Teaching Strategies: A Traditional Approach and/or Professional Learning Community?

 World Book – a student sculpture from deconstructed encyclopedias and collage

My professor posted a question from our weekly reading in our 21st Century Skills textbook:  Analyze the chart on p. 79 in 21st Century Skills (DuFour & DuFour), and discuss the pros and cons of a traditional approach to education compared to the professional learning community model.  Discuss some advantages of both the traditional approach and the professional learning community model approach for fostering 21st century technology skills.  Provide some examples for both approaches that represent an effective way of developing 21st century technology skills. (Gregory)

I feel that I am teaching in one of the most important eras of education.  This is only my 8th year of teaching, but I know that during these years I started my career in the more traditional approach, but am moving rapidly into the professional learning community model.  Just like the image at the beginning of the post, we are still tied to the past but understand the past has limitations for our current time.  I have chosen for of the points from the above referenced chart to contrast and compare within my own experience, as well as what’s happening in education in general.

Traditional Approach

The job of teachers is to teach; the job of students is to learn.

  • Pros:  Teachers in their 30s and up probably were taught using the traditional approach.  If it worked for them, it should work for everyone.  We learn what is modeled to us, so when it’s time to pass it on, teaching in the way we were taught feels natural and comfortable.
  • Cons:  Times are different and there are new tools, modalities, environments and concepts for everyone to learn.  Students can take on some of the mantle of teaching if teachers are willing to let them turn the tables on teaching and learning.

Professionals are free to use their own judgment and discretion regarding how they go about their work.

  • Pros:  There are certainly instances when an individual teacher is inspired to be innovative in their teaching.  During my research for this post, I found a competition from PBS Teachers Innovations Awards.  Keith Rosko, a visual arts teacher who was inspired to incorporate 21st c. learning skills, was one of the first place winners with his “War Letters” photoshop art project.  Check out his winning project here:  http://www.pbs.org/teachers/innovators/gallery/2011/entries/833/
  • Cons:  Human folly exists – even in educators.  How many of us have had the teacher who has run amok, followed an inexplicable tangent, lost their bearings, or gotten distracted by a clever student ploy?  Left to their own devices, some educators who follow their own muse do so at the expense of their charges.

Teachers work best when they work alone.

  • Pros:  I actually was the only art teacher in my first job and it gave me incredible freedom to decide what I wanted to teach to my students.  As long as my students were engaged and productive, my principal didn’t care what I taught them.
  • Cons:  Teaching in a scatter shot method like this meant I did not have a clear scope and sequence curriculum that would scaffold their skills and create a building confidence in materials and the processes of art making.

Schools work best when districts provide them with site-based autonomy.

  • Pros:  I actually believe there is a lot of value and truth to this statement.  When administration, educators and students understand their demographics, socio-economic statistics and local influences, schools can tailor their educational approaches to best suit their audience.
  • Cons:  Schools’ administration can be out of touch with the realities of their communities, and educators can have blinders to their students’ needs.  Administrators and teachers who were raised in middle class families and lifestyles can be clueless to their low socio-economic families’ struggles and issues.  Conflict and misunderstanding can arise when the site-based autonomy isn’t sensitive to their families’ needs.

Professional Learning Communities

Teaching without learning isn’t teaching at all; it’s just presenting.  The purpose of school is to ensure all students learn.

  • Pros:  This is an important mandate that all educators in this time MUST work towards!  Our administrators charge us with this lofty and scary task – to education ALL of our students.  Not most.  Not some.  All.  And, if the educator is diligent, clever, earnest and is motivated by heart, it might be possible, though honestly, on any day it is an elusive goal.
  • Cons:  Families are strained, broken and desperately wounded, so it is no surprise that they pack their children off to school with holes in their souls; like a colander, much of what the teacher tries to put into the student just leaks out.  It is a tragic realization that no matter how we approach our teaching, some children are so wounded there are massive obstacles to their learning.

Professional have an obligation to seek out best practices for those they serve.

  • Pros:  Teachers don’t always know what the best practices are.  Through collaboration they can found out and incorporate them into their instruction.  One study of pre-service teachers demonstrates when they are supported in a PLC by colleagues, they developed the skills and commitment to teach each student for understanding.  Rigelman and Rubin (2012)
  • Cons:  With the rapid rate of change in our 21st c. world, best practices can be ever changing and evolving.  What may have been best practices last year are not necessarily what is best for today.  The educational world in the US is notorious for “adopting” the latest, greatest strategies which are regurgitated ideas from decades ago.  Sometimes the hunt for best practices is no better than a spin the dial game, with the dial constantly spinning.

Teachers who work in isolation will never help all students learn at high levels.  Teachers must take collective responsibility for their students.

  • Pros:  As Chris Dede says in our 21st Century Skills textbook, ‘collaboration is worthy of inclusion as a 21st c. skill because the importance of cooperative interpersonal capabilities is higher and the skills involved are more sophisticated than in the prior industrial era.’  (Balance and Brandt, 2010, p. 53).  If these are the skills we need to teach our children, then these are the skills we need to embrace and model to them.  When we work collaboratively with our colleagues, we learn how to navigate the waters are better able to guide our students on their own collaborative journey.
  • Cons:  It’s hard.  Most people don’t know how to collaborate well.  It’s frustrating.  I value communication highly and think of myself as a skilled communicator, but many of my colleagues aren’t.  It’s interesting and paradoxical that they can think they are good teachers but are not good communicators.  Without good communication, collaboration can be prickly and uncomfortable.  And there is not a quick fix.

Schools work best when they operate within clearly defined and clearly communicated parameters regarding their purpose and priorities, receive assistance in aligning their practices with the specified purpose and priorities, are held accountable for doing so, and have latitude regarding how to best achieve goals.

  • Pros:  Ideally, these expectations will level the playing field for our educators and their students.  Clear directives help make the educator’s job understandable, approachable and doable.
  • Cons:  No Child Left Behind, an act that was enacted in 2001, undoubtably it was to ensure the presumption above would be spread across this nation and like all boats rising at once, our children would also rise equally.  Unfortunately, there is a dramatic inequity among our schools, school districts and cities and states that support those educational institutions.  These disparities contribute to a wider achievement gap in this country than in virtually any other industrialized country in the world. Meier (2004).


Dede, C. (2010) Comparing frameworks for 21st c. skills.  In Bellanca, J. and Brandt. R. (Ed.), 21st century skills: rethinking how students learn. (p. 53). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R. and DuFour, R. (2010) The role of professional learning communities in advancing 21st century skills.  In Bellanca, J. and Brandt. R. (Ed.), 21st century skills:  rethinking how students learn.  (p. 79). Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree Press.

Gregory, D. (2012) Personal communication.

Meier D. (2004) Many children left behind; how the no child left behind act is damaging our children and our schools.  p. 6.

PBS Teachers (2011) Innovation awards gallery.  http://www.pbs.org/teachers/innovators/gallery/2011/entries/833/

Rigelman, N. M., & Ruben, B. (2012) Creating foundations for collaboration in schools:  Utilizing professional learning communities to support teacher candidate learning and visions of teaching.  Teaching and Teacher Education, 28, 979-989.

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