July 20, 2006

Focus on learning not data

It’s been amazing to be able to virtually participate in a number of conferences thanks to bloggers and servcies like hitchhikr.

Alan November’s Building Learning Communities in Boston would have been another great conference to attend.

Steve Dembo’s post on Dr. Andy Hargreaves keynote has caught my attention. I’ve been involved in supporting teachers establish and build professional learning communities for the past several years. I would be the first to admit that it hasn’t always been smooth. The issues that have been most difficult to deal with has been time and focus.

PLC’s need time. We’ve relied on the work of Rick Stiggins and Rick Dufour (good luck finding a suitable hyperlink to Dufour) for much of our framework. Both recognize that teachers likely need at least an hour a week in these teams. That has not been the case for the majority of our teams. We’ve been lucky to get them together once a month for a hour.

We’ve also struggled with finding a focus. Initially we started by giving teachers a wide open format for their choice of focus. This ranged from teachers wanting to develop webpages to unit creation to working on instructional strategies. The teams were all over the map in terms of focus and satisfaction. We decided to steer them more towards a data driven team where the focus would be on student learning. This concept might be good but my fear was/is if teachers are asked to make this shift with little time, it will turn into a focus in increasing scores and that would be lead to shallow learning.

I think this is the essence of Hargreaves address.

Professional learning communities, what passes for professional learning communities is often teachers thrown together to look at test score data in math and literacy. It’s rhetoric. And it’s definitely not a learning community. Professional learning communities are about more than just throwing groups of teachers together after school to look at achievement data and figure out quick ways to raise their scores. It’s about challenging each other to move ahead.

It’s the previous paragraph that really interests me.

Successful schools promote stimulating conversations that are also committed conversations, that translate into some kind of action over time. It’s not enough to discuss the ideas, they need to influence actionable decisions that transform the school community.

Stimulating conversations. That’s what I experience daily. That’s what excites me about my job right now. I fear that teachers for the most part do not experience stimulating conversations as often as they’d like and need. This is partly due to time but also due to our obsession with data and scores. Yes, even in Canada.

Where I think I’m still struggling is what we mean by “student learning” and if it is always measureable? I also think that if teachers were engaged in stimulating conversations aobut learning, the scores would take care of themselves.