There are four questions that drive the conversations of members of collaborative planning teams have as part of their Professional Learning Communities. These questions are (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2010):
- What is it we want our students to learn?
- How will we know if each student has learned it?
- How will we respond when some students do not learn it?
- How can we extend and enrich the learning for students who have demonstrated proficiency? (p. 119)
For the past several decades, schools have focused on these questions to impact students’ learning. Well, really, teams have more likely focused on the first three questions. We know that we have personally spent a lot more time on the first three questions and a lot less time on the last question. There was probably a good reason for that, given that the federal and state priorities demanded that students make adequate yearly progress. In addition to policies, most Response to Intervention efforts have encouraged educators to notice students who have not responded to instruction or intervention. We think that there have been some very positive outcomes because of the focus on students who have historically struggled with schooling. Having said that, we also worry that there could be more focus on students who have already mastered the content. In this blog post, we thought we’d explore the fourth PLC question; the question that we think of as a bit pesky because it doesn’t fit nicely in a lot of the current work that many schools are doing.
To our thinking, answering the fourth PLC question requires that teachers have some sort of pre-assessment data. It’s hard to determine which students already have mastered the content if teachers don’t check. And we don’t mean that students need to be given a multiple-choice test at the start of each unit of study. There are all kinds of creative ways to determine what students already know at the start of a unit, including writing tasks, anticipation guides, inventories, and projects completed outside of class. Without this information, teachers may be wasting valuable time “teaching” content that some, or all, of the students have already mastered. For example, 6th grade history teacher Armando Ramirez provided his students with three writing prompts before they began their investigation of Ancient Egypt. Of his 34 students, nine produced stellar papers clearly demonstrating deep understanding of the topic. An additional six students provided evidence of their personal learning about Egypt, including knowledge about Pharaohs and Egyptian culture in ancient times. As Mr. Ramirez noted, “Nine of my students don’t need this unit at all and I have to plan alternative tasks for them. Six of my students have strong knowledge and I need to think about how to engage them in deeper learning. The rest of my students have a lot to learn about this period in history.”
And that’s the challenge. It is rare for all of the students to demonstrate mastery on the pre-assessments. In most cases, some of the students already know the content and some do not. If it is ever the case that all students have already demonstrated mastery, teachers can simply skip the unit and go on to other topics that students need to learn. But, more commonly, as is the case for Mr. Ramirez, some students are in need and others are not. Importantly, there are also students in Mr. Ramirez’s class who need supplemental intervention because their reading performance is far below expected. Thankfully, Mr. Ramirez and his team have a lot of ideas about how to engage students who have already demonstrated mastery. This is also important at the end of the unit of study when teams meet to discuss their responses to students who have not demonstrated deep understanding. At that time, they also can discuss students who understand the content and can make decisions about how to use instructional time.
Some of the ways that Mr. Ramirez and his team have responded to students who have already demonstrated mastery include the following:
- Spiral review tasks: These tasks provide students with opportunities to re-engage with previous content so that it remains fresh in their minds. Ramirez’s students had the chance to revisit some of their work from the unit of study on Ancient Greece and Rome, responding to questions that the class did not get to during the unit. They also had a chance to delve deeper into this previous unit through a range of reading tasks, including Dateline: Troy (Fleischman, 2004) that provided students with information about the Trojan way told through modern newspaper headlines.
- Extension tasks: These tasks provide students an opportunity to explore the current unit of study but with different tasks rather than those assigned to the class. Ramirez’s students had several options for extension tasks, including a research paper on an aspect of Ancient Egypt that they wanted to investigate. Tamara and Jasmine wanted to learn about the role of women in Ancient Egypt and set off on an extended investigation that culminated in a class presentation and a written report. Another option provided to students was an iMovie retelling of the book Egyptology: Search for the Tomb of Osiris (Sands, 2004).
- Peer tutoring: These tasks provide students an opportunity to support their peers’ learning. In Mr. Ramirez’s class, students know that peer tutoring is always an option, but it’s never required. As Mr. Ramirez noted, “I think that students really understand things that they can teach to others, but I don’t want them to be forced to tutor peers. In the past, I only had students peer tutor and they grew tired of it, and I think that the parents figured out that I didn’t know what else to do with their kids. Now I have a lot more options.” In the unit on Egypt, Brandon decided to serve as a peer tutor for a group of students. As Brandon explained, “I love everything Egypt. My parents even took me there. I also go to the museum every time there is something Egyptian, like when King Tut’s collection came here. I think that I can be a good help to other people who don’t understand so much.”
To our thinking, an important consideration when responding to question four is choice. Students who have demonstrated a strong understanding of the content should be provided options for deepening their understanding. In addition to increasing motivation and interest, choice communicates to students that their voice matters and that continued learning is available and important.
We’re sure that you have other ideas about responding to pesky question four! We hope you’ll share them as we recognize that there is still a lot to learn as we all strive to implement the philosophy of Professional Learning Communities.
To learn other tips and tricks for professional learning communities, watch this webinar on the dos and don’ts of PLCS by Rebecca and Richard DuFour.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Fleischman, P. (2004). Dateline: Troy. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.
Sands, E. (2004). Egyptology: Search for the Tomb of Osiris. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.