"There is no one way"

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Department as PLC

A PLC is a Professional Learning Community. In an ideal world, every math department is a PLC,but in reality there are some obstacles to that idea:
  • not all schools give teachers time to dedicate to professional learning
  • not all teachers are interested in professional growth
  • it is not clear what to do in a PLC, even if the first two obstacles are not a concern
In this post, I'll try to address that third obstacle.

In-house professional learning is not in contradiction to learning one can do online or by going to conferences. Learning from experts outside the school is a useful complement to what can be done onsite. However an in-school PLC has enormous advantages:
  • It is geared to a specific teachers, students, and school community. Outside Professional Development resources may or may not be a good match. 
  • It can be coherent, while the catch-as-catch-can off-site PD opportunities are usually disparate and unrelated.
  • It is a year-round opportunity for growth.
Collaboration in lesson planning is a very powerful approach to professional growth. As department chair, I tried to set things up so that different sections of a given course would be taught by more than one person. No one got to just teach one thing all day, so a bit more prep, but on the other hand, the preparation can be shared, everyone gradually gets to know and own the whole program, and teachers learn a lot from each other. Among other things, it allows the pairing of seasoned teachers with beginners, a much more effective approach to mentoring than occasional meetings about nothing in particular.

Over a few years, as teachers gradually cycle through the department offerings in different collaborative teams, ideas are shared, and everyone grows, especially if teachers take notes on what worked and didn't work. Some summer collaboration on the following year's program can help put that information into shared documents, thereby institutionalizing what was learned.

Collaboration meetings are not resented, quite the opposite. They feel useful and important. For more on this, see these slides, and this article.

But what about turning the whole department into a PLC, in a way that does not require years to percolate? Here are some ideas.  
Do math together
For example, if one of you attends a Math Teachers Circle, bring the problems back to the department. Or find teacher-suitable problems online. On my site, visit Teachers' Mathematics for some ideas. Here are some problems I shared on my blog: K-12 Unsolved, Taxicab Geometry, Scissors Congruence, Geobard Problems for Teachers. Also check out the problems page at the Julia Robinson Math Festival. Of course, there must be many other places to find good problems, for example math competition problems.

Explore learning tools
There are many learning tools that can enhance your department's program. Take turns learning and teaching each other. Some tools are electronic (e.g. Desmos, GeoGebra, online applets). Some are manipulative (e.g. Lab Gear, Pattern Blocks). Some are neither (e.g. function diagrams, the ten-centimeter circle.) See my article on a tool-rich pedagogy for some philosophizing on this topic, plus lots of links. Note that some tools will require multiple sessions of your PLC.

Read and discuss articles and blog posts
On my site, go to the page about Teaching. I especially recommend the articles on acceleration and assessment, either of which should trigger intense conversations. Or my very practical blog post on lagging homework, and the posts it links to. There are actually hundreds of math teacher blogs, some of which are totally worth talking about. I've occasionally read Michael Pershan's, and Dylan Kane's blogs, and enjoyed them. Find many others on the MTBoS.org site. Or, if one of you is an NCTM member, you should be able to find articles worth discussing in the NCTM journals.

And more...
There are obviously other possibilities, such as Lesson Study, or rehearsing Instructional Routines. However I don't know enough about those things to say much about them. If you have links to information about those PLC practices, or other PLC suggestions, please share them in the comments!



  1. Henri,
    Great posting here and one that is dear to my heart. We try to do a mixture during our department meetings. Over the past many years I've tried to move more and more of the "nuts and bolts" to email, google forms, etc. so that we could do more and learn more about math and pedagogy during meetings. It also helps that we have moved to a model with less frequent but longer (1 hour to 2 hours depending on the schedule).
    During these meetings we like to start with a "warmup" (like we give the kids) - this is usually from your first point - a sharing from a Math Circle, a conference, etc. where we all get to do math together. The beauty of this is that it also allows different department members to run parts of the meeting so that the meetings are a shared experience, not just the department chair running the whole thing.
    I wanted to add what we have been doing this year as it has been powerful. We've been doing a deep study of just one chapter of a pedagogy book - "Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You'd Had" by Tracy Zager. I highly recommend this book and the website and materials that go along with it. We chose to work on Chapter 12: Mathematicians Work Together and Alone for the whole year - looking at how we give our students chances to collaborate, dig deeper and also when to step back. It has been amazing - different teachers have been trying on different parts of the chapter (fully randomized seating every class, debate structures, vertical surfaces, etc.) and then we report back to each other and hone the methods together.
    Cheers my friend!
    Kevin Rees

    1. Wow, Kevin, this sounds amazing! I wouldn't be a bit sad if you blogged about it in more detail so I could learn more from you...

  2. I'm a big fan of the techniques Zager promotes there, and in fact have written about some of those in this blog. But even more so, I'm a big fan of learning with and from colleagues. It makes the job so much more interesting!