain and simple.

Whether we like it or not, teachers on teams have to believe that collaborative work is worthwhile before they’re going to be willing to move forward together. As much as we like to think that teachers would do anything for our students, “whatever it takes” is quickly replaced by “what’s in it for me” in the minds of already overworked teachers.

The good news—and a lesson that I try to share with every learning team that I work with—is that digital tools can help to reduce the transaction costs associated with collaboration and coordination.

To spread that message, I’m starting a series of posts designed to spotlight how PLCs can use digital tools to accomplish common tasks.

Today’s entry focuses on using wikis to create shared warehouses of important documents—one of the practices that my collaborative team finds valuable.

Here it is:

Organizing Information on a PLC

The amount of shared information generated by a professional learning team can be completely overwhelming, can’t it?

I mean, the best teams are constantly developing common assessments and lists of essential outcomes that identify what their students know and can do. Exemplars of demonstrating different levels of student mastery are gathered, and sets of lessons—paired with remedial and enrichment activities—are developed.

On traditional learning teams, organizing this shared content is haphazard at best.

Typically, emails with attachments are sent between colleagues. Sometimes, a hyper-organized member will take it upon himself to put together binders of materials for each unit being studied.

These traditional practices can break down about a thousand different ways:

  • Teachers grow tired of plowing through the piles of emails that are sent back and forth all day long.
  • Teachers forget where they’ve saved important documents and spend time poking through folders or asking peers to resend lost materials.
  • Teachers create new materials but forget to share them with their peers.
  • Binders end up outdated, filled with lessons that are no longer used.
  • Teachers forget to return materials to shared binders, creating knowledge and material gaps on learning teams.

Whatever the reason, teachers using traditional practices to organize shared information end up buried in paper, which is a time consuming task to begin with!

To address this challenge, my learning team has started using a wiki to organize all of our shared content. Organized by unit of study, each wiki page starts with our team’s common assessment and lists of essential outcomes.

Whenever possible, we also include exemplars of student work. Finally, we include the very best of our lessons—materials that address specific elements of the curriculum that we know work with our students.

What makes our wiki beautiful is that it is incredibly easy to upload content—even our least tech-savvy teachers are posting information regularly. Because we can access our wiki from anywhere, we can also share information at times that are convenient for us.

Finally, our wiki makes our instruction and our objectives transparent for parents and students. In the process of organizing our materials for one another, we’ve also created a comprehensive digital snapshot of our classes that parents and students visit regularly.

Could we do a better job with our wiki?

Sure—it’s a constant work in progress simply because we’re constantly having conversations about what our students should know and be able to do.  We’ve also just started using it this year, so there are initial gaps in our unit overviews that still need to be filled.

We are, however, convinced that sharing materials with one another doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task anymore—and because the benefits of sharing materials are not outweighed by the transaction costs involved in keeping our shared collection current, we’re still willing to embrace that collaborative practice.

Does that make any sense?


(Blogger’s Note:  In the next few weeks, look for additional posts in this series.  I’m hoping to write about the role that asynchronous conversations, social bookmarking and RSS feed readers can play in making collaboration easier for PLCs.)

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