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Dr. Richard DuFour, co-author of the best seller, Professional Learning Communities at Work, as well as Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap: Whatever It Takes, joins us for our main interview this month. DuFour was principal of the award-winning Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, IL from 1983 to 1991 and superintendent of the district from 1991 to 2002 and is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the Professional Learning Communities at Work™ process. The following is an abridged version of our interview with Dr. DuFour.
Q: If I were to visit a school district that claims to be a learning community what are some of the signs that it is indeed a learning community?
Richard DuFour: A learning community is a place where the faculty has come together and has a sense of shared purpose, and a sense of the school they are trying to create, and they’ve made collective commitments to creating that school. When you walk into a learning community you’d see teachers working together in collaborative teams engaged in collective inquiry. There would be a focus on data and a commitment to continuous improvement.
Teachers would be continually asking, “What are we trying to accomplish?” “What evidence do we have that we are in fact accomplishing it?” and, “What are our strategies for getting better?” The structure and the appearance of the school might not be significantly different, but the way the people operate would be significantly different.
Q: What are the foundations of a learning community?
Richard DuFour: The foundation is found in concepts of mission, vision, values, and goals. Now those aren’t exactly new concepts, but there’s a traditional way to approach them, and there’s the learning communities’ way of approaching them. Lots of schools have written “mission statements” that end up being relatively generic based on the premise that all kids can learn and the mission is to help all kids learn. But a learning community will ask the two corollary questions. “If we believe all kids can learn, what is it that we want them to learn, and how will we respond when they don’t?”
The vision pillar is an issue that schools have been addressing for quite some time. It’s almost a cliché to say that organizations should have a vision. But a learning community begins the process of developing a vision statement by going through a shared learning, trying to learn what’s the best information we have, what’s the best research available to us in terms of schools that are improving, getting good results. The learning community tries to make sure that everyone has the information they need in order to provide an informed answer to the important question of what we are trying to become.
Furthermore, the vision statement is not just something that hangs on a wall, it becomes the blueprint for their school improvement efforts. It’s the focus of orientation for new staff, the focus of the annual school improvement plan. It’s the focus of conversations within the school. Parents, students, and faculty come to realize that the vision statement is a means for advocating their respective positions because they know that it’s a driving force within the organization.
In a learning community pains are taken to make sure this is a shared vision and coming up with something that’s sufficiently compelling that an entire faculty can say, “Yes, this is a school that we would like to become.”
The third pillar of a learning community is values, really a series of collective commitments. We are saying, “What is it that we must do in order to become the school that we’ve described in our vision statement?” And the focus isn’t on beliefs, it’s on action. “What specifically will we do?” “How will we behave?” “What commitments are we prepared to make regarding ourselves?”
Then, lastly, we need to come up with goals. What specifically are we going to do, and how are we going to measure our progress? In a learning community we can have our over-arching goals, but we break them down into specific measurable performance standards. And when we do that, we can begin to collect the data and focus on results.
This isn’t about just feeling good, or having better relationships with colleagues, it’s all about getting better results.
Q: How would you respond to critics who say that we shouldn’t be building learning communities when we should be improving student achievement?
Richard DuFour: We focus on becoming a learning community for the very simple reason that it offers the best strategy for improved student achievement. All the research is pointing to the fact that the best strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement is developing the capacity of school personnel to function as a learning community. This isn’t about just feeling good, or having better relationships with colleagues, it’s all about getting better results.
Q: How does a learning community respond to new teachers?
Richard DuFour: A teacher is not going to be left to his or her own devices. In a learning community, you expand the knowledge base beyond the individual and you create a whole support system for that beginning teacher. The big difference is: you’re not an island unto yourself. It’s not sink or swim. There’s going to be an entire support system of mentors, of on-going orientation, and of a team that’s going to help you through that difficult transition into this very important profession.
If we wait for everybody to get on board the school improvement train, we’re never going to leave the station.
Q: How can our listeners take the pulse of their school to measure how much of a learning community they are building?
Richard DuFour: Well, it’s at a critical point. People must understand that learning
communities do more than just develop a shared vision statement. They actually then
are hungry for information that will help them identify the discrepancies between where
they are and where they say they want to be. In other words, they don’t just settle for, “Well, we think we’re pretty good as we are.”
They are ruthlessly honest in assessing where they are. They pay very close attention to their critics, those who have looked at the traditional structure of schools and found it to be lacking. They ask, “Is this true of us?” “Is it true that our teachers work in isolation?” “Is it true that we can’t clarify our goals?” “Is it true that we are a top-down bureaucracy?”
Another thing that schools have to be aware of is painting a picture of their school using nothing but data. It’s sometimes easy to say, “Well, we think we already have a fairly collaborative culture,” if that’s part of your vision statement. But if your vision is saying, “We want all kids to be successful,” then, let’s look at the data! Let’s see if in fact, every kid in your school is achieving all of the intended outcomes. How could you prove that? What evidence is there? Let’s disaggregate the data. Let’s look and see are the different groups being successful.
The important thing here is that the knowledge that’s gained by analysis of the data is shared throughout the organization, it’s not hoarded in the Central Office, and then people develop plans based on that information. There’s a collective knowledge that’s created within the organization that’s data driven.
Q: So, where do you recommend we start to build this learning community?
