“We have collaborative time for teachers in our school!”
As school leaders, we can often tout the presence of embedded time for teachers to collaborate during the school day or week as a means to improving instructional practices in our classrooms. As a former Principal of a model PLC school, I would often reference the collaborative time (in addition to professional learning days and staff meetings) when asked about the actions I was taking as a school leader to support teacher learning. For me, a “Field of Dreams’-like mantra of “If you build it, they will come.” was a significant driver to create the structures we had to for teacher learning in our school.
However, there was a flaw with my thinking. While it might seem obvious after the fact, when I was in the throes of going through the extensive process to make this time come to fruition--discussing the idea with our in-school and external partners, creating prototype models, diving into the research, making presentations to parents and to the school board, etc--I made a major assumption, one that is often made in K-12 education.
I assumed that ‘action’ would mean ‘impact’.
Once all of the approvals for embedded collaboration time went through, we were anxious to get started, and the first few weeks of collaborative time were exciting. Teacher teams (facilitated by their teacher team leader) developed norms for their meetings. They began to look at their course content to determine essential outcomes. They were reporting out on the activities that were taking place during their collaborative blocks. The teams were rolling!
But as weeks turned to months, I began to notice something: people were still working on essentializing their curriculum. And because people began to disagree on what was ‘essential’, and soon more things became essential. And in some cases everything seemed to be essential, or what was essential for one teacher was different than what was essential for another teacher. And after more deliberation on essential outcomes, while there was a bit of chat about common assessments, trying to get everyone to agree on what needed to be assessed and the best mechanism to do it was even more of a challenge. Not to mention, the teachers leading the collaborative meetings reported that they were struggling. that conversations were beginning to ‘wander’: report cards, the upcoming honor assembly, next year’s timetable, writing the school plan and other day-to-day operations began to seep into our precious collaboration time. One of the teacher leaders even reported that one of their team members had asked if they could collaborate alone!
The time that we had carved out for teacher learning began to look less and less like teacher learning.
Not long after that, one of my supervisors came to me and asked a very direct and very reasonable question. They asked “So what has been the impact of teacher collaboration on teacher learning?”.
That was not a comfortable conversation because I didn’t really have much of a definitive answer. I could point to some of the activities that our teacher teams had done during their collaborative meetings, but in terms of impact on teacher learning? Well, not so much. A lot of action, but not much impact.
I believe that this is a common problem across North America when it comes to collaborative time. Districts in the United States and Canada have spent millions (yes, millions) of dollars investing in embedded collaborative time and in-servicing on being a collaborative team. Yet if we were to do a cost-benefit analysis in terms of time, resources, and effort in versus impact, I believe that we would come out woefully short on our return on investment. (I qualify this proclamation knowing that there are exceptions--places where collaborative time has actually led to meaningful changes to pedagogy and practice. But if we were to ask the average teacher, school, or district about the frequency of effective collaboration and its impact on teacher learning, much like the Gates Foundation found in 2014, the prevailing feelings would be less than positive).
But what would impactful collaboration look like? The research supports a number elements:
The Learning Sprints model has three phases:
And to me, Learning Sprints get us to impact. Teachers working together on outcomes that are important for students to learn but that are difficult to teach, and reflecting on whether they actually make a difference where it matters: to student AND teacher learning in the classroom. And that is why it is no surprise to me that Sprints are taking flight in Australia, Asia, Western Canada, and now the United States: Learning Sprints is the future of embedded collaboration for educators.
As school leaders, we often believe that the best thing to do is “Take action!”. And while action IS important, we must constantly remind ourselves that the goal of any action is not the action itself, but rather the IMPACT of that action on those that we serve in our schools, our students AND our educators.
from the desk of an educator:
It's education: there is no more time, but we DO have time. There is no more money, but we DO have money. So let's put the learner at the center, and conduct ourselves accordingly.