Pushing back on organizing PLCs. . .

Scott McLeod—who writes extensively about school leadership over at Dangerously Irrelevant, a must-read blog for anyone involved in education—stopped by my recent post about organizing professional learning teams in a PLC and pushed against my thinking a bit.

He wrote:

Bill, I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. The point of a “learning team” of teachers should be to benefit students first, not the teachers themselves. Yes, I want teachers to benefit, but I want students to benefit more.

So… if you accept this premise, then I think you have to go with a PLC made up of role-alike teachers who together can create common assessments, track student learning outcomes, and adjust their instruction accordingly (particularly for the benefit of struggling learners).

In many ways, Scott’s ideas about learning teams aren’t far from my own.  I agree that role-alike groups are the best starting point for teachers and schools new to teaming primarily because they are the most efficient forum for accomplishing the kinds of tasks—creating common assessments, tracking learning outcomes, adjusting instruction—that can make a difference for kids.

But my argument is that role-alike groups aren’t the only organizational strategy that allows for this kind of work to be done.

Let me give you an example:  Not long ago, I had the chance to cover the sixth grade band class for my friend and colleague Bobby Hinson.  While conducting (and who can resist waving the baton around a bit?), I noticed that several of the songs that Bobby was introducing to his kids had themes based in the history that I’m responsible for teaching to my kids.

In particular, one song was about Romulus and Remus—the mythological founders of the city of Rome.  What made this song powerful to me as a social studies teacher was that its tone grew in intensity over time, coming to a crescendo and then ending abruptly.  This neatly mirrors the story of Romulus and Remus, two brothers who built the Italian capital city together and then fought to the death over what it should be named.

Now, what if Bobby and I decided that we wanted to pair together in a learning team to study the impact that music centered on historical events had on student learning?

Couldn’t we identify objectives from the history curriculum—Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Cold War, World War I and II—select songs and have the students analyze how the composers used tone, beat, pitch, and melodies (am I using the right terms here, Nancy?) to convey messages to listeners?

And then, couldn’t we compare the common assessment results of students who explored history through music to the results of students who didn’t to draw conclusions about music as an instructional strategy?  Wouldn’t that kind of work—pairing two teachers with seemingly incompatible roles—be just as productive as the work that I do every day with the teachers on my language arts and social studies team?

Don’t get me wrong:  I realize that the kind of learning team that I’m describing here isn’t for every teacher in a professional learning community.  Pulling off such a project would take teachers who were incredibly motivated—and who had the kind of personal and professional time to invest in working through ambiguity to find meaning.

I also realize that school leaders would have to carefully monitor the work of self-selected teams to be sure that outcomes were benefiting students instead of just making teachers happy.

All that I’m asking is that principals consider differentiating the structure of professional learning teams for the small handful of creative and accomplished teachers who want to invent something new in their buildings.

Like an over reliance on any one instructional strategy in the classroom, a rigid commitment to any one team organizational strategy in a PLC is bound to come up short for some learners.

Does this make any sense?