Want to give a “no excuses” reformer a stroke? Suggest that teachers working together on a daily basis have a better shot at improving teaching and learning than the highly marketed structural changes of standards-based testing and accountability, Common Core standards, more charter schools, and evaluating educator performance through student scores.
Too many reform-driven policymakers high on the rhetoric of these current reforms ignore how much improvement in teaching and learning can occur when teachers work collectively in their classrooms and schools to improve their content knowledge and teaching skills aimed at common district goals.
For many years, teachers, administrators, researchers, and a sprinkling of policymakers have concentrated on both traditional and innovative professional development and learning communities to build teachers’ capacities in knowledge of subject and teaching skills to improve instruction in schools and districts. Such school-based efforts converge on the teacher simply because within the complex system of schooling the teacher-student relationship is fundamental to student learning and that relationship is forged initially in the classroom.
Let me be clear about what I mean by “improve instruction” through professional development and learning communities. In my blog and other writings, I have described frequent efforts of reform-driven academics and policymakers to shift the dominant teacher-centered pedagogy (e.g., delivering more knowledge and skills to students, bound to texts, homework, teacher telling, etc.) to a more student-centered one (e.g., big ideas tied to multi-theme curricula, project-based learning, focus on student decision-making and problem solving). For many top-down reformers (except for those pushing online instruction), “improve” means shifting teacher-centered to student-centered instruction . The assumption being that such pedagogies will engage students and get them to manage their learning better than when directed wholly by teachers and textbooks. In doing so, goals of independent thinking and life-long learning will be achieved.
For the most part, these top-down efforts through new and renovated structures such as charter schools, technologies, and accountability harnessed to testing regimes have failed to substantially change teaching practices. Individually and collectively, teachers have, of course, made changes by creating hybrids of teacher- and student-centered instruction. As practical professionals working in the complex environment of the classroom, a broad repertoire of teaching activities and tasks has a better chance of working on diverse student motivations, interests, and aptitudes than any doctrinaire pedagogy.
Professional development and learning communities are, of course, structures. They do differ, however, in design, adaptability, and focus on teachers and teaching than those structures and programs that policymakers have copied from the private sector (e.g., Total Quality Management, competency-based standards, Management by Objectives, accountability and testing). These borrowed structures have been inadequate in coping with interdependent, unpredictable complex school systems especially in changing substantially what occurs in classrooms. But structures designed and aimed at working with individuals and groups of teachers in schools through professional development—often awful, sometimes practical, and occasionally inspirational–have existed for decades.
What promises to increase the worth of district-wide professional development, especially if based within schools and involving teachers in the planning, are those efforts concentrating on prevailing beliefs among teachers about teaching and how students learn, current norms in the school community, and classroom practices. When teachers work together to examine student work and analyze classroom lessons, they figure out collectively what works and doesn’t work and they build a culture of learning across grade levels in elementary schools and within departments in secondary schools. They build trusting relationships with peers and learn from one another —a scarce resource because isolation is endemic across age-graded schools. The resulting pedagogical capital blends ambitious lessons and traditional ones of teacher- and student-centered practices, rather than a single one-best way of teaching. Such hybrids of teaching, working within adaptable structures of professional development and site-based learning communities, are tailored for complex, web-like systems like schools.
When teachers collaborate within schools and districts, they create and sustain climates that support “good” and “successful” teaching drawn from different pedagogies. Such collaboration comes far closer to achieving “good” student learning than big-ticket structural reforms such as funding, authorizing charter schools, mayoral control of schools, accountability and testing, and new curricula. Whether such sustained collaboration and creation of these communities in schools can significantly change routine practices and produce gains in student achievement has yet to emerge clearly. Yet even without clear evidence that such communities of practice are successful by current metrics, supporting teachers to figure out together what works best with their students—rather than error-prone policymakers directing their efforts to “improve practice”—remains worthwhile in building their capacities while forging strong relationships with students (see PDF research.vescio_ross_adams )
Hard as it is to create and sustain such communities within schools, a few examples would help. In some elementary and secondary schools, teachers come together voluntarily to determine how and what their students are learning. They analyze common problems that arise in lessons and teaching district curriculum standards; they observe one another and see how colleagues use blends of old and new practices; they build trust, cooperate, and focus on instructional improvement. They try out activities and lessons a peer used. They create a culture of learning.
The work of Fred Newmann, Rick DuFour, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert, Anthony Bryk, Judith Little (Little_et_al_2003), and many others profile elementary grade-level teams and secondary academic departments sprouting slowly into school-based learning communities. From “Hancock” elementary school in Chicago to Boones Mill elementary school in rural Virginia, from Aragon high school’s social science department in San Mateo (CA) to Lakeside Southwest (WA) high school’s science department, teachers forged teams over time that trusted one another as they worked together on instructional improvement. 1
At Aragon high school in San Mateo, CA, for example, the social studies department for the past 50 years has had three department heads. Don Hill headed the Aragon social studies department for over 20 years since the early-1960s. He helped to create the norms and climate that fostered social studies teachers to become a “learning community.” Lee Swenson, a teacher in the department since the late-1960s, succeeded Hill when he left Aragon for a subsequent career in service learning. Swenson served as department chair for 20 years before retiring. Cristina Trujillo, who apprenticed with Swenson as a student-teacher and then taught in the department is now department head.
Lee Swenson told an interviewer: “[T]eachers in the social studies …department … share an office, which becomes a central gathering place. During lunch each day, anywhere from 15 to 25 teachers show up and swap ideas about lesson plans, tests and classroom management.” Swenson says teachers … are so close that a group of 20, including spouses, took a ski trip. “That’s a missing ingredient for a lot of teachers. It makes you want to go to school, and not just for students,” he says. 2
In such communities, teachers agree to disagree. They trade techniques and lessons. Teacher beliefs shift. Teaching practices change. Teacher isolation and insulation from one another—the effects of age-graded school structures–bit by bit disappear. And some of these learning communities had sufficient continuity in teacher and principal leadership to have lasted for decades.
1. “Hancock” Elementary is a pseudonym for a Chicago school. See Anthony Bryk, et. al., Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (Chicago:University of Chicago Press,2010); Richard DuFour writes about Boones Mill elementary school in: “What Is a Professional Learning Community?” Educational Leadership, 2004, 61(8), pp. 6-11; For Lakeside Southwest high school’s science department, see Douglas Larkin, Scott Seyforth, and Holly Lasky, “Implementing and Sustaining Science Curriculum Reform: A Study of Leadership among Teachers within a High School Science Department,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2009, 46(7), pp. 813-835;
2. Don Hill, “The Strong Department: Building the Department as Learning Community,” in Leslie Siskin and Judith Little (Eds.) The Subject in Question: Departmental Organization and the High School (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995), pp. 123-140; I have listened to and spoken with the above teachers for the past 25 years. I team taught a university curriculum and instruction course with Swenson for a decade. Quote from Swenson comes from Christine Foster, “Why Teach? Stanford Magazine, September/October 2001 at: http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2001/sepoct/features/whyteach.html