A New Take on the Learning Walk® Routine to Get Smarter About Teaching and Learning in the Cloud

Many school districts have moved to virtual or hybrid models of instruction and we recognize that using the typical Learning Walk routine, which asks district and school leaders to visit classrooms and provide targeted feedback, doesn’t quite fit in a virtual space. However, we also recognize the need to continue to support district leaders in helping teachers provide high-quality instruction to every student. We’ve modified our signature Learning Walk routine for virtual use to observe synchronous online instruction. Our modifications allow schools committed to improvement to continue to study how an instructional practice moves student learning forward, how that practice can be made more powerful, or if the practice needs to be abandoned. We rooted the Cloud Learning Walk routine in what we know works from using the original Learning Walk routine on the ground in schools. The routines guide teachers and school administrators to collect evidence about how students learn and teachers teach and consider how the teacher’s work impacts student learning as they observe multiple classrooms for short periods of time.

So, why engage in the Cloud Learning Walk routine?

Given the high novelty of virtual instruction, teachers and school leaders need a non-evaluative learning space centered in the realities of their virtual classrooms. When districts use the Cloud Learning Walk routine with integrity, it has the potential to build new or improve understandings of what effective instruction looks like in virtual spaces. The Cloud Learning Walk routine, more importantly, situates the process in a culture of continuous professional learning and improvement.

Based on what we have learned so far, here are five reasons and some tips for engaging in the Cloud Learning Walk routine.


Given what districts are facing today, we tried the Cloud Learning Walk routine under different instructional modalities. We explored having observers use the Learning Walk routine to view

  • virtual classes in live-time;
  • short video segments of the lessons that were uploaded by the teachers, and
  • live lessons in a brick-and-mortar school virtually.

In each case, the routine and goals are consistent.

Tips for Observing In and From Virtual Spaces

  • Know the platform being used for instruction: Each school in the district could be using a different platform for instruction (e.g. Google Classroom, Zoom, etc.). This might mean that district administrators (as well as the fellows from IFL) have to spend some time getting oriented to the platform. Spending time getting to know the platform will ensure that each walker is able to participate fully in the walk and prevent unnecessary disruptions or delays.
  • Ask about and prepare for the method of observing: Different levels of planning and preparation are needed for observation of live instruction than that of pre-recorded instruction. These methods of observation also offer different opportunities for reflection.
If observing the lesson in live-time: If observing a previously recorded lesson:
  • Each walker has to have the appropriate permissions to enter a virtual classroom. Are there any restrictions that might prevent walkers from entering the virtual space? Anticipating and addressing these restrictions ahead of time, allows walkers to engage fully in the observation.
  • Timekeeping is vital to ensure that multiple classrooms are visited, so identify someone responsible for keeping walkers moving to the next classroom every 10-15 minutes.
  • Walkers should enter virtual lessons with microphones and cameras off to limit the disruption to the lesson. Teachers and students should not be distracted by unexpected sounds and unfamiliar faces. 
  • Teachers need to record a 10-15 minute segment of the instruction on which they would like feedback.
  • Samples of student work from the lesson can be shared along with the video, which is a benefit to observing after the lesson was taught.
  • Walkers can watch and rewatch the segments, which provides a wealth of opportunities for cycles of reflection; however, walkers miss out on observing the student to student conversation the occurs in the chat or in small groups.
  • Record observations of the lesson immediately: Each walker fills out the observation form, including noticings and wonderings that relate to the focus provided by the teachers, immediately after the classroom visit. Walkers make observations that are not evaluative or for auditing, and so the noticings and wondering should be rooted in the teacher’s focus and evidence from the classroom and be void of praise or correction.


Though equitable instruction has always been an aspect of the Learning Walk routine, the move to online instruction made salient the need to sharpen focus on equitable practice. This move also created opportunities to amplify the lens of equitable instruction in the Cloud Learning Walk routine.  One important revision to the routine calls specifically for walkers who specialize in services for designated student populations, such as emergent multilingual students or special education students, to be active participants in the walk. During the walk, those specialists observe through their unique lens of understanding. The intent is to help teachers and school leaders highlight how instruction invites every student into the content and learning at a high level.

