Generating Science Teacher Learning Opportunities Through Powerful PLC Talk
By Amy Ricketts, Katy Muniz, and Jerren Smith
Many teachers are contractually mandated to meet in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), with our agenda often set by administrators. We take turns talking about our classroom practices, while everyone else politely listens. Occasionally, we add on to one another’s narratives, explaining how we do a similar activity in our classroom, but in a slightly different way. Sometimes we express a struggle, which is followed by advice from fellow teachers. Then we move on, without examining the advised practices in any way. While we might think of critiques and questions about this advice, we generally do not say these thoughts out loud. While these kinds of conversations can indeed provide us with options when we are struggling, the “take it or leave it” norm typical of PLC conversations generally misses valuable learning opportunities for individuals and for the group as a whole.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just ask the middle school science teachers of the Valley School District [a pseudonym]. With the support of a local university professor and their district science coordinator, they learned to shift their traditional show-and-tell discourse to the more “generative” talk of a powerful PLC. These shifts supported their work of developing, examining, trying out, and critiquing a set of shared teaching practices around phenomenon-driven instruction. In this article, we draw on our first author’s yearlong study of this group (Ricketts 2017; Ricketts 2018), distilling her findings into practical recommendations for elevating your PLC conversations “beyond show-and-tell.”
Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2001) defined stance as “the positions teachers and others who work together in inquiry communities take toward knowledge and its relationships to practice” (pp. 49–50). A helpful way to think about stance is through the idea of a proving–improving continuum (Nelson, Slavit, and Deuel 2012). That is, are we attempting to “prove” that our practice is effective, presenting an “exemplar” for others to follow? Or do we seek to “improve” our practice by opening it up to the rest of the group for feedback? When talking about our practices with an improving stance, we use more tentative language (“I thought maybe we could try…?”), and/or call attention to the limitations of our practices, expressing our desire to improve. When taking a proving stance, we tend to use more certain language that assumes the effectiveness of our practices (“I did this and it works great”).
In Ricketts’s (2017) study of the Valley School District middle school science teachers, she found that when they talked about their practices with an improving stance, it opened up the conversation. Others asked questions, added on, suggested alternatives—creating space for inquiry, negotiation, and agency. Conversely, talking with a proving stance tended to close down their conversations quickly, limiting the group’s opportunities for learning. We encourage you to keep this proving–improving stance continuum in mind as you talk about your own practices in your next PLC meeting, and see how your colleagues respond.
More often than not, we rely on narratives or oral accounts to describe our practices during PLC discussions, resulting in something more tell than show-and-tell. These narratives create (at best) fuzzy images of what we’re actually doing, and they often lead to misinterpretation by others. We can avoid this situation by sharing physical artifacts to make our practices more visible and concrete (Ball and Cohen 1999). These artifacts might include videos of classroom activities or samples of student models to allow the group to reflect on past practices and consider evidence for their continued use. When planning future practices together, we can provide written lesson plans or even a “gapless explanation” of a potential phenomenon (Ambitious Science Teaching 2014) to ensure that everyone has a clear idea of what is being proposed. When we talk about these artifacts using an improving stance, they can become objects of inquiry, inviting our colleagues to discuss their interpretations of the artifact and opening up opportunities for learning.
In the study of the Valley School District teachers, Ricketts (2017) found that during one co-planning session, the PLC “talked in circles” until one teacher walked to the board and drew her vision of the ideal student model of sedimentation in a river delta. The clarity that the drawing provided (combined with the invitation for negotiation in the teachers’ improving stances) quickly moved the conversation forward, resulting in multiple revisions and a stronger shared understanding of the goals of the lesson. As you prepare for your next PLC meeting, what artifacts might you bring along to make your practices more visible and concrete to your colleagues?
As teachers, we bring a great deal of contextual expertise to our PLC conversations—the knowledge and skills associated with teaching science to our particular students in our unique school settings. This expertise enables us to determine whether, how, when, or why we use certain teaching strategies to support science learners in our classrooms. While this expertise is essential in PLCs, it may not be sufficient for us to learn how to have the kinds of conversations capable of transforming our collective (or individual) practices (Little 2012).
Toward that goal, we recommend including additional members in the group who offer unique perspectives as well as different kinds of expertise to bear on the PLC’s conversations. Including a member or members with facilitation expertise is critical, especially when we are trying out new collaboration practices. For example, when first introducing artifacts of practice into the conversation, it is common for teachers to make comments that are general, evaluative, superficial, and/or procedural. An expert facilitator can help draw our attention to the critical issues represented in the artifact, such as our students’ thinking (Kazemi and Franke 2004). PLCs can also benefit from including member(s) with theoretical expertise—the thorough understanding of learning theories and their implications for teaching practices. These people are especially helpful when we are first trying out new research-based practices that we learn about in professional development programs.
During the Valley School District middle school science PLC meetings, the local professor who facilitated the group exhibited both facilitation and theoretical expertise. As a facilitator, he engaged the PLC in two Studio Days—a powerful form of “job-embedded professional learning that takes place during a school day” (Thompson et al. 2016, p. 1). In the Studio Day conversations, his theoretical expertise helped the group to connect their teaching strategies (such as using an interactive gallery walk to examine students’ initial models) to the underlying theories and rationales for phenomenon-driven instruction. These contributions supported teachers in better understanding what phenomenon-driven instruction looks like in the context of their own classrooms, as well as the “bigger picture” that would apply beyond the present lesson.
