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Professional Learning Communities (PLC)

Yucaipa High School

What are Essential Learnings?

Essential Learning; The critical skills, knowledge, and dispositions each student must acquire as a result of each course, grade level, and unit of instruction. Essential learnings may also be referred to as essential outcomes or power standards.

In a PLC, each team engages in collective inquiry to ask, “What do we want each student to learn? What are the most essential learnings of our course, each subject in our grade level, and each unit of instruction?”

Ultimately, the problem of too much content and too little time forces teachers to either rush through content or to exercise judgment regarding which standards are the most significant and essential. In a PLC, this issue is not left up to each teacher to resolve individually, nor does it deteriorate into a debate between teachers regarding their opinions on what students must learn. Instead, collaborative teams of teachers work together to build shared knowledge regarding essential curriculum. They do what people do in learning communities: They learn together.

Ultimately, the essential learnings you and your colleagues identify must be aligned with district and state or provincial standards documents. You must, however, do more than simply adopt all of the standards and district curriculum as your essential learnings. Work with your teammates to clarify what is truly essential. Answering this critical question is a professional responsibility of every faculty member, a responsibility that cannot be delegated to the state, district, or textbook publisher.

What are Norms?

Team Norms in PLC’s norms represent protocols and commitments developed by each team to guide members in working together. Norms help team members clarify expectations regarding how they will work together to achieve their shared goals.

A strategy for establishing team norms: Ask team members to think of a past negative experience they have had serving on a team or committee and to identify a specific behavior that prevented that group from being effective: for example, whining and complaining, arriving late and leaving early, being disengaged during the meetings, and son on.
For each negative norm identified by members of your team establish a positive commitment statement (a norm) your team should adopt that, if everyone adhered to it, would prevent the past negative experience from recurring.

What is Collective Inquiry?

Collective inquiry is the process of building shared knowledge by clarifying the questions that a group will explore together. Teachers in a PLC work together collaboratively in constant, deep collective inquiry into the critical questions of the teaching and learning process, questions, such as: “What is it our students must learn? What is the best way to sequence their learning? What are the most effective strategies to use in teaching this essential content? How will we know when they have learned it? How will we respond when they don’t learn? What will we do when they already know it? What can we learn from each other to enhance our effectiveness?”

The focus of collective inquiry is both a search for best practice for helping all students learn at high levels and an honest assessment of the current reality regarding teaching practices and student learning. The dialogue generated from these questions is intended to result in the academic focus, collective commitments, and productive professional relationships that enhance learning for teachers and students alike.


Collaboration or Co“blab”oration?

Collaboration is a systematic process in which people work together, interdependently, to analyze and impact professional practice in order to improve individual and collective results. The fact that teachers collaborate will do nothing to improve a school. The pertinent question is not, “Are we collaborating?” but rather, “What are we collaborating about?” The purpose of collaboration—to help more students achieve at higher levels—can only be accomplished if the professionals engaged in collaboration are focused on the right things.

What distinguishes a group from a team? Much of what passes for “collaboration” is more aptly described as “coblaboration.” A collection of teachers does not truly become a team until they must rely on one another and need one another to accomplish a goal that none could achieve individually.

Establishing Essential Learnings


Collaborative teams of teachers in PLC’s always attempt to answer critical questions by first engaging in collective inquiry. They build shared knowledge by learning together. This collective examination of the same pool of information significantly increases the likelihood that members of the team will arrive at similar conclusions.

Have you and your teammates built shared knowledge on the most essential learnings for your course or grade level? If so, you are moving in the right direction on the PLC journey. If not, it is recommended you begin the process by building shared knowledge on the resources that should guide your team’s decision, such as: state and national standards, recommended standards from professional organizations, district curriculum maps, district reading and writing rubrics, released items from high-stakes assessments, data from district and state, and textbooks.

Getting Crystal Clear on “Learn What?”

A professional teacher is constantly working with colleagues to come to a deeper understanding of the first critical question: What do we want each student to learn?

