One of the things I study is how teachers learn with colleagues. I focus primarily on urban secondary math teachers. I basically film people working together and analyze it to death. I am interested in this because teacher collaboration is repeatedly shown to support both teacher learning and student achievement, so I am curious about why.
First things first. Strong collaboration is very rare. Very few high school teachers report even simply sharing ideas with colleagues. Productive collaboration goes beyond just sharing ideas or resources into what I have called collaborative pedagogical problem solving. This is really unusual but super cool when I get to see it.
I want to make two points about what I have observed, and then pose some questions to the #MTBoS .
Observation 1: Effective collaboration is hard.
There are a number of challenges to effective collaboration. First of all, it takes an investment of time, energy, and emotional commitment. These are scarce resources, particularly in high turnover schools. Teachers face a lot of structural obstacles to collaborative learning. The typical 50 minutes of daily planning time, for instance, is already overfull with the demands of grading, planning, and home communication.
Second, it’s hard to talk about instruction with colleagues. When teachers talk about instruction, this is almost always asynchronous from the active work of instruction. Unlike scientists, who have standardized ways of representing what happened in the laboratory, teachers do not have standardized ways of representing what happened in a lesson. We can use things like student work, but then we do not have standard ways of interpreting these. Some teachers will look at student work with a right/wrong lens, while others will want to understand a students’ thinking.
At the same time, one of the advantages of working in a school-based teacher community is that your colleagues are close by: they know your administrators, they know your community, they know your students. You don’t have to explain those things to them, which makes the description part of sharing a little easier.
Observation 2: Typical teacher collaborative talk does not support deep professional learning. When I have analyzed the learning opportunities in teachers’ conversations, I have looked at two things:
(1) what conceptual resources are being developed as teachers talk about instructional problems, and
(2) how are these connected to their future work.
Most teacher collaborative talk does not offer much in the way of professional learning.
For example, most teachers plan together by organizing a pacing calendar. They will say things like, “The book says 7.1 will take 1 day, but with our kids we’ll need 2.”
In this case, the opportunities to learn are thin. We don’t know what the math content is, we don’t know why we need two days, and we don’t know how that extra time will be used.
In contrast, if teachers plan by building on students’ thinking, their talk may sound different. They will say things like, “Our kids freeze when we do fractions. Let’s just focus on these problems as rates of change. We can show them on the graph how this is change over time, like, “for every 5 seconds, the car moves 10 feet.'”
In this case, concepts are developed about who the students are, what their experiences of math are, and what instruction might look like to keep them engaged and develop their mathematical understanding. These concepts are directly linked to what the teachers will do next in their classrooms.
Regarding Observation 1: In some ways, the bloggy/tweety teachers have overcome some of the limitations of school-based teacher community by finding like-minded folks online. They have found their kindred spirits to share with. This is awesome and overcomes some of the limitations of traditional collaboration. Also, the MTBoS are typically tech savvy. I have been impressed with the ways they manage to represent their classrooms through samples of student work, lesson plans, photos of their classrooms with kids doing things. But, other details of our teaching situations –– the tetchy administrator, the new curriculum policy –– are not as readily available.
Is this an issue? How much does this limit what teachers can learn together online?
Regarding Observation 2: I have seen so many impressive exchanges among teachers in the MTBoS. Most of these have focused on dissecting mathematical content, sharing rich activities, and refining instructional language. It seems harder to share about the particulars of students and their thinking because those are so much more specific to people’s schools.
Is it possible to hit the sweet spot of professional learning –– to develop concepts about the interrelationships among students, teaching, and mathematics –– through online interactions?