“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge”
The Four Questions
In the current book I am writing about the professional learning community exemplars from Sheridan County School District #2, I learned about some of the hidden benefits of consistent, faithful implementation of professional learning communities. One of those benefits revolves around the relentless pursuit of the four essential questions of a professional learning community and the hidden power of “we.”
|Question #1: What do we want our students to know and be able to do?
Question #2: How will we know if each student has learned it?
Question #3: How will we respond when some students do not learn it?
Question #4: How will we extend the learning for students who demonstrate proficiency?
(DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, & Mattos, 2016)
The four essential questions of a PLC
For districts like SCSD2, the four essential questions are not a mindful slogan. They don’t represent healthy reminders that you post on the wall and think about once in a while. They are, instead, an enduring strategic guidepost that undergirds everything they do. Despite two decades of deep implementation, teams within the professional learning community (PLC) continue to build these four questions into their organizing team documents and use them to guide the work of each and every team.
Insert “I” for “we”
In a traditional school, good teachers will likely ask the four questions of a PLC, but they’ll ask those questions of themselves—often in total isolation. Asking what “I” want students to know, how “I” will know if they’ve learned it, and how “I” will respond if they know it or not creates a number of very different outcomes. If I alone decide what’s essential for students to learn and my colleagues make a different calculation, our students may collectively move on with disconnected gaps in their learning. Our idea of demonstrating proficiency may be very different than our colleagues’. And, when working alone in a world of “I”, we are limited in intervention to whatever strategies or approaches we know or area accustomed to.
Should the iPhone be the WePhone?
John Casey, Jonathan Ive, and Steve Jobs collaborated to create the iPhone. Their talents in art, tech design, and end-user demand allowed them to create a transformative tool. This team of three and many others worked together, creating and innovating in the name of progress. Their innovations took place over time and ideas were shared, at times, over great distances. Indeed, this transformational invention came about as a result of thoughtful innovators working together, finding creative solutions to their toughest problems. Due to this reliance on working together, perhaps the iPhone should have been called the WePhone—because in this case, the power of “we” meant everything.
The Hidden Power of “We”
Teamwork always feels like a good default. But being a good team in a school today isn’t enough. Getting strategic and working consistently under the auspices of a PLC allows the “we” of a team to work in a more powerful way. Consider the the following hidden powers of “we.”
“We” creates clarity
How easy is it for a teacher working alone to misinterpret a learning expectation? Or how might a wide range of opinions on actual demonstrations of learning create significant learning gaps for students as they move through the school? Getting clear together brings greater clarity to every learning experience in the school, every day.
“We” creates synergy
Neurologically speaking, there is evidence that working together can, in many cases, provide a greater amount of mental stimulation than working alone. This can create synergistic access to new ideas and create momentum that otherwise wouldn’t be there (DuFour & Reason, 2015).
“We” demands strategy
In a “we” world, interventions are executed together. One teammate or another may have unique skill sets in helping students get the standard faster. A “we” approach gives students a boost and forces teams to think critically about systems of intervention as teachers commit to working together and measuring their progress. Working together requires strategic reflection and collaborative design, in the best case resulting in improved strategy.
“We” stirs us and ups our game
One of the biggest mistakes we make when implementing PLCs—or simply working together with any group of adults thoughtfully—is to assume that conflict or disagreement is a crippling hindrance that needs to be avoided at all costs. In many cases, just the opposite is true. By working together and in some cases being confronted with opinions or approaches that are different than our own, we may feel a sense of unease or worry. That worry, or cognitive dissonance, can help members of the team in a PLC up their game and actually reflect more comprehensively about exactly what they want to do and why.
Steps You Should Take
First, I hope you’re implementing the PLC model with fidelity. Continue to learn all you can about PLCs, and study exemplars like SCSD2. As an example of this fidelity, make sure every team remains focused on the foundational application of the four essential questions of the teams working in a PLC. By staying focused on these essential elements, more collective energy will be devoted to the most important outcomes related to the work of schools. Finally, by focusing on the pronoun we, teams of teachers ask and answer these essential questions in a way that moves and beyond intellectualized debate. When we have to make critical decisions about teaching and learning together, it changes the intensity and importance of our work. That reshaping moment helps us to work together more effectively and ultimately achieve better outcomes for the students we serve.
So, if you’re reading this on an iPhone, don’t forget the power of we.
Read the next post in the series on the benefits of conflict in a PLC.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A
handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work™ (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN:
Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, R. & Reason, C. (2015). Professional Learning Communities at Work™ and virtual
collaboration: On the tipping point of transformation. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree
Keyney, L. (2013). John Ive: The genius behind Apple’s greatest products. New York: Penguin.