Weaving a tapestry of connections

I have been reading articles in JSD’s April 2o11 edition devoted to professional learning journeys of teachers, schools, and districts.  I want to share a summary of what I have learned from these readings, which will in no way be news to most readers of educational literature.

It is no secret that many teachers crave to work in a school environment that supports collaboration with other teachers.  We also know from Richard Dufour and Robert Eaker’s work, Professional Learning Communities at Work, that teachers collaborating about student learning and assessment is one of the most effective ways to enhance student achievement.  Many schools have adopted their theories and practices, and as a result, have transformed the learning culture of their schools.  Check out the website, All Things PLC, for more information and resources on PLCs.

Solon City Schools (see Solon City Schools website) in Ohio instituted two types of collaborative programs to support teachers learning side-by-side: (1) classroom visits; and (2) grade-level meetings.  (See the article, 2 Lanes to Leadership: Classroom Visits and Grade level Meetings Build Teacher Capacity).  Classroom visits occur four times a year across the school district.  A team of teachers, principals, and district leaders spend a half-day observing classes at one of the schools.  They will watch model lessons, share their observations in group discussions, and meet with observed teachers for a debriefing.  The visits are designed to be instructional not evaluative.  Regular grade-level meetings where part of a strategy to shift professional development from district-based to building-based.  Teacher leaders plan agendas for grade level meetings.  I thought the structure of the meeting was quite interesting.  First, focus on deepening each teacher’s content knowledge through reading, discussing and reflecting on an educational issue.  Second, their focus shifted to analyzing student achievement data and identifying learning problems.  Once these learning problems were identified and discussed, they were able to construct new ways to teach the concept, assess student learning, and improve student achievement.

“This collaboration fostered shared leadership as team members realized that they each had specialized content knowledge and instructional strategies to share, which in turn built interdependence.”

These two professional development strategies have resulted in the school district rising to one of the top two districts out of 611 in Ohio.  Quite an accomplishment!

The hallmark of the work in Solon City Schools is about encouraging, supporting, and maintaining a strong culture of collaboration.  A unique aspect to their approach is the desire to develop teacher leaders throughout the district.  Teachers lead grade-level teams, a building teacher leader coordinates classroom visits, and teacher leaders act as instructional coaches.  The professional development initiatives are school-specific and ongoing.  As Assistant Superintendent Debbie Siegel says,

“For us, it is about all children having access to high-quality instruction every day.  Such a commitment is monumental and requires synchronized efforts and resources.  We needed to build a culture of shared leadership and collaboration in order to realize our goal (italics mine).

The second article, The Way Up, Down Under: Innovations Shape Learning at Science and Math School, focused on the efforts of a school to transform the way students learn science, math, technology, and engineering.  The school is Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS), a joint venture between South Australian Department of Education and Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

Established in 2002, the purpose-built facility on the grounds of Flinders University is designed to promote and support highly collaborative, interactive student-directed learning within an innovative curriculum.

The title of my blog post comes from a question raised in the article.  This question was the driving force behind how teachers and professors at ASMS approach their examination of teaching practice.  They developed an interdisciplinary team model illustrated below:

Interdisciplinary Team Model

Teachers and professors were focused on what good teaching meant and looked like in the classroom, especially as it related to helping students become successful learners in the 21st Century.  Teams spend a good deal of collaborative time working on planning, developing, and teaching interdisciplinary central studies curriculum.  Students schedules were redesigned so they had extended classroom sessions on themes like sustainability or biotechnology.  University academics supported the central studies learning team during its weekly meetings.

Creative endeavour and innovation emerges when people interact, share ideas, argue points of view, challenge orthodoxy, and shape each other’s thinking. (page 34).

Can we say that we promote this type of learning environment for teachers in our schools?  Here is how the principal of ASMS defines their school’s professional learning culture,

“It’s crtical that the school as a whole maintains a high profile and professional learning approach, a learning culture that is articulated frequently by its leaders, and that these leaders show that they value learning in everything that they do, and that not engaging is unacceptable as a professional.”

As you can see, ASMS takes a very serious and intentional approach to creating a highly organized collaborative culture that directly impacts curriculum development and student achievement.

Lastly, significant efforts to organize a collaborative culture are underway among teachers in The Westminster Schools’ Junior High, where almost 50% of the faculty are members of professional learning teams (PLTs).  The PLTs are organized by discipline and meet 3-4 times each week to work on learning targets, assessments, and teaching strategies.  Each PLT is led by a teacher leader who facilitates the work of the team.  Some PLTs (math and science) will have joint meetings that focus on topics of mutual interest.  Finally, the facilitators of the different PLTs meet regularly with the principal, Bo Adams, and another faculty member, Jill Gough, who serves as a co-facilitator of the group.  Bo and Jill offer summer workshops on building professional learning teams in schools as part of the Center for Teaching’s Summer Institute.  If you read Bo Adam’s blog posts on PLCs you will learn more about the work and how his faculty are collaborating to improve teaching practice, as well as student achievement.

There is no new realization that comes from these two articles or from the work at Westminster, except that if we can improve the culture of collaboration among faculty in a school we have a significant chance of improving student achievement.  “What did I do to help students learn?”  If  we (teachers) are willing to take risks, learn new ways of teaching our students, and collaborate as we try to solve problems of practice, then we will transform our schools into exciting places to learn.

See other CFT blog posts on problem-solving (Problem Solving in the 21st Century) and faculty professional development (What Can Teachers Do for Professional Development and Professional Development Meeting 21st Century Needs).