Dr. Andrea Fontañez, Director of Bilingual and ESL programming at New Brunswick Public Schools (NBPS), where Cloud Learning Walk routine was tested, says, “The online Learning Walk was a very enlightening experience as we were able to learn what to look for during an online lesson. We were able to look for evidence of effective e-learning practices and to identify needs for professional development. The online Learning Walk confirmed that online lessons can still have the same high-level tasks and Accountable Talk® components for English Language learners as in-person lessons.”

Tip Related to Recognizing Equitable Instruction

Include walkers who have diverse perspectives in addition to those who support specialized services. The more diverse the perspective of the walkers, the more likely it is to find evidence of and frame wonderings around what constitutes equitable (or more equitable) instructional practice.

“…The online Learning Walk confirmed that online lessons can still have the same high-level tasks and Accountable Talk components for English Language learners as in-person lessons.”

~ Dr. Andrea Fontañez, Director of Bilingual and ESL programming at NBPS


An administrator from the building where the Cloud Learning Walk routine will be used meets with the teacher(s) who will be visited. During this meeting, the teachers get to set the focus of the walk as related to professional development that has been received. The administrator and teachers then work together to craft an inquiry around the focus. The inquiry sets the lens for the evidence that will be collected during the walk. For example: In what ways am I

  • pressing students for evidence and elaborated responses during the Accountable Talk whole group discussion?
  • using the moves that will support students to deepen their understanding of the text or concept?
  • allowing multiple students to respond to the same question and build on each other’s responses before we agree on the most plausible response?
  • providing Emergent Multilingual students sufficient opportunities and scaffolds to explain how they solved their math problem?
Tip About What Needs to Come Before Using the Routine

There are critical elements that must be addressed within the school or district before using the Cloud Learning Walk routine.

  • Establish at least the beginnings of a robust learning community.
  • Ensure that the host school plus and those involved in using the Cloud Learning Walk routine are all versed in
    • effort-based learning and intelligence,
    • the Cloud Learning Walk routine and norms for collaborative study, and
    • the requirements of the platform used in schools to allow non-district participants into the virtual classrooms.
  • Ensure that teachers have engaged in professional development before the Cloud Learning Walk routine is implemented at a school and that classroom visits are related to that professional development.


The research tells us that there is little to gain from classroom visits unless they are followed by coaching and professional development.[i] The goal of the Cloud Learning Walk routine is to provide feedback to the teacher that will move their practice forward. This means the feedback provided should come from a coaching stance, the feedback process should be interactive, and the teacher should participate in designing the next steps.

Tip for Providing Effective Feedback

Because the inquiries for and insights gained from using Cloud Learning Walk routine should align to professional development (PD) opportunities, it is important to identify evidence of the uptake of practice studied in PD and acknowledge the impact of teacher practice. In the IFL’s Content-Focused Coaching model, one of the coaching moves is “Mark Progress” which serves to draw attention to and reinforce the use of a move the teacher made that positively impacted student learning. If we want teachers to press forward in the implementation of effective practice, sharing noticings from the walk around what was done by the teacher and its impact on student learning helps to ensure the practice will be used again!


As district teams composed of teachers and district leaders look across the classrooms visited during Cloud LWs, they can mark trends about what is working (the assets) and areas for further attention (the needs), and decide on the professional support that can move practice forward. 

Tip for Making the Most Out of Next Steps

Next steps apply to everyone up and down the line of educator stakeholders, from teacher to superintendent. The IFL calls this two-way accountability up and down the nested learning community. Each person involved in using the Learning Walk routine needs to believe that the next steps apply to their own practice.

Aubrey Johnson, Superintendent of NBPS, has conducted many on-the-ground walks using our Learning Walk routine with IFL Fellows. Dr. Johnson and his team have built a learning community among the district’s administrators and teachers, and their conversation during Learning Walks are laser focused on student and teacher learning. The district and school leaders understand that the next steps apply to them. As a team, the leaders and teachers understand that the student’s work is a mirror of the teacher’s work, the teacher’s work is a mirror of the principal’s work and the principal’s work is a mirror of the superintendent’s work. Dr. Johnson has said that he and his team look forward to using the Cloud Learning Walk routine to provide them with the evidence they need to advance the practice of teachers and the learning of students.

We think that when the Cloud Learning Walk routine is implemented with integrity, it will be the transformative tool that the original Learning Walk routine has been to on-the-ground work in schools. We invite you to use this non-evaluative tool. For more on this new tool, email us at IFL@pitt.edu.

