“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Inigo Montoya: The Princess Bride
I hate buying things and finding out they aren’t what they were advertised to be, don’t you? You’d think that when people put a label on something, that “something” should be exactly as described. I either feel cheated or manipulated when stuff like that happens, and I’m unlikely to respect or trust the company or person who treated me that way. I remember accompanying a friend to an auto dealership—he was looking for a truck, and was assured by a salesperson he had talked to over the phone that the “Custom Deluxe” model had all the bells and whistles he’d ever need. Upon examination, it became obvious that the truck’s label ought to have been “Generic Unequipped.” It didn’t even come with a radio or floor mats…you had to select each desired option and wait weeks for the items to be shipped from the factory for installation. Neither of us has ever purchased a vehicle from that automaker since walking (running?) away from the lot.
“Professional Learning Communities” are another good example of mislabeling. They are neither professional nor learning-centered, and are as likely to be divisive as they are to unify.
When I first heard of Professional Learning Communities, I had high expectations of meaningful dialogue and exploration of ideas in education. I love ideas, and an opportunity to sit with respected colleagues and engage in heated discussion as we debated new (or old) educational initiatives sounded ticky-boo to me. Imagine my discomfort after discovering that no debate was included—I was treated to a PowerPoint on the “correct” way to teach and collaborate. A behaviorist definition of learning was assumed; students have objectives to master, they demonstrate competency or are assigned involuntary “interventions” to assure that they progress in lockstep with their peers. Every teacher uses the same “common formative assessments” so that every student receives a “guaranteed” education. After the PowerPoint, I got to sit down with my peers and “clarify essential outcomes” so that our “achievement data” would be aligned for later “discussion.” Over time, I’ve discovered that challenging the underlying assumptions or the practices of PLC dogma is enough to trigger questions of one’s “professionalism.”
Professionalism, in my book, is a concept that deserves more consideration before being equated with compliance with one philosophy of education or learning. Professionalism means making decisions based on a deep understanding of the history and philosophies related to a discipline; it means autonomy within a range of practice; it means being part of a self-governing body of practitioners. I try to behave as a professional, but I’m pretty sure I’m not treated as one by society, and I’m convinced that the PLC folks have hijacked the term for purposes unrelated to its true meaning. They want to eliminate teacher autonomy and replace it with lists of standards to comply with.
Learning, as a concept, has also been corrupted by the PLC folks. If you accept their limited definition of learning (“what you know and can do”), you’re likely to accept the rest of their dogma without question. I don’t accept it, because I believe that their definition is only one of many ways to parse the term. Humanists often describe learning as an ongoing process rather than as attainment of a particular goal. To constructivists, the act of imparting meaning to the world by assimilating and accommodating experiences is an internal process a teacher can assist, but only occasionally trigger. There are many other definitions, but it’s sufficient to say that the PLC brigade rejects them all because they do not focus on utilitarian outcomes open to measurement. The absolutist attitude of this behavioral stance should be repulsive to anyone who wants to treat education as an interactive journey of exploration rather than a prescriptive march to an unwavering end. Try suggesting an alternative to the PLC definition at a staff meeting—it’s guaranteed to cause administrators to blanch and assessment supervisors to gasp at your heresy. They want certainty, and any suggestion that acceptable alternatives exist endangers the house of cards they are building.
Community is a term that connotes kinship and identity, but that’s not what is being created by PLC. I have kinship with my family, and they certainly provide me with an identity, but I am not expected, by virtue of my family membership, to believe or behave in exactly the same manner as my parents or siblings. The advocates of PLC demand exactly that. No? Then why is there an entire book devoted to the subject available for sale on the Delusion Tree website called Working With Difficult & Resistant Staff? If you’re not on board with every detail of the PLC belief system, you will be plastered with a label. You must be one of these:
- An Underminer (Or are you just digging a hole to jump in and hide?)
- A Contrarian (Because you must be a negative person not to drink the Kool-Aid…)
- A Recruiter (“Come to the dark side of progressive thinking, Luke…”)
- Challenged (…you can’t possibly be “normal” since you have an alternative viewpoint…)
- An On-the-Job Retiree (You’re just bellying up to the public trough, aren’t you, you slacker?)
- The Resident Expert (Hey, that master’s degree on your wall isn’t really yours, is it?)
- An Unelected Representative (Gee, and you hadn’t even considered running for office…)
- A Whiner & Complainer (Just stick a hanger in your mouth before the next meeting, huh?)
The Spanish Inquisition comes to mind as I peruse the list. There is no room for dissent if you call yourself an educator! True believers will burn you at the stake. Straw man arguments like this do not bear up to the slightest examination, and are insulting to those who think deeply about education—but think differently than devotees of the PLC cult. PLC is a belief system akin to a religion, requiring the faith of believers rather than the contributions of thinking skeptics.
Just as the truck my buddy and I went shopping for deserved a truthful label, so does what is now termed “PLC.” Let’s call the initiative “ABC,” or Amateurish Behaviorist Congregations. After all, it advocates a sloppy and un-professional treatment of the multi-dimensional concept of learning according to behaviorist maxims, requiring unthinking obedience from the converted.
I claim religious freedom as my ticket out.
If that won’t work, just burn me as a heretic and scatter my ashes on the doorstep of the Gates Foundation.
© David Sudmeier, 2014