One Big Reason your PLCs Might be Struggling: A Lack of Agency

Why does it seem like some teachers have a tough time making the most out of the time they are given to collaborate with others, while others use the time constructively to sharpen their craft and grow professionally?  A recent policy paper from Learning Forward and the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future sheds some light on this question. 

The answer seems to have a lot to do with having the proper mindset when approaching collaboration and professional learning. Teachers, according to the report, simply can't do the work of professional learning and growth if their perception of their position is simply to comply with orders from a higher authority. They must feel as though they they have a sense of choice, of control, and the ability to make key decisions when it comes to their professional lives.

The report, "Moving From Compliance to Agency: What Teachers Need to Make Professional Learning Work," argues that teachers need to experience a sense of agency, which, the report says, is the "capacity of teachers to act purposefully and constructively to direct their professional growth and the professional growth of their colleagues."  As opposed to simply doing as told, teachers with agency have a personal sense of responsibility and ownership that drives their work. This isn't surprising, according to the report, as adults naturally want to be active agents in their learning and work and often "resist being treated as objects, something that can be used by someone else."

The paper identifies a number of shifts that need to occur in systems and organizations in order to engage agency. Professional learning, for instance, should move from "being planned by administrators, often delivered by external vendors," to a situation where "teachers plan and present" the learning content. Educators should move from a heavy reliance on "compliance" as the driver for professional learning to "the intrinsic desire to improve teaching and learning and connect with colleagues."

A lack of agency is a situation we see often when asked to analyze the effectiveness of a PLC program. We'll see some well-functioning groups, with teachers collaborating at a high level, looking at data, and talking openly about instruction, their own practices and that of their colleagues. 

Conversely we'll see groups of teachers sitting around a table, without a clear purpose, looking as though they're wondering what they are doing there. 

The difference seems to be that teachers that feel that they have agency seem to have better functioning PLC's, with direction, value and relevance. They come to collaborative time with a self-directed sense of what they want to accomplish and an understanding that the time they are given is a sign of respect for the complexity of their work and the professional judgement they bring to teaching.

So, if we want better, more productive PLC's and collaboration, we perhaps need to see our and our teachers' roles as "planners, designers, advisors, presenters, and decision makers," as opposed to mere "implementers, recipients of information, deliverers of content."