[i] Grissom, J. A., Loeb, S., & Master, B. (2013). Effective Instructional Time Use for School Leaders: Longitudinal Evidence from Observations of Principals. Educational Researcher, 42(8), 433-444.
Accountable Talk and Learning Walk are registered trademarks of the University of Pittsburgh.
Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Instructional Leadership, Online Instruction, Partner Spotlight

Using Student-Centered Classroom Routines to Improve Comprehension of Complex Texts

by Allison Escher

IFL, English Language Arts Fellow

The Networks for School Improvement (NSI) work taking place among Dallas ISD (DISD), the Institute for Learning, the University of Pittsburgh School of Education Center for Urban Education, and the Learning Research and Development Center, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has largely focused efforts on improving instructional rigor, providing better supports for English language learners, and improving cultural relevance. One particular change idea that teachers have been testing in order to improve instructional rigor is the use of student-centered routines. When we ask students to engage in cognitively challenging work, we recommend doing so through a set of routines: individual writing on a question or task, sharing of ideas in pairs and trios, and whole group discussion. 

These rituals and routines, derived from research on cognitive apprenticeship, are designed to engage all students as learners in collaborative problem solving, writing to learn, making thinking visible, establishing text-based norms for discussions and writings, ongoing assessment and revision, and metacognitive reflection and articulation as regular patterns in learning. Additionally, these routines support the Principles of Learning, specifically Self-Management of Learning and Clear Expectations. 

Using a complex and meaningful text, DISD teachers collaboratively planned a comprehension task to use with students. The task included a high-level question that asks students to make sense of the big ideas in the text, opportunities for students to write about the text informally through quick writes, and opportunities to metacognitively reflect on how their thinking about the text changed through talking and writing.

Additionally, teachers created student-centered task sheets to help students

  • Understand the purpose for the work that they will be doing, which sets up clear expectations for students as a rationale for why they are engaging in this particular task.
  • Understand the steps in the task as well as gain some insight into how to complete new activities or skills, such as providing tips for completing a quick write if that is new for students. These scaffolded steps present an opportunity for students to self-manage their learning by working towards the goal in incremental steps, allowing space for questions, connections, and metacognition.
  • Reflect on how their thinking has changed about the big ideas in the text and how they learned from working with classmates, which again promotes self-management of learning through metacognition an gives students opportunities to manage their own learning by evaluating the feedback they get from others.

This test of change will be adopted as teachers overall are seeing an increase in students’ repertoire of academic skills. This is evidenced by the number of students who complete quick writes, who share text-based thinking during conversation, and who state accurate or mostly accurate understandings of big ideas. We look forward to continuing to understand how engaging in the work carried by a task sheet can provide opportunities for students to engage in high-quality and rigorous work.

Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, ELA, High-Level Tasks / Curriculum, Partner Spotlight, Principles of Learning, Reading / Comprehension

Building an Improvement Network

By Jennifer Lin Russell, Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, and Jennifer Iriti

Partners for Network Improvement, Learning Research Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

This feature article illustrates the work of improvement science networks. Through the work of such networks, there is alignment to the Principles of Learning. Clear Expectations are evidenced by developing common understanding and specific goals, hypothesizing intermediate steps, and analyzing and reflecting on your work and the work of others. Self-Management of Learning and Recognition of Accomplishment, which tie closely to Clear Expectations, are hallmarks of the work of improvement-science networks. Networks use practical measures to monitor and adjust their ongoing work. The same measures allow networks to recognize their progress incrementally and in meaningful ways.

Networks that engage educators in continuous improvement have the potential to harness the power of collaborative work to accelerate learning and solve complex problems. District leaders have the opportunity to build improvement networks within their organizations, but they vary in some distinct ways from networks typically seen in K-12 education. We believe three indicators drive the potential of improvement networks and differentiate them from other networks, such as sharing networks.

Improvement networks are grounded in shared goals, norms, theories of improvement/action, and practices.

Members of improvement networks have a clear, common understanding of their objectives and a shared hypothesis about how to achieve them. Members also have a collective commitment to their work and a sense of shared responsibility. Beyond improving their own work practices, members of improvement networks believe they are collectively solving a broader, systemic problem, and they can articulate a clear theory of improvement that will move them toward accomplishing their shared goal.