Who might you invite to bring this kind of expertise to your PLC conversations? We recommend inviting “outsiders” who bring an alternative perspective, as they help us to think outside the “box” that we share. Reach out to professors from local universities, local leaders from NSTA, or even informal science education institutions that offer professional development for teachers. If teachers are willing to serve as participants in research studies of their work, then professors of science education may prove to be especially willing facilitators. Include them as regular (rather than occasional) members of the PLC.
In many (but not all) PLCs, some people may be positioned as “more expert” than others. Traditionally, our colleagues with more teaching experience are positioned as having more expertise than our more novice colleagues. Less commonly, our veteran colleagues may be positioned as “outdated” (and thus “less expert”). Whatever the rationale, when we are positioned as experts, we tend to serve as advisors or contributors to others’ learning. When we are positioned as less expert, we tend to act as learners or consumers of others’ advice. To be clear—there is nothing inherently wrong with “advising” each other, especially when we use artifacts to make our suggested practices more concrete for the group and/or speak with an improving stance. This kind of advising is especially helpful for supporting our newer colleagues as they learn to adopt our PLC’s collectively valued practices (Lave and Wenger 1991).
That being said, when we consistently position each other as more- versus less-expert, those positions can become “fixed,” limiting both our individual and collective learning (Lave and Wenger 1991). Being consistently positioned as “less expert” can constrain our personal agency for making sense of and solving problems in our practice. Individually, we may begin to feel marginalized, helpless, or dependent on our colleagues’ expertise, rather than empowered to solve our own problems as a valued member of the community (Adamson and Walker 2011). When we only take up our “more expert” colleagues’ contributions, we run the risk of becoming a “PLC of indoctrination” that is limited to reproducing our existing practices. But when we position ourselves and each other fluidly—sometimes as advisors, other times as advisees, and always as co-learners and co-contributors to each other’s learning—we create space for letting our collectively valued practices evolve (Lave and Wenger 1991). Every member of your PLC has something to contribute. Whether a district or outside facilitator, a veteran or novice teacher, all PLC members can offer valuable contributions that can help all of you refine and improve your teaching practices.
In the Valley School District middle school science study, Ricketts (2017) found the PLC’s co-planning session (described in the Artifacts section) to be the most fruitful of the entire year. In this conversation, every member of the group worked as both a co-learner and a co-contributor in deciding how and why to revise their sediment deposition lesson. Given the way they offered their own ideas and considered each other’s ideas, the novices were indistinguishable from the veterans. Even the professor positioned himself as a co-learner, posing questions for the teachers to consider rather than prescribing solutions to potential problems that he saw in their plans. By acting as both learners and contributors, each member of the group maintained individual agency for decision making and problem solving, and the group’s evolving lesson was not limited by any one authoritative point of view.
In your next PLC meeting, listen carefully. Can you accurately predict whose ideas will be taken up, and whose will be ignored (or never voiced)? If so, you and your colleagues may need to explore how you can reposition one another in ways that support (rather than constrain) learning. You might try out some nontraditional talk moves, such as asking probing questions to draw out your colleagues’ rationales for their “advised” practices, gently pushing back when you disagree with a colleague’s interpretation of student learning, or asking a struggling colleague some “scaffolding questions” to help them better understand their own problem (rather than moving immediately to providing them with advice). Or, you could simply turn to a typically silent colleague and ask a question like, “What are your thoughts about using this phenomenon in our next unit?”
Increasingly in our schools, our colleagues are beginning to recognize the potential power of PLCs as contexts for supporting teacher (and thus student) learning, rather than being just a new name for department meetings full of information dissemination and show-and-tell. But realizing this potential requires us to make some critical (and challenging) shifts away from the traditional norms of privacy, noninterference, and hierarchy that is still common in many of our schools. Developing new norms around stance, positioning, and using artifacts of practice in PLC talk is challenging and often unfamiliar work. But with some patience, passion, and a lot of humility, PLCs can become transformative contexts for our professional learning. •
The authors thank the critical friends who provided invaluable feedback on an earlier version of this article: Tamara Holmlund, Laura Henriques, Lisa Martin, Marie Lam de Krieger, and Bob Giampaoli. Amy Ricketts also wishes to thank all the participants in this study for allowing her into their work and their lives, and especially for their candid responses during interviews.
Reflecting on classroom video in PLC talk—https://bit.ly/3EZ7Cf5
Designing a Studio Day (job-embedded PD context)—https://bit.ly/3CJxERn
Conversation protocols for supporting powerful PLC talk (including looking at student work)—https://nsrfharmony.org/whatareprotocols/
Educators as learners: Creating a professional learning community in your school (free download of book)—https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED439099.pdf
Amy Ricketts (email@example.com) is an assistant professor in the Science Education Department at California State University Long Beach; Katy Muniz is the director of professional development at the California Science Center in Los Angeles; and Jerren Smith is a science teacher at Ambassador Christian School in Torrance, California.
Adamson, B., and E. Walker. 2011. Messy collaboration: Learning from a learning study. Teaching and Teacher Education 27 (1): 29–36.
Ambitious Science Teaching. 2014. Planning for engagement with important science ideas. https://bit.ly/3lTEqxe
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Ricketts, A. 2017. Conversations around practice: Mediating opportunities to learn about teaching science. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Penn State.
Ricketts, A. 2018. Analyzing the generative nature of science teachers’ professional discourse. In Theory and methods for sociocultural research in science and engineering education, eds. G.K. Kelly and J. Green, 206–233. New York, NY: Routledge.
Thompson, J., J. Richards, K. Lohwasser, C. Chew, and B. Sjoberg. 2016. Studio Day template: A guide to facilitating full-day science studios. Ambitious Science Teaching. https://bit.ly/2XJJTyk
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