An Ode to John the Savage
by Brian Gibbs - December 13, 2013
This commentary critiques the way in which Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are currently being used in some schools. Rather than spaces of intellectual discussion and organic unity, they are too often reduced to spaces of inorganic unity where individual pedagogic choice and creativity are destroyed. A call to return to the original intention of PLCs is issued, including a description of how honoring individuality can lead to an organic unity.
Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east.
This is how John The Savage meets his end. The passionate and free character of Aldous Huxleys novel Brave New World, unable to adjust to the restrictive nature of a staid and drugged existence, dies by his own hand. He mounted a resistance, attempting to provide an example of what is possible, giving the deep-seated wants of both Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson traction and direction. Tragically it was all for naught. As with Kurt Vonneguts Harrison Bergeron, Huxley created a dystopic society demonstrating the logical, perhaps illogical, extremes a society will take in order to attempt betterment. In these attempts towards betterment all that was desired was inextricably lost and destroyed. Individual uniqueness was destroyed.
Professional Learning Communities (or PLCs) were created out of the Vygotskyian notion that like all learners, teachers grow intellectually with others. Teachers, like students in a classroom, learn within the parameters of the zone of proximal development or ZPD (Vygotsky, 1972). Socratic in nature, PLCs are based around the discussion and analysis of important ideas on pedagogy, assessment, and teaching. Teachers are to build community and grow collaboration (DuFour, 2008). They share and wrestle through pedagogical dilemmas, share student work, tune lessons and assessment pieces, and generally collaborate passionately but ultimately peacefully. Each teacher moves forward individually and as they grow individually they move the community forward as well. If there is to be a unity it should be arrived at organically. This organic unity represents the needs of students and the desires of teachers. It can and should be modified and shifted, shaped and grown over time and through intellectual interaction.
MAYBE HE WAS OVERREACHING?
I dont know about overreaching . . . it seems like some of the students are doing it and most know what theyre supposed to do . . . theyre . . .
Just not doing it. Yeah, I agree its not overreaching, maybe just moving too quickly, skipping over some of the steps. Maybe expecting too much too soon. So maybe it is overreaching . . .
The room exploded with laughter, which quickly receded.
A fourth teacher joins the conversation, He says this is his fourth time doing this . . . I would think the students would have been more successful by this point. Is there something missing?
Yeah, lets think about the steps he took, the process steps, to build up this skill . . . he told us what he did in his write up, lets go back to it and see if we think somethings missing or if it just needs to be tightened.
This is a snippet of conversation between 15 teachers as they discuss, analyze, and offer advice on the pedagogical dilemma of one teacher. The teacher who presented the dilemma had written it into three crisp and specific paragraphs, outlining what he was struggling with and what he had been doing to correct this issue. He presented it in 5 minutes, answered clarifying questions for about 5 minutes, probing questions for another 5 and had just listened to his 15 colleagues discuss his dilemma for the past 10 minutes while he sat quietly outside the circle taking notes and critically listening. He now returned to the circle and responded.
I heard a lot of interesting things. I need to go back and look at my instructional build up. I thought I had it nailed. I really thought about it, planned it out and spent time thinking of how to do it with my specific students . . . but I may have missed a step or two, but I dont know. Im going to go back and look at student work and see. There were a lot of interesting things shared and said, but thats where Im going to start. Thanks so much for the conversation.
There was a light smattering of applause then the meeting went on. At the beginning of the academic year, the 16 teachers from this small learning community brought their syllabi in, divided into teams and shared and discussed their expectations for students. The conversation was the first of many that began to do two things simultaneously: bring them closer together as individuals and to identify student and teacher needs. They would eventually share student work, assignments, assessments and more pedagogical dilemmas in a very similar way, through presentation, questions, analysis and advice. They met weekly for an hour with a sharing and analytic session taking up at least half the time. Through these conversations they realized two things. One, they didnt allow for nor grow student voice in their classrooms. Two, they didnt have their students write nearly enough.
Through a series of conversations they decided to have one major discussion every unit and one major writing assignment every other unit. What the major discussion and major writing assignment would be was left up to the individual teacher. Some opted for a very ritualistic and structured Socratic Seminar, others engaged students in simulation and role play. Others took on the messiness of open deliberations, while still others used class divideds or sorts resulting in more focused, more easily managed discussions. In terms of the essays, most teachers opted for in-class timed writings generally around 5 paragraphs in length, with the English teachers still carrying the heavier load of longer, more sophisticated out-of-classroom essays.
Teachers chose their approach based on their individual pedagogy, analysis of student need, individual strength, and their own creativity. Some of the in-class essays were formal, while some were in the form of a speech or inner monologue of a literary or historical character, others the lab notes of a mad scientist, or a simple letter that revealed complex thought, sophisticated analysis, and a creative flourish. Students spoke more and wrote more in all classes in unique and individualized ways. Teachers kept their agreements, were kept on track by their team and were given a constant stream of feedback to deepen and tighten, widen and loosen depending on what the evidence was showing them.
The PLC did not become a monolith. It did not become a suppressor of creativity or individuality. It did not become reductive. It did not become a space where teachers day in and day out needed to engage their students in the exact same pedagogy, with the same content, in the same way with the same assessment. These teachers did not want the PLC to wound them. Instead, they wanted it to make them better, stronger and more deliberate in their practice.
Too many teachers are on the run from or being spiritually crushed by the current implementation of PLCs. Strong teachers are opting to go the way of John the Savage. Choosing to teach elective courses, choosing to teach advanced courses only, choosing out of classroom positions or even leaving the profession all together in order to avoid the suffocation of forced inorganic unity. The purpose of PLC work is to make teachers better in all their uniqueness and individuality. PLCs ought to allow for spunk, attitude and personality, and not reduce teachers to one bland version of the same model. This will allow for individual and collective growth and honor the uniqueness and individuality of John the Savage, keeping those teachers like him where they belong, in their classrooms.
DuFour, R. (2008). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Huxley, A. (2006). Brave New World. New York, NY: Harper-Collins.
Vonnegut, K. (1998). Welcome to the Monkey House. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind In Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Publishing.