Richard DuFour: I think legislatures by and large have tried to promote school improvement by creating a sense of urgency — let’s tell them if they don’t improve we’re going to take over, or take away their certification, or embarrass them by putting their low scores in the newspapers, we’re going to take away tenure, we’re going to do “whatever.”
A better strategy for a school administrator is to help them begin to see that there is a possible better future that people can be working toward, and you begin that process by presenting information on the concept of a learning community.
When you look at the research of the people who’ve looked at change processes and schools and what makes them effective: the work of Michael Fullan, the work of our people in staff development, like Jocelyn Showers or the work of Linda Darling-Hammond in terms of teacher preparation, the work of Fred Newman in terms of school restructuring, they are all coming to the same conclusion.
When we develop the capacity of people to work as a learning community, we can improve performance in school, we can improve teacher satisfaction with their jobs. When we make that information available and we begin to present scenarios of how a school might work, it appeals to the needs and wants of teachers and that’s where you begin the discussion.
Q: What are some of the common mistakes educators make when attempting to build a professional learning community?
Richard DuFour: Creating a learning community requires more than structural change. It’s going to require cultural change, and that means changes in our expectations, beliefs, and habits that constitute the norms for the school.
Changing the culture is difficult. You begin by clarifying exactly what behaviors and commitments our different groups must demonstrate in order to begin functioning as a learning community, again, that’s the “values” piece or the “collective commitments” piece. But then it’s critical that particularly principals have to consciously make an effort to tell the stories of those collective commitments at work. I believe that every school has a pervasive story that sort of drives that school.
In many schools, the pervasive story is “nobody knows the troubles we’ve seen,” or “what’s wrong with these kids?” But in a learning community there’s a conscious effort to tell stories of the values at work and the progress that’s being made.
There will also be an effort to celebrate those stories and make heroes of people in the
organization. Terry Deal and Ellen Kennedy said, “In the absence of celebration, ceremony, and ritual, values will lose their meaning in any organization.” It doesn’t have to be huge celebrations, it can be just brief mentions at every faculty meeting. “Here is our story at work…”
At our school, at least annually, we have a faculty meeting with a vase of roses and an open microphone where we invite the faculty to tell us how their colleagues have advanced our mission of becoming a learning community. It’s an emotional day when people tell stories about how much their colleagues have meant to them and to the school, and to present them with that rose. People who have the teacher of the year awards are doing it for the right reasons, but it’s the wrong thing to do. You’re not going to become a learning community when you have one hero. Your goal is to create a whole faculty of heroes. Principals have to be more than heroic, they have to be hero makers.
Principals have to be more than heroic; they have to be hero makers.
Q: How does a school administrator interested in building a learning community deal with those who resist change?
Richard DuFour: There are three common mistakes that school administrators tend to make when they are confronted with resistors. One is that we tend to pay too much attention to them. We have a notion that consensus requires unanimity but it merely means that everyone has had an opportunity to present his/her point of view. The will of the group is clear, even to those who oppose it.
Once we reach that point, then it is okay to go forward with our improvement initiatives, even though not everyone may be enthusiastic about it. There may be those people who have reservations or are outright resistors. We need not beat our heads against the wall. We must go forward. If we wait for everybody to get on board the school improvement train, we’re never going to leave the station.
The other mistake that we tend to make with resistors is we vilify them. I know as a young administrator, I had that tendency. But if I have a resistor, I have to recognize that they’ve had experiences that led them to believe that improvement initiatives don’t work. So, rather than vilifying them, I have to focus on trying to give them new experiences.
The third mistake with resistors is that we focus on their attitudes and how “happy” they are. We now know we need to focus on the behavior, not the attitudes. If I can get some behavioral change that will result in new experiences, then I can create what psychologists call “cognitive dissidence,” where there’s a new experience that’s contrary to what their attitudes would lead them to believe, and there’s the teachable moment.
If I can create those new experiences over time, attitudes will soften and change. But that’s not going to happen because I exhort them or come up with a pithy quotation. It’s only going to happen when I help lead them to new behaviors, or create new experiences, which over time can create new attitudes.
Q: What is the big picture of learning communities? Why should we be convinced?
Richard DuFour: I’m very optimistic about the potential for the learning community to really make a difference in schools. I’ve seen it make a difference in my school over the past 16 years, and it’s become one of the most recognized high schools in America because we’ve applied these principles.
So for me, this isn’t theory, I’ve seen it in practice. Most of us have a fundamental human need to feel successful in what we do and education keeps being bashed as a failure. In traditional schools, we don’t have sufficient data, but in the learning community, we do! We’re data driven, we focus on results, we’re committed to continuous improvement. And so, if someone suggests that we’re failures, we can respond to that and refute it.
Furthermore, most of us have a fundamental human need to be a part of a significant successful endeavor, yet in traditional schools teachers work in isolation. In a learning community, we appeal to that need to belong by creating systematic, embedded, collaboration processes right in the daily work of the school. People who experience that and learn to collaborate at high levels find that much more satisfying than teaching in isolation.
Finally, most of us want to make a difference. In a learning community, we can make that difference because our collective efforts are always going to be more effective than individual efforts. If the things we are trying to accomplish are reinforced throughout the school, rather than just in our own classrooms, we can be more effective and we can take much greater satisfaction in what we are doing.