Improvement networks engage in disciplined inquiry to learn how to solve their focal problem of practice.

Members use systematic methods of inquiry to test their theory about what strategies will be most effective for achieving their goals. They typically use systematic methods and routines such as Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycles that are integrated into their daily work. Improvement networks measure outcomes, but members of improvement networks also use practical measures to assess the processes that contribute to improvement.

Improvement networks coordinate and accelerate learning and improvement through strategic knowledge management.

Network leaders monitor the changes that educators are making, review evidence that supports judgments that changes are leading to improvement, and work to spread and scale the most promising changes. This accelerates the learning within the improvement network.

District leaders can take the following five strategic actions to build improvement networks within their district.

1. Focus attention on shared goals pursued through common theories of action. Tools of improvement science can support this work (root cause analysis, building a shared theory of improvement represented in some way— e.g., driver diagram).

2. Embed improvement cycles and routines into existing collaborative structures. Examples of ways to do that include the following:

• Structure the work of existing PLCs to support inquiry for improvement.
• Principals and/or assistant principals work together on issues such as chronic absenteeism and inequitable discipline practices.
• Teachers work in PLCs to support a shift toward more ambitious forms of pedagogy, anchored in inquiry cycles.
• Use coaches to support continuous improvement.
• Leverage research-based best practices to accelerate improvement (e.g., partner with experts to identify evidence-based solutions to pressing problems).
• Create cross-school learning opportunities to optimize collective learning and opportunities to spread what is being learned .

3. Leverage a practical measurement system to guide continuous improvement. Improvement work involves data of multiple types, including short cycle data that informs action and summative data to assess the impact of an initiative. Districts can support school engagement in continuous improvement by identifying outcome and process measures, and by building tools and routines to collect, analyze, and act on data. To promote equity and learning, leaders must be intentional about what data is brought for discussion and how it is represented. In addition, leaders must build the capacity to analyze data and lead these sense-making routines.

4. Prioritize strategic knowledge management. When leaders engage in strategic knowledge management, they harvest and manage the learning of others in the organization and make this learning visible. They identify which changes lead to improvement and then facilitate the spread of the most promising ideas that emerge from the collective learning of the organization.

5. Build district capacity to operate as an improvement network through partnerships. While educators are reflective by nature and collaborative by design, operating as an improvement network requires new ways of working. Educators are both changing their practice while also learning to engage in improvement cycles. The data collection varies from traditional data uses and has new rhythms (especially those tied to inquiry cycles). Engaging external experts, often supported through partnerships, can support this complex work. District leaders can identify and convene partners with expertise in content knowledge relevant to the problem of practice, improvement science, change management, and analytics and practical measurement to build and operate the learning network.

Improvement networks can serve as a mechanism for building capacity within school districts to tackle complex systems’ problems such as chronic absenteeism, gaps in student achievement, inadequate supports for students with special needs, and teaching for conceptual understanding. Growing in popularity, these networks can serve as an alternative to rolling out district-wide initiatives that fail to recognize and respond to expected implementation challenges. Educators in improvement networks who engage in more intentional and coherent within-school and cross-school collaboration can build and spread promising interventions to solve specific problems. They can integrate necessary knowledge of implementation challenges to ensure that the changes they implement will contribute to improvement in varying contexts. Key to this work is the use of data to assess and adapt implementation through the course of an initiative. Partnerships can provide capacities necessary to design and implement improvement (research-based, high-leverage strategies; measurement and analytics; change management). Pushing beyond traditional sharing networks, improvement networks bring stakeholders with diverse forms of expertise together to support educators as they engage in inquiry cycles that can accelerate learning and drive toward improvement.

Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, Data and Assessment, Leadership

Utilizing Small Tests of Change and High-Leverage Practices in PLCs

By Victoria Bill

IFL Mathematics fellow

When teachers are working to acquire new instructional practices, particularly ambitious reforms, teachers tend to gravitate toward approaches that are congruent with their prior practices, or they focus on discrete activities, materials, or classroom organization (Spillane, 2009). Teachers’ collegial interpersonal relations such as those that occur in professional communities are a crucial site for learning (Franke & Kazemi, 2001; Gallucci, 2003; Little, 1982; Little, 2003; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; Smylie & Hart; 1999; Stein, Silver, & Smith, 1998; Stein & Brown, 1997) and research evidence says that teachers’ organizational context and patterns of interactions shape how they learn (Coburn, 2001; Hill, 2001: McLaughline & Talbert, 2001: Spillane, 1999). PLC times, however, have not been historically focused times of deep discussions of content and pedagogy. Knowing how important PLC time is and the potential influence on teaching and learning, the IFL suggests that districts focus learning in PLCs on high-leverage practices, and they work to provide teachers with the necessary resources to have focused discussions.

