Teacher Community and Professional Learning

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.

MTBoS Challenges:

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?

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5 thoughts on “Teacher Community and Professional Learning

    • There are definitely parallels between student collaboration and teacher collaboration — but there are important differences too. For one thing, teachers define their own “problems” and develop their own tools for addressing them. For some groups, the problem is simply, “What will we teach next and at what pace?” while for others, the problem is “What will we teach next and how?” There are a lot of other differences too — I like to think about similarities and differences, but I won’t write them all here!

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  1. This post grabbed me because I can relate to the issues you raise, our school is just beginning to set up PLC structures and I very much see the benefit in collaboration that examines student thinking rather than mere planning a sequence of units. I enjoy immensely the support and connectedness of the MTBOS but agree that being in a physical space with teachers who understand school nuances is missing. I talked with some at TMC about perhaps partnering with another mtbos teacher and systematically exchanging classroom videos and then constructively discussing the class.

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  2. “It seems harder to share about the particulars of students and their thinking because those are so much more specific to people’s schools.”
    Perhaps this can be seen as an affordance of the MTBoS, in the sense that the difficulty of discussing individual students may keep collaborative conversations from devolving into anecdotal one-upsmanship and the conversation focused on more general principles of teaching.

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  3. Thanks for your post. It articulates something I’ve felt for a while but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on entirely: “planning” with colleagues so often ends up being little more than syncing up calendars and pulling out previously used lessons to copy because of time constraints. I crave discussions about how to teach lessons, so I find myself doing that kind of planning online where I can spend as much time as I need to. I’ll be making a conscious effort to steer conversations to the “how” instead of the “how long” next year. Thanks!

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