Steven Weber

Five Dysfunctions of a Professional Learning Community

What Is a Professional Learning Community (PLC)?

"The very essence of a learning community is a focus on and a commitment to the learning of each student. When a school or district functions as a PLC, educators within the organization embrace high levels of learning for all students as both the reason the organization exists and the fundamental responsibility of those who work within it." —Rick DuFour, Bob Eaker, and Becky DuFour (2007)

From Isolation to Collaboration

As I have watched teachers and administrators make the shift from teaching in isolation to operating as a collaborative team, I have witnessed several commonalities across schools. This article addresses five dysfunctions of a PLC. The purpose of this article is to describe how dysfunctional behavior can interfere with the school's commitment to the learning of each student.

All Teams Are Potentially Dysfunctional

Lencioni (2007) wrote, "Like it or not, all teams are potentially dysfunctional. This is inevitable because they are made up of fallible, imperfect human beings." This is nice to know because educators frequently struggle with teamwork, sharing resources, and working with a coworker who views teaching and learning from a different lens.

Five Dysfunctions of a Professional Learning Community

Dysfunction #1: Lack of Norms

Team norms are the foundation of a PLC. Some teams feel like they can operate without norms, but conflict or a dysfunctional team member usually highlights the purpose of norms. When teams operate with norms, each member of the team understands how to communicate, how shared decisions will be handled, when to arrive for meetings, and how to professionally disagree. I have observed teams that developed norms five years ago, but they fail to revisit the team norms. When a new teacher moves from a different grade level or from another school district, it is difficult for the teacher to participate in the PLC because the team norms are akin to living and working in a different country or culture.

Solution:

 

Dysfunction #2: Lack of Team Goals

"You must have long-term goals to keep you from being frustrated by short-term failures." —Charles C. Noble

"If you're bored with life—you don't get up every morning with a burning desire to do things—you don't have enough goals." —Lou Holtz

Successful teams establish goals and when the team begins to succeed or fail, members return to their established goals. Establishing a school or district-level PLC will not mean that a team will meet its goals any more than a basketball team will go undefeated by having a daily practice. Some teams fail to establish goals because they believe that teaching hard and developing rigorous lessons will support student achievement. Other teams have a lack of trust, and they do not wish to share instructional strategies or discuss student misunderstandings. A team without goals will lack purpose, urgency, and a destination. It is difficult to celebrate a small win without established goals.

Solutions:

 

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Trust

According to Lencioni (2007), a lack of trust "occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses, or needs for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible."

A PLC that operates with trust will ask

  1. Which students seem to struggle with the key concepts and skills identified by the team?
  2. Which skills or concepts do I struggle to teach?
  3. If our students do not do well on the state writing test, then what strategies should we incorporate at our grade level? At the grade levels prior to our grade?
  4. Some students are struggling with note taking and organization skills. What can teachers do to support students who are struggling in school, due to a lack of study skills?
  5. Our students are struggling with Algebra I. Are there areas of the curriculum map that could be revised to support teaching and learning?

Solution:

 

Dysfunction #4: Lack of Communication

In the traditional high school, the department chair(s) met with the building principal and then returned to the department meeting to tell the other teachers what to do. Top-down leadership is drastically different from the shared leadership that occurs in an effective PLC. Communication problems occur when teams operate without established norms or goals. Some communication barriers occur because teachers fail to take advantage of e-mail, discussion threads, Web 2.0 tools (such as blogs, wikis, Google docs), and other methods for communicating between meetings. Watch a humorous video on the importance of clear communication between team members.

Solutions:

 

Dysfunction #5: Lack of Essential Learning Outcomes

Effective teams develop and agree to provide all students with essential learning outcomes. In the absence of learning outcomes, students receive a disjointed curriculum experience. Why do some teams skip this step if it is such an important part of teaching and learning? From my observations, developing essential learning outcomes involves trust, conflict, debate, time, and the ability to come to consensus. If teams lack one or more of the items listed in this article, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to identify essential learning outcomes. Swan (2010) wrote, "Learning outcomes refer to the skills, knowledge, and attributes students should have upon completion of a particular course or program of study." For additional resources on developing learning outcomes visit the Brigham Young University Center for Teaching and Learning.