High-leverage practices are those practices used in the classroom intended to support student learning through productive intellectual work with the goal of developing both content understanding and skills (Windschitle et al., 2012). When the study of high-leverage practices is the focus of PLCs, educators have the opportunity to engage in meaningful work around goal setting, pedagogy and content, and evidence of student learning. The high-leverage practices identified for study during a PLC should be instructional practices that occur with high frequency. Ideally these practices are those used by teachers in different content areas so that students have multiple opportunities to use the same practices. The practice should also be one that provides teachers with insights into teaching and student learning and are therefore likely to provide a teacher feedback on their practice as teachers reflect and examine their practice (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009). The IFL recognizes the importance of specifying highleverage practices that have been proven, based on research, to be of worth. The IFL also recognizes that teachers have limited time to identify resources that could be accessed for study during the PLC. To address these issues, the IFL has created four mathematics PLC modules of study for teacher use. Each module focuses on a highleverage practice.

1. Facilitating Accountable Talk® Mathematics Discussions
2. Providing Opportunities to Write About Mathematical Reasoning
3. Using and Connecting Mathematical Representations
4. Promoting Intellectual Authority

The theory of learning in the PLC modules is that individual members of the PLC learn about the high-leverage practice together, design and try small changes of practice individually in classrooms, and come back together to share and study artifacts from their classroom. The IFL has worked to incorporate the use of improvement science into the PLC models. As members of the PLC engage in cycles of learning related to the high-leverage practices, they share examples from their practice. These serve to illustrate ways in which teachers are making connections between the practices and their day-to-day classroom work.

This routine has the potential to provide PLC members insights into teaching and learning in their own classroom environments. Following the study of a PLC module, teachers will identify something small that they might try out in their classrooms and artifacts that they will collect to determine the impact that their work is having in the classroom. The PLC modules provide the teachers with methods for analyzing the artifacts that they bring back to the next PLC. Based on the findings, teachers decide what to try next in their classrooms. It is via this process that teachers can determine what is truly having an impact in their classroom and why. The coding tools and process provide an objective lens through which to view their work. This allows the PLC members to collectively step back and view the result of their efforts through quantitative data. As the PLC continues to quantify their work from one PLC to another, patterns of change will emerge, allowing the PLC to make more informed decisions about their practice.

PLC members repeat the cycle. They identify another small change idea, try it out in their classroom, collect, and then analyze artifacts to determine the impact on teaching and learning. This occurs for several weeks. The excitement of making small changes in the classroom and determining the impact on student learning has created synergy among teachers and keeps the discussions focused on content, pedagogy, and student learning. We look forward in future newsletters reporting the PLC work that three IFL districts will be engaging in this school year; Schenectady City School District, New Brunswick Public Schools, and Propel Schools Pitcairn will be using the IFL PLCs this year.

Tagged with: Continuous Improvement, Data and Assessment, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Leadership, Math

What PLCs Get Results?

By Rosita Apodaca

IFL co-director

Sara DeMartino

IFL English language arts fellow

and Anthony Petrosky

IFL Co-director

A growing number of schools focus on some form of communities of practice as a key to improving their performance. Schools typically refer to communities of practice as professional learning communities (PLCs). These work in a variety of ways and have different goals, but only some achieve their intended results. The Institute for Learning (IFL) has been working with several school districts on solving wicked problems (complex problems without a clear solution) using continuous-improvement PLCs. Examples of wicked problems of practice include increasing student engagement and motivation for learning, increasing student performance for minoritized students, and increasing attendance. The PLCs with which we are working highlight the fundamental characteristics that our experience and research show position them to achieve their aims better. They focus on social learning opportunities that provide a space for educators to be reflective about problems of practice and consider small changes to try in their classroom based on their analysis of the artifacts of teaching and learning collected in their classrooms. By collecting and analyzing artifacts such as samples of student work, scribing of teacher questions and student responses, or even quick intentionally designed surveys, educators in these PLCs remain focused on the goals of improving their practice and improving learning opportunities for students.

