This challenging school year has made it clear that educational institutions and educators must be flexible and willing to adapt to a changing educational landscape. This will be easier to do if school leaders harness the talent on their campuses and create systems that encourage teachers to learn with and from each other.

Professional learning should not be relegated to a handful of all-staff training days. Those days may serve as a “spark” to ignite interest in a topic; however, without structures in place to help teachers take the ideas, strategies, and models presented and implement them, that spark will fade.

PLCs can be an effective way to build professional learning into the fabric of our schools. I’ve worked with high-functioning PLCs and those that flounder. The most effective PLCs I’ve worked with share similar characteristics.

  • School leaders provide dedicated time in the teachers’ schedules to meet each week.
  • The PLCs are composed of teachers who teach similar grade levels and/or subject areas.
  • There is a clear structure that guides the PLCs’ time together making it productive.
  • The members of the PLC determine the focus of their inquiry and learning.
  • Teachers are encouraged to share their learning and discoveries with the larger school community.

PLCs group teachers into learning teams that pursue their professional learning through a lens of interest. The learning teams that enjoy high levels of autonomy and agency tend to be more motivated and engaged. How can we provide PLCs with a clear structure to guide their work while allowing them the autonomy and agency to personalize their learning?

In the last year, I’ve encouraged school leaders, coaches, and teachers to consider using the 5Es instructional model to guide their work in PLCs. My rationale is two-fold. First, if teachers experience the power of the 5Es instructional model for their professional learning, they are more likely to use it to design student-centered inquiry. Second, the 5Es instructional model prioritizes teacher agency, which I don’t think we talk about enough in education. Teachers in one subject area, at one grade level, or teaching in one community are likely to face unique challenges and have different interests. PLCs need a structure that invites teachers to pursue learning that addresses pedagogical problems, challenges, and interests specific to that learning team.

The 5Es instructional model is composed of the following stages: 1) Engage, 2) Explore, 3) Explain, 4) Elaborate, and 5) Evaluate. Let’s explore how PLCs can use this model to guide their learning.

Engage: Develop a Question to Drive Your Inquiry Cycle

The PLC begins by engaging in a discussion or structured brainstorming session to identify areas of interest for this inquiry cycle. For example, what pedagogical problems are they currently facing? What is challenging about their teaching assignments? What are they curious about or wondering? What would they like to improve on or develop in their practice?

As a group, they identify an area of focus and craft a question to frame and focus their work together.

Explore: Let the Investigation and Learning Begin!

During PLC time and beyond, teachers commit to exploring the question that is driving their inquiry cycle. They may conduct online research, talk to colleagues, join a Twitter chat, connect with experts on social media, and/or commit to a book study. The goal is to learn as much as they can!

Explain: Time to Share Your Learning

Once the PLC members have had time to explore and learn on their own, they need to publish their learning for the group (and beyond). Each member of the PLC should have time to share what they discovered or learned during the exploration stage of the 5Es. This can happen in a real-time discussion during a PLC meeting or asynchronously via FlipGrid video recordings. This phase of the 5Es allows the group to share their learning and learn from one another.

I also encourage educators to share their discoveries and thinking with a larger audience by doing one of the following:

  • Write and publish a blog
  • Produce an original podcast
  • Create a video on the topic
  • Design and publish an infographic

When teachers take the time to produce artifacts of their own learning to share with an authentic audience, they tend to think more deeply about what they are learning (just like students!). Those artifacts can also function to support other educators who are also interested in the same issues.

Elaborate: Apply Your Learning

During the elaborate stage, the members of a PLC take what they learned and design a learning experience, implement a specific strategy, or employ a specific blended learning model. The goal of the elaborate stage is to solve a pedagogical problem, tackle a challenge, or pursue an area of interest.

Each member of the PLC will take what the team created or designed back to their classrooms to implement. They will all experiment with a specific teaching technique, strategy, or instructional model to see how well it addresses the issue at the heart of their inquiry cycle.

Evaluate: Assess the Effectiveness

Members of the PLC will need to collect artifacts of student learning and student feedback to evaluate the effectiveness of the strategy, technique, or model. The artifacts of student learning can be analyzed and discussed by the group to determine if the strategy, technique, or model positively impacted the problem, challenge, or issue driving this inquiry cycle. If so, how can they continue to improve and refine what they did? If not, what changes or modifications might need to be made before implementing it again?

It is also critical to ask students about their experiences. What did they enjoy? What did they find challenging? What recommendations would they make to improve the experience in the future? This feedback can help the PLC to continue improving this particular strategy, technique, or model.

The 5Es instructional model balances the need that teachers have for autonomy with a clear structure that will maximize their time together. Putting teaching teams in charge of their own learning will turn learning from an event into a process and reinforce the mindset that teachers are the “lead learner” in a classroom or on a campus. There is no end point to learning, which should be incredibly exciting. Most educators love to learn, so we need to harness that passion to empower teachers to become perpetual problem solvers capable of adapting to various demands of this profession.

