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Collaboration is the answer

An excerpt from Becoming a Learning Team by Stephanie Hirsh and Tracy Crow

In Learning Forward’s (2011) Standards for Professional Learning, educators learning in community is a key structure for addressing many of the problems common in traditional models of teaching and learning and creating support among teachers.

Learning community: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment. (p. 24)

By definition, collaboration reduces isolation for teachers who are learning and improving practice together. Collaborative learning puts teachers in constant structured communication with one another, offering a consistent and reliable means for teachers to find support, solve problems, and grow as a result of working with expert peers. Fortunately, the traditional model of organizing students and educators is shifting somewhat. There are many examples, and some exemplars, of schools and systems that establish collaborative learning cultures and structures to reduce isolation and realize the benefits of teachers’ learning and improving with peers (see Tool 1.2: Thinking About Collaborative Learning: Fears and Hopes).

Changing practice

More importantly, learning collaboratively helps teachers change teaching practices. When they have opportunities to meet regularly to discuss authentic classroom challenges, teachers talk specifically about what they do in the classroom and the results they see. With colleagues, they identify problems and solutions. Peer learning structures offer opportunities to pose questions, examine strategies, and experiment in a safe environment with knowledgeable partners.

There is deep expertise within every school, and certainly in the majority of classrooms within every school. Unfortunately, school and system leaders, other teachers, and most sadly, the students, are rarely exposed to all that untapped wisdom. Through well-facilitated collaboration, the expertise and specific practices teachers use successfully come to light. Teachers who are experts in one area or another can demonstrate and discuss exactly what they do, how they do it, when they do it, and how they adapt it in different situations and contexts. Their teacher learning partners can then ask questions, hone instructional strategies, ask for support, and learn the best ways to integrate such strategies into their own teaching. By what better means could teachers learn “tested practices” than from their own peers in their own settings? What greater support is there when they can go right to the source with follow-up questions
and challenges?

Job satisfaction

Collaboration has an impact on retention and job satisfaction as well as teaching quality. In their analysis of the data from Teaching around the world: What can TALIS tell us. Dion Burns and Linda Darling-
Hammond (2014) found that teacher collaboration was central to teacher effectiveness:

Perhaps the strongest set of findings in TALIS were those associated with teacher collaboration, which appeared as an important element of learning, influence on practice, and influence on job satisfaction and self-efficacy, which are in turn related to teacher retention and effectiveness. More than any other policy area, actions that support collaborative learning among teachers appear to hold promise for improving the quality of teaching… . (p. v)

Similar results were found in the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (2009) where more than two thirds of teachers (67%) and three quarters of principals (78%) say that greater collaboration among teachers and school leaders would have a major impact on improving student achievement. Other findings combine to emphasize that schools with higher degrees of collaboration are associated with shared leadership and higher levels of trust and job satisfaction. Teachers in schools with higher levels of collaborative activities are more likely than others to have high levels of career satisfaction (68% vs. 54% very satisfied). New teachers strongly agree in greater numbers than do veteran teachers (those with more than 20 years of experience) that their success is linked to that of their colleagues (67% vs. 47%) (MetLife, 2009).

Student outcomes

The most critical benefits of collaboration are in outcomes for students. In the previously mentioned MetLife Survey (2009), authors found that teachers who are very satisfied with teaching as a career are more likely than others to have high expectations for their students. In a recent analysis of high-performing systems, Ben Jensen and colleagues (2016) found that collaborative professional learning practices were integrated into the daily work of schools because of their impact on teacher practice and student outcomes. “Teacher professional learning is how they all improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs,” they write (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull, & Hunter, 2016, p. 3). The specific practices they found common across four high-performing systems — British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore — engage teachers deeply in collaborative cycles of continuous improvement, very similar to the cycle explored throughout this book.

The beneficiaries of shared expertise are students of teachers who work side by side with other teachers who are experts in their craft. In a two-year period with more than 1,000 teachers, Carrie Leana (2011) found that when 4th- and 5th-grade teachers collaborated purposefully, their instruction improved as did student achievement. Other studies confirm that collaboration among teachers has positive outcomes for students and that working with more skilled peers helps teachers improve (Jackson & Bruegmann, 2009; Sun, Penuel, Frank, Gallagher, & Youngs, 2013).

Structures including schedules, locations, and designs for collaboration also offer teachers opportunities for growth and leadership beyond what they need to learn to instruct the students in their classrooms. Teacher learning teams, for example, require skillful facilitation and leadership, and when teacher leaders are positioned to take on this role, they build their capacity for supporting others and for leading within and beyond the school.

Are your PLCs truly learning-focused?

We want to help ensure that your PLCs are truly learning-focused. We offer customized PLC services designed to:

  • Establish what it means for teams to work collaboratively in a cycle of continuous improvement;
  • Explore the five stages of the learning team cycle;
  • Share tools and strategies for sustaining continuous learning;
  • Create a learning-focused culture that supports teachers’ continuous learning.

References

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers know best: Teachers’ views on professional development. Seattle, WA: Author. Available at http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/GatesPDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf.

Burns, D. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2014, December). Teaching around the world: What can TALIS tell us. Available at https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/publication/pubs/1295.

Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Roberts-Hull, K., & Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher professional learning in high-performing systems. Available at www.ncee.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/BeyondPDWebv2.pdf.

Jackson, C. K. & Bruegmann, E. (2009.) Teaching students and teaching each other: The importance of peer learning for teachers. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1(4), 1–33.

Leana, C. (2011, Fall). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 30–35.

MetLife, Inc. (2010, April). The 2009 MetLife survey of the American teacher: Collaborating for student success. Available at https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED509650.

Sun, M., Penuel, W.R., Frank, K.A., Gallagher, H.R., & Youngs, P. (2013).Shaping professional development to promote the diffusion of instructional expertise among teachers. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(3), 344–369.

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Learning Forward is the only professional association devoted exclusively to those who work in educator professional development. We help our members plan, implement, and measure high-quality professional learning so they can achieve success with their systems, schools, and students.