Focus on What’s Important

I know this sounds like the title of an “and life” post, but this is just the next section in the paper I am writing about professional learning communities, school change, and… video games as an educational technology. I completed this draft while traveling yesterday.

I’m currently at the CLMS/CLHS/NHSA and CUE technology conference in Monterey. CUEtoYOU presented two sessions yesterday, and four more today, including my Podcasting session. Sadly, I got a bad review in the batch. But I suppose that’s part of the purpose of coming to conferences (as a learner who presents)… getting feedback and improving. Still, it’s tough to get an outlier like that, especially when I know I’m low on sleep and could’ve done much better. :(

I guess this is an “and Life” post after all. I’m reminding myself to focus on what’s important… I met with a room full of people who signed up for a podcasting class because they didn’t know what it was… and I taught a lot of people about podcasting with their students using free tools. And, of course, all day long I had some great conversations with other presenters and attendees. :)

At any rate, I just finished making some changes to my “practical blogging” presentation for tomorrow afternoon and am only now finding time to post this. Naturally I still have lots of posts to catch up on, including the Google Teacher Academy report/reflection (and my next post at, but for now I am turning in. I want to be able to get up and see David Warlick’s keynote in the morning… and not be quite so short on sleep tomorrow.

Please leave feedback if you read the following draft. I’m getting there with this final KAM…

3. Focus on What’s Important

School change of any kind involves so many variables, it is imperative that change agents focus on what is important. This ability to focus only on what is important is also a critical characteristic of successful professional learning communities.

DuFour and Eaker (1998) pointed out that “schools communicate what is important to them and what is valued by what they focus on” (p. 107). For instance, celebration, which plays an important role in sustaining a professional learning community, “reinforces shared values and signals what is important” (p. 143). However, this focus is also more than just a tool for clear communication. Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour, 2002, described a cultural shift in professional learning communities from “a focus on a wide variety of things and an effort to ‘get the plan turned in’ and then subsequently ignoring it to… a focus on a few important goals that will affect student learning… a vehicle for organized, sustained school improvement” (p. 24). This cultural shift is not limited to the organization; Hord recommended “recruiting external change agents who can ask the important questions” (p. 149) as a part of establishing and maintaining organizational focus.

Most importantly, professional learning community theorists call for schools to focus on student learning. DuFour and Eaker (1998) assert that “the curriculum is a critical component of a school that functions as a professional learning community” (p. 178) and that “the curriculum should reduce content and enable all parties to focus on essential and significant learning” (p. 179; see also Eaker, DuFour and DuFour, 2002, p. 19). Huffman & Hipp (2003) expressed a different but related take on this focus, saying that a professional learning community “focuses, first and foremost, upon learning on the part of professionals in the school as the way to increase learning on the part of students” (p. 76). Roberts and Pruitt (2003) agreed that “the ultimate purpose of the movement to the learning community model is to improve learning opportunities and outcomes for students” (p. 11). They also believed that “the primary focus of professional development is student outcomes; it is results driven and focused on curriculum and standards” (p. 52). As she explained the importance of developing collective values and visions, Hord (2004) described the importance of becoming student focused (p. 45). This focus on student learning is no less important to an educational technology initiative, including one that would include video games and simulations. In fact, improved student learning (and achievement) is the purpose behind introducing such technologies into schools.

This focus, in fact, is what DuFour, Eaker, and DuFour (2005) later identified as Big Idea #1 with respect to professional learning communities, “ensuring that students learn” (p. 32; see also DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker, 2006, p. 2). These authors offered two other big ideas that professional learning communities, and in a broader sense any change initiative, should focus on. Big Idea #2 is a focus on “a culture of collaboration” (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005, p. 36; DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2006, p. 3), a key to successful organizational change. Stone and Cuper (2006), too, advocated collaboration (p. 19, 46, 83), as do Hord (2004, p.52, 152), Huffman and Hipp (2003, p 62), and Roberts and Pruitt (2003, p. 137, 179). Big Idea #3, then, is to “focus on results” (Eaker, DuFour, & DuFour, 2002, p. 44-45; DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Karhanek, 2004, p. 134-148, 175; DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005, p. 20, 31, 39; DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2006, p. 4), or in other words to “focus on outcomes rather than on inputs or intentions” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2006, p. 63). Wald and Castleberry (2000) included this focus on results not only as a means for change, but also as the end of their “roller coaster of change” process (p. 42). Roberts and Pruitt (2003) also described professional learning communities that were “results driven and focused on curriculum” (p. 52), and Hord (2004) advocated “researching for results” (p. 124). It follows that any attempt to integrate educational technologies such as video games and simulations should maintain a similar focus on ensuring that students learn, creating a culture of collaboration, and on achieving results.

Capacity building is another important focus of professional learning communities. DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker (2006) explained their expectations by stating that “members of a PLC are not ‘invited’ to work with colleagues: they are called upon to be contributing members of a collective effort to improve the school’s capacity to help all students learn at high levels” (p. 8). They also believed that “leaders must start… shifting their focus from evaluating and supervising individuals to developing the capacity of both teams and the entire school to work collaboratively” (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005, p. 239). Similarly, one of the outcomes of professional learning communities that Hord (2004) sought was an increase in “organizational capacity… the capacity of the staff to work well as a unit” (p. 12). Hord observed that “of equal importance to establishing shared decision-making structures was the ability of the principals to increase decision-making capacity among their staff” (p. 49). Huffman and Hipp (2003), too, called for professional learning communities to focus on “increase[ing] individual and organizational capacity” (p. 11; see also p. 31), and Kaagan (2004) discussed “collective capacity building” (p. 3). Stone and Cuper (2006) were even interested in developing students’ capacity; they promoted a philosophy of “each one, teach one… [which] designate[d] student peer leaders in the classroom” (p. 146). Once again the importance of risk-taking in the culture of a professional learning community is evident, as it is a necessary element of capacity building; Wald and Castleberry (2000) point out that “a climate that encourages risk taking is fundamental when staff members need to stretch beyond what they know and explore frontiers” (p. 24).

While the very act of focusing efforts on what has been identified as important to the organization can improve the likelihood of success for any change initiative, there are also particular elements worthy of focus in many cases. Based on the work of these professional learning community theorists, it seems that any school change effort, including the integration of video games and simulations as educational technologies, might benefit from a focus on ensuring student learning, creating a culture of collaboration, achieving results, and building capacity at all levels of the organization.