The insights of Doug Reeves (2002) are particularly helpful in guiding teams as they address this first critical question. He offers a three-part test for teams to consider as they assess the significance of a particular standard:

1. Does it have endurance? Do we really expect our students to retain the knowledge and skills over time as supposed to merely learning it for a test?

2. Does it have leverage? Will proficiency in this standard assist the student in other areas of the curriculum and other academic disciplines?

3. Does it develop student readiness for the next level of learning? Is it essential for success in the next unit, course, or grade level?

Every credible school improvement model calls upon teachers to clarify what all students must know and be able to do. As teachers engage in this dialogue regarding what their students must know and be able to do as a result of this unit they are about to teach, they become more clear, more consistent, and more confident in their ability to help all students learn.

Are you and your teammates crystal clear on the answer to “Learn What?” Make a team list of the 8-10 essential learnings per semester for each course or subject area, and work interdependently with your colleagues to ensure all students learn what is most essential.


Common Pacing

It is impossible to provide students with equal access to the same essential learning unless teachers have an understanding of and commitment to common pacing. Significant disparities in time devoted to teaching a concept result in significant disparities in students’ opportunity to learn.

In PLC’s members of a collective team work together to determine the most logical sequence in which to present the content, how much time they will spend on the initial instruction of each essential learning, and when they will stop instruction to collectively ask, “How do we know each student is learning what we’re teaching?” Common pacing does not mean all teachers must teach the same concept on the same day or in the same way. It does mean that teachers have agreed to devote a certain amount of instructional time to specific content within each unit before they administer a common assessment.


What is a common formative assessment?

A common formative assessment is an assessment created collaboratively by a team of teachers responsible for the same grade level or course and administered to all the students in that course or grade level. Common formative assessments are used frequently throughout the year to identify (1) individual students who need additional time and support for learning, (2) the teaching strategies most effective in helping students acquire the intended knowledge and skills, (3) areas in which students generally are having difficulty achieving the intended standard, and(4) improvement goals for individual teachers and the team.

Frequent monitoring of student learning is an essential element of effective teaching, and good teachers use a variety of strategies to check for student understanding each day. However, while the ongoing assessment of students by individual teachers is a necessary condition for improved student learning, it is not sufficient. Teachers and students alike benefit from the use of team-developed common formative assessments. In fact, these assessments represent one of the most powerful strategies available to teachers for answering the second critical question of a PLC: “How will we know when each student has learned?”

Assessment Resources

Just as your team collectively studied research and resources before you identified the essential learnings and developed pacing guides, your team should now build shared knowledge on “best practice” in assessment. Here are some recommended resources:

  • Assessment frameworks from your district or state to identify the content, rigor, and format of summative assessments your students will be required to take
  • Released items from district or state assessments and nationally normed tests
  • Released items of different disciplines and grades from the National Assessment of Educational Progress
  • Web sites on quality assessments
  • Data on student performance from past indicators of student achievement
  • Examples of rubrics applied to performance-based assessments
  • Recommendations from assessment experts such as Rick Stiggins and Doug Reeves
  • Assessments developed and used in the past by individual members of the team
  • Unit tests from textbooks.

Avoid the temptation to shirk this task by relying exclusively on assessments created by others. Frequent monitoring of each student’s learning is an essential element of effective teaching, and no teacher should be absolved from that task or allowed to assign responsibility for it to state test makers, central office coordinators, or textbook publishers.

Developing Common Formative Assessments

Remember that a test is not formative unless (1) it is used to identify students who need additional time and support for learning, (2) students are provided with that time and support during the school day, and (3) students are given another opportunity to demonstrate their learning after the intervention. 

Tips for Developing Common Formative Assessments

Decide upon a specific minimum number of common assessments to be used in your course or each subject area during this semester.

Demonstrate how each item on the assessment is aligned to an essential learning of your course or grade level.

Specify the proficiency standard for each essential learning being assessed; for example, students must score at least 80 out of 100 possible points on each skill being assessed or at lest 3 out of 5 possible points on our team’s rubric.

Clarify the conditions for administering and scoring the test consistently in each classroom.  

Assess a few essential learnings frequently rather than assess many learnings infrequently. 



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