John Spencer — an #eduthinker who I respect greatly — has been wrestling with the role that standardization should play in a professional learning community this week.  He wrote:

The truth is that I became a better teacher when I was finally given autonomy. It’s not an excuse. It’s the impetus for innovation. When I have creative control and the freedom to experiment, some of the best lessons occur.

Last year, I was able to use a tech-integrated framework, move away from traditional grades, go with a project-based and problem-based approach and teach thematic units. I also had some of the highest reading, writing and math scores in the district.

All of that required a hefty dose of teacher autonomy. Although we were a PLC, the principal was flexible enough to say, “Try this and compare the results with your team.” He never mocked my need for autonomy, but actually embraced it instead.

That’s the same issue that Justin Tarte — an assistant principal in a school that values autonomy and innovation — is struggling with:

This year at Poplar Bluff Junior High School we are going through year two of Professional Learning Communities. Additionally, we are in the first year of our professional studies book club. We have been experiencing a lot of growing pains, but more importantly we are having difficult discussions that are helping to move us forward.

Most recently we read “Linchpin” by Seth Godin (you can find my blog post here).

While we were discussing the relevancy of Godin’s thoughts to our school and students, a teacher asked a simple but profound question: “How do PLCs and their standardization of education fit in the mix of creating and developing Linchpins?”

And it’s similar to the thinking of George Courous, who is in the middle of developing a series of supporting documents designed to give teachers a clearer picture of what effective #edtech integration should look like in their classrooms:

How do we ensure that all of our students get the same opportunities no matter what school they attend, while also ensuring that our teachers have the autonomy to be innovative in their teaching practices?

Interesting stuff, isn’t it?  Essentially, John, Justin and George have all stumbled on one of the central challenges of leading PLCs: Balancing the competing need for autonomy and standardization in the collaborative schoolhouse.

On the one hand, teachers are creative professionals who expect to be trusted.  We want to work in schools that allow us the flexibility to do what it is that we do best: Make instructional choices based on our deep understanding of our own strengths, our curriculum AND the students in our care.

On the other hand, autonomy to the extreme often leads to drastically different learning experiences for students in different classrooms on the exact same hallway.  The push towards standardization that feels so wrong to teachers like John and I is just an inevitable response to this sad reality.

So where SHOULD the balance between autonomy and standardization in a collaborative learning community rest?

Let’s start by looking at a simple definition that Rick DuFour gives in almost every presentation:

A professional learning community is a group of educators who are engaged in an ongoing cycle of collective inquiry around practice.

Can you see autonomy hiding in this definition?

“Ongoing cycles of collective inquiry around practice” DEPEND on autonomy, don’t they?  You just plain can’t collectively inquire around practice in environments where teachers aren’t given the professional freedom — as individuals or as collective groups — to explore and experiment.

Standardization to the extreme — something that happens in districts where teachers are given scripted pacing guides, district-wide assessments developed outside of the schoolhouse, and required practices that must be implemented with unforgiving fidelity — is nothing more than #edugarbage.

That kind of standardization — which John rightly explains is becoming all too common in today’s high-stakes, coercive, corporate-driven educational environments — literally runs contrary to the fundamental tenets of the professional learning community model.

That kind of standardization isn’t really standardization at all, y’all.  It’s regimentation — and good teachers figure out pretty darn quickly that collective inquiry in a regimented reality is pointless because all of the thinking is done by those in positions of power.


At the same time, professionals engaged in ongoing cycles of collective inquiry DO standardize their practice.  The reasons are simple:  Professionals are committed to succeeding and success depends on figuring out what works and replicating it.

What does that look like in action?

Look back at John’s example early in this post.  He had the opportunity to inquire, right?  He asked questions about how his instructional practices could be improved, tried some new things in his classroom, and tracked the impact that those choices had on his students.

And those choices worked, didn’t they?  John mentions that his students had the highest reading, writing and math scores in the district.  Autonomy gave John the chance to innovate and that innovation led to a new discovery about what works with kids.

But now it’s time for standardization to kick in.  I would hope that John’s learning team will be ready to take a closer look at what he was doing with his kids and begin to find ways to incorporate those practices into their classrooms — especially if their own practices aren’t producing similar results for kids.

To do otherwise — to look at clear and convincing evidence that John has discovered something that works for kids and to ignore it in the name of autonomy — would be irresponsible at best and educational malpractice at worst.

If “we” are committed to figuring out what works with our kids and “I” discover something that makes a real difference, “you” ought to be willing to give it a whirl in your room.

Likewise if “we” are committed to figuring out what works with our kids and “I” realize that something I’m doing isn’t nearly as effective as something that “you” are doing, I owe it to my kids to rethink the professional choices that I’m making.

The way that I see it — and remember, I’ve been working on professional learning teams for almost a decade now — standardization is a natural outcome of teams that are truly committed to studying practice together.

Any of this make sense?


Related Radical Reads:

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

I Finally Drank the Kool Aid

Drinking the Kool Aid – Part Deux

The Challenges and Successes of a PLC

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