Learning Is Social

Learning depends on interactions with others, and a high-quality learning environment actively encourages well-organized cooperative learning. While self-study and personal discovery are valuable, Resnick, et al., cautioned educators regarding the severe limitations in teaching as a steady diet of direct instruction, or telling, and invited practitioners to engage in communities of learning. The term professional learning community emerged from the concept “community of practice,” which has turned out to provide a useful perspective because it forefronts the benefits of social collaboration. Generally, PLCs are made up of educators who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and those involved learn how to do it better as they interact regularly and share what they have learned from research and classroom experiences. Membership in a PLC implies a commitment to collaboration to solve problems of practice as well as a commitment to use the best available research and knowledge to work on those problems in a particular community’s context.

The Goal

PLCs vary widely: Some are directive and tightly structured; others are less regulated. Because there are no agreed-on models, educators apply the label PLC to describe a variety of meeting structures that involve small groups of teachers and administrators coming together to discuss school-related problems. Most PLCs, however, are given the charge of improving teacher practice to render better learning outcomes for students. There is evidence from the research that well-developed PLCs have positive impacts on both teaching practice and student achievement. However, what does it mean for a PLC to be well developed? During the last 20 years, the IFL has explored ways of working in PLCs. Through these experiences and research findings, we developed and refined a set of practices that work well in a diverse range of settings. Here are our practical suggestions for setting up PLCs to implement and sustain the practice of improvement.

Characteristics of a Well-Developed PLC


When teachers come together as a PLC, they benefit from doing more than acting as passive receivers of information and from spending their time sharing knowledge and working together to solve shared problems. The PLC has clear expectations for what it will achieve specific to improving teaching and learning in their classrooms. Teachers set agendas ahead of time, and they come to PLC meetings having prepared any necessary pre-work so that when the PLC meets, time can be devoted to sharing in pairs, small groups, and whole groups to allow for progress towards defined goals as opposed to spending time with administrative or clerical tasks during the meeting.

Time for collaboration is precious; it allows every voice in the room to have a place in the discussion and can provide participants with differing perspectives on why a problem of practice exists and how it might be solved. Collaboration in PLCs provides a space to network knowledge and sets the expectation that participants share what they have learned; it provides a protected, safe space for exploring perspectives on problems and testing those perspectives, or possible solutions, against relevant research and a field’s best practices.

Focus on Student Learning

At the heart of a well-developed PLC is a focus on student learning that goes beyond anecdotal evidence or a study of quantitative test data, although both might initiate the identification of problems of practice and contribute to their understanding. When PLCs focus on artifacts of student learning—that is, on student work samples and artifacts of teaching or transcripts or audio recordings of student talk—instructional shifts will be evidence-based and grounded in what students and teachers do together in specific contexts.

Studying student artifacts also necessitates the use of agreed-upon protocols to focus the study on the problem at hand and to avoid only looking at student work from a deficit perspective (describing what students cannot do). The hard work of solving problems of practice is twofold. First, use real artifacts of student learning to describe what they bring to the table. Second, collaborate on instructional plans that bridge practice from where students are in their learning and to where students need to be in order to meet learning goals, the expectations of standards, and their understandings of their learnings.

By looking at the relationship of content standards and their expectations, students’ current understanding of the content, and the pedagogy that can be used to advance student learning toward the standard, the PLC is not simply focused on what a teacher does in the classroom, but rather the impact of what a teacher does on student learning. A focus on improving the intellectual quality of student learning done through problem solving in PLCs increases learning and achievement because it allows teachers to experience themselves the benefits of collaborative student-centered learning in which they are the learners.