Solutions:

 

REFERENCES

DuFour, R., Eaker, B., & DuFour, B. (2007). Welcome to AllThingsPLC, what's a PLC? Retrieved from http://www.allthingsplc.info/wordpress/?p=22

Lencioni, P. (2007). Conquer team dysfunction. Retrieved from http://www.tablegroup.com/books/dysfunctions/Conquer%20Team%20Dysfunction.pdf

Swan, R. (n.d.). Developing learning outcomes. Retrieved from http://ctl.byu.edu/collections/developing-learning-outcomes

Steven Weber is a former classroom teacher, assistant principal, and state Department of Education consultant in Arkansas and North Carolina and currently the principal of Hillsborough (N.C.) Elementary School. He is a former board member of North Carolina ASCD and a featured guest on the Whole Child Podcast. Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at steven.weber@orange.k12.nc.us, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.

Comments (13)

Pam Fisher

November 1, 2011

Take a look at Harnessing Teacher Knowledge on the Great Schools Partnership website, or simply google the doc.

Peter Pappas

November 1, 2011

“Top-down leadership is drastically different from the shared leadership that occurs in an effective PLC.” That’s the biggest dysfunction of PLC’s - breaking through the perception that a PLC is just another admin-driven meeting.

Imagine being told that, “teachers will now attend PLC meetings.. and don’t forget to fill out the PLC report form and turn it in to your administrator.” No one at the top seems to notice that teachers who want to network have already created their own “bottom-up” support systems via the social web.

For more on that subject see my post “Innovations in Teaching and Learning: Top Down or Bottom Up?” http://bit.ly/tL9CkZ

Wendy Chalk

November 1, 2011

We have been facilitating the development of PLC’s throughout the country for several years.  For the most part, our high school PLCs are typically given the task of using their PLC time to develop and administer common assessments.  The prevailing belief is that the resulting student performance data will be used to improve instructional delivery.  What many in leadership positions fail to realize however, is most teachers lack the expertise to develop an assessment that is both reliable and valid.  Therefore, the resulting data is (more often than not) flawed and misleading.  Poor data, leads to poor decision making…AND hours are often wasted creating lessons for re-teaching….when it was the assessment that was flawed and not the initial instruction.

Wendy

November 1, 2011

Well done and said.  I appreciate the insights and the linked resources.

Gail Seay

November 2, 2011

Thanks for the shared resources…most helpful.

Elva

November 2, 2011

READ

Sonja Dziedzic

November 2, 2011

What a helpful article.  I will definitely be able to use this information!

Kristin Garaas-Johnson

November 2, 2011

Lencioni’s 2002 book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is an easy read and introduces the concepts you’ve raised here. I think his book would be an excellent book study not only for PLCs, but for leadership teams as well.

Jann Kwasnicki

November 8, 2011

What you are describing as a"Professional Learning Community” sounds very much like the ideal school based team in the Canadian school system.  A team is generally made up of non-enrolling teachers, counselor, speech and language pathologist, psychologist, administrator and classroom teacher. I have been involved in functional (problem solve and develop action plans) and dysfunctional (lack trust and/or self-confidence, unwilling to take risks) SBTs.  Using the above guidelines for better collaboration is just what I need to help the team at my school become purposeful and supportive.  Thanks.

Amy Jordan

February 14, 2014

Great list with practical ideas. If anyone can help me, please do. I am in a PLC that is so dominated by two members and one in particular, who is not good at disagreeing in a professional way at all.
I am miserable. A group of us went to our principals pleading for help, and we did establish new and better norms, but we might as well have sent them up in a balloon for all they have influenced the group’s dynamics.
I’m just going to tune out now. I’ve had enough, tried to speak enough and been completely shut down enough that I’m done. I guess I’m just venting, but at this point, I’d rather get a root canal than attend these meetings—and they are weekly, by the way.
Signed,
Completely miserable in Kansas

Rosa

October 8, 2014

Thanks for your post! I found that it really hit home. I like that you talked about PLC’s needing trust in order to discuss. We are teachers. We aren’t always going to see eye-to-eye but we need to respect each other enough to have a productive debate. Thanks for the links!

Claudine

April 13, 2015

This post is great! Thank you for discussing where PLC’s can go wrong and the solutions for fixing the problem. I have learned a lot from other’s comments as well!

Denise Henry Poyser

April 29, 2015

Well articulated and infofmative

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