We cannot afford to return to “normal” as schools reopen. In our conversation on my podcast, The Balance, George Couros defined innovation simply as “better ways of teaching and learning.” That’s what we need to be committed to as educators. Schools that embrace PLCs, carve out time for PLC members to work together, and provide both autonomy and structure are more likely to create a culture of learning on their campuses where everyone pursues better ways of teaching and learning.

Looking for a summer read? Check out my newest book UDL and Blended Learning: Thriving in Flexible Learning Landscapes!

7 Responses

  1. Hey Catlin,
    I’m new to your blog. This is the first post of yours I have read and I find it very inspiring. In fact, I miss productive exchange with my colleagues. The culture that has developed (I think in the vast majority of German schools) is that innovation is considered sceptical. Yes, it might change the way teachers go about their educational routines (not a good word in this context…), but in the end it will not change much about the outcome with students. After all, changing routines for this little benefit is not worth the time and effort. I’m playing the devil’s advocate here. My question now is, how would you approach a culture like this? And is this something that is special to German schools or aren’t teachers everywhere taxed enough by their daily responsibilities which leaves little room for innovation?
    I think the main problem is that to me it is unthinkable that school leaders will provide dedicated time to meet on a regular basis (say once every (other) week). This is not because they don’t want to, but because there simply seems to be no time unless the staff is willing to meet late in the afternoons – which again will collide with their daily responsibilities.
    By the way, I am a 40-or-so-years-old teacher at a German public high school where I teach English and PE.

    Best regards!

    • Hi Jonas,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment! You raise some complicated but important questions here. You are absolutely correct that teachers are so overburdened and many are tired, so asking them to shift practices may feel daunting. However, in a world where information is everywhere, and people are hyperconnected, I don’t think it’s the best use of our time with learners to stand at the front of the room transferring information. Instead, I’d like to see educators use blended learning models to shift from their roles as “experts” and instead free them to spend more time connecting with learners and facilitating learning. That is hard to do when teachers design a one-size-fits-all experience that is teacher-led, teacher-paced, and teacher-orchestrated. If teachers spent less time talking, they could spend more time working alongside students providing real-time feedback, engaging them in academic discourse, supporting student-centered collaboration, etc. I believe this shift can actually help teachers to feel more effective and allow them to more effectively partner with students to ensure that their time together is valuable. I write about this in Balance with Blended Learning.

      The culture you describe doesn’t sound like it will support this type of shift. Leadership must believe in the value of professional learning to create the type of system and structure I describe in this post. I believe schools must invest in a professional learning infrastructure if we hope to keep pace with the changes happening beyond our classroom walls. PLCs can be a powerful part of that professional learning infrastructure because they position teachers to lead the learning. But you are absolutely correct that leaders have to prioritize this learning with TIME. They need to build it into their teachers’ schedules. That may mean spending less time in administrative meetings or rethinking the school schedule. I think the investment in professional learning is well worth it in the long run. Teachers who continue learning with their peers are much more likely to feel satisfied at work and feel confident in their abilities.

      Thanks again for chiming in! I love learning about what is happening in other countries!


      • Thanks for your detailed reply, Caitlin.
        I guess establishing a blended learning culture (which seems more and more intriguing to me) depends very much on the school culture. I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote in your second paragraph. I mean, how many times have I left my classroom thinking, “I talked too much!”?
        Germany is a very traditionalist country. We like to stick to things that used to work fine. My hopes are that the impulses generated through the pandemic will spark more innovation.


  2. I think we do a better job than many schools with this, but still a far cry from what you’re describing. I teach in a struggling Title 1 elementary school. We are on our third year with a “D” rating, but I think our admin does a great job. We have PLCs TWICE weekly, for one hour. We meet once a week with our grade level team and once a week with our content (vertical) team. Our classes are covered by the specialists. I think it must be a huge logistical challenge to get this much class coverage so we can meet.

    The big difference is that the PLCs are often spent on either A) administrative tasks or B) data digs. We have weekly content focused assessments and do a huge amount of attention is given to creating those assessments and then evaluating them results. A common teacher frustration is that we spend so much time testing the kids that we don’t have enough time to actually teach the material they need to pass them. It all sounds okay in theory, but teachers aren’t the ones driving the discussion or taking ownership of the data dig.

  3. Hi Caitlin,

    This post was really interesting and changed my perspective on what PLCs can be. I would like to learn more about the 5es and how to successfully facilitate a PLC modeled like this in schools. Do you have any additional resources or places to look to help with this?



    • Hi Jamie,

      I’m sure you can find additional posts on the 5Es more generally that might be helpful, but this is the only one I’ve written about using it for PLCs.

      Take care.

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