Teacher Authority

Teachers who participate in a PLC benefit from having ownership of the work and from experiencing firsthand the importance of collaborative student-centered learning. A well-developed PLC should not function using solely a top-down approach. Teachers should be empowered to interact, raise questions, bring relevant research to the discussions, challenge ideas, and make decisions about how they study and what they are studying. PLC members benefit from being collaborators in setting the agenda, bringing problems to the table, finding and sharing research to understand the problem, and bringing student work to be studied. Administrators and coaches who participate in PLCs with teachers are best positioned as colleagues in the learning. The participants benefit when decisions come from collaboration rather than from an overruling voice of authority, even when authority figures function as facilitators of the PLC work. Allowing all members to participate collegially, the PLC provides space for change and growth of instructional practice without being controlled by one person’s well-intentioned directives. It also allows teachers to take ownership of the work, a critical component for motivation to continue meeting to solve problems of practice as learners, as students, so to speak, of the problem at hand. As students change, as curriculum changes, and as standards change, opportunities to learn are always available. We also know that problems of practice require continuous attention. PLCs can provide a space for teachers and administrators to study together collaboratively, use evidence to chart progress, and propose and study new problems of practice as they arise (but also to know when to go back to previous problems if a change is not evident in students’ work).

Continuous Improvement and Well-Developed PLCs

When PLCs approach solving problems of practice through the use of continuous improvement (CI) processes (see graphic below), they first collaborate to identify problems and their possible root causes using a wide range of data collected from within the system. They can, for example, study district data to shed light on why particular groups of students are graduating at lower rates than their peers or why particular groups of students are showing signs of not being on track in 9th grade for graduation. Alternatively, they could study student performance and patterns of student performance related to writing or engaging in mathematical problem solving to identify what students can do and are not yet able to do.

PLCs study multiple sources of relevant data to fret out problems. Once the PLC identifies the problems, the next step focuses the PLC on understanding the root causes of those problems. The causes might be directly discernible in 

the data, but it could just as well take additional digging to get to the causes. With problems in writing and mathematics, for example, the PLC might want to conduct empathy interviews with students and teachers to better understand how those impacted by the problem perceive it. Such interviews can be enormously valuable if they proceed from well-thought-out and focused questions that get the students and the teachers to talk about their experiences with the subject matter and their successes and failures. The PLC can ask students and teachers what they might change in instruction or what they think they need to be successful. The compilation of this kind of data can give PLC members substantial insights into root causes after they study the interviews through lenses that reveal major themes, trends, and contradictions. PLC members can also study the kinds of tasks regularly presented to students and the teaching approaches that they and their colleagues use, and they can draw conclusions about both of these that would point to the intellectual rigor of the work given to students and measure students’ engagement.
Once a PLC focused on instruction understands problems and root causes, teachers have the authority to dig into the literature and research to develop a theory of change. From this theory of change, they develop possible interventions or tests of change. They can propose changes or approaches to instruction based on their theory of change, and from this theory, they can propose what improvement science refers to as change packages that they and their colleagues test out in classes. An instructional theory of change might be, for example, that equitable, rigorous writing instruction will lead to student writing achievement. A change package, to continue with this example, might focus on instruction that engages students in a repertoire of writing genres on a regular weekly schedule. The instruction also could be embedded in student-centered approaches to writing instruction that forefronts opportunities for students to work in groups of 2 or 3 to support each other’s drafting and revision through feedback and editing.

For such work, change packages are often recommended or designed. Change packages are intentionally created as a set of small tests of change that are interrelated and sequenced. These resources include specific sets or arcs of lessons designed to address specific problems. Teachers may vary the implementation of a change package or work specifically on one aspect of the change package, with the goal of eventually implementing the whole change package. In association with a change package are simple, practical measures by which the PLC members can know whether or how those lessons were successful when engaging students. Such measures can be quick surveys of students right after the lesson, lenses for analyzing students’ work, or feedback from teachers observing students’ engagement in the lesson. The emphasis on practical measures is on their ability to provide disciplined feedback quickly that can be displayed in simple charts or summaries so that the PLC members and other teachers can see the results of their tests of changes and make decisions about their next steps. These measures necessitate understanding change through an evidence-based focus on student learning. Decisions on PLC’s next steps during an improvement cycle are grounded in the real and evidenced experiences of teachers and students enacting the change.

PLCs who are working with an instructional focus using continuous improvement methods might just as well be called mini-research groups since they take up understanding problems, their causes, and testing solutions using the disciplined methods of improvement science. In fact, the literature on improvement science often compares the work of these PLCs to action researchers who use their classrooms and those of colleagues as spaces in which they continuously test changes; study their results with simple, practical measures; and make adjustments until they are satisfied that they have change packages that can be pushed out with confidence to others.


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