Maximizing the Impact of Teacher Collaboration

— The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

One hallmark of many high-performing schools is the success its teachers have had in creating what is known as a professional learning community. Richard DuFour (2004) characterizes professional learning communities as groups of educators who “work together to analyze and improve their classroom practice…engaging in an ongoing cycle of questions that promote deep team learning” (p. 9).

How are professional learning communities created? The answer is complex since these communities take many forms and evolve over time. One characteristic that all thriving professional learning communities have in common, however, is collaboration. Research shows that collaboration between teachers can be a powerful tool for professional development and a driver for school improvement by providing “opportunities for adults across a school system to learn and think together about how to improve their practice in ways that lead to improved student achievement” (Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 2004, p. 2).

Recognizing the value of this activity, many schools have adapted their schedules to ensure that teachers and other professionals have time to collaborate through team meetings; critical friends groups; lesson study, in which teachers collaboratively plan, observe, and analyze classroom lessons; or other professional development. A nationwide survey of more than 5,000 teachers found that 69 percent of these teachers participated in “regularly scheduled collaboration with other teachers” and 53 percent participated in a common planning period with other members of their team (Parsad, Lewis, & Farris, 2001, p. iv).

Unfortunately, school staff members sometimes find that although accommodating schedules are in place, true collaboration is more difficult than they had anticipated. Some find that the time set aside is not used productively or is not having the hoped-for impact on teaching and learning. As a result, they can become frustrated and begin seeing team meetings or common planning time as one more obligation that keeps them from doing their “real” work. This month’s newsletter addresses that issue by posing five questions that teachers can use to keep their collaboration on track so that it contributes to the growth of a professional learning community in their school.

1. Are the Conditions Right for Us to Collaborate Successfully?


Although establishing a regular time and space to meet is important, other conditions are required for individuals to work effectively as a group—and the potential roadblocks are plentiful. One roadblock relates to teacher perceptions. Some teachers prefer working alone; they might feel mistrustful of other staff members, want to protect their “territory,” or resist what they perceive as interference from outsiders (DuFour & Burnette, 2002). Although collaboration can thrive in a climate of continuous, positive, and respectful critical inquiry, some teachers mistake critical for criticism and fear that others will point out their instructional shortcomings.

A second roadblock relates to a lack of focus. Time for collaboration can be highjacked by personal conversations or by a mandate, project, or crisis that suddenly has appeared on the horizon. Negotiating these distractions can quickly consume meeting time. As authors DuFour and Burnette (2002) note, this lack of meeting focus can derail efforts to develop a learning community.

A third roadblock is that groups generally often underestimate the task of developing collaboration skills (National Staff Development Council, 2001a).

In recognition of these common problems, a good beginning step for collaborative groups is establishing standard operating procedures and written group norms. Another strategy for keeping the group focused on best practice is the use of discussion protocols. (See “Text-Based Discussion Protocol” Insert.) A discussion protocol is a tool for structuring conversations that specifies how talk time will be allotted to achieve specific aims, such as answering focus questions, presenting context, formulating clarifying or probing questions, or listening to and reflecting on feedback (The Collaborative, n.d.).

Although teachers might feel awkward using these tools at first, the benefits are substantial. Such tools formalize both the processes and the expectations of collaborative groups. They establish ground rules for participant interaction and can even accommodate potential distractions by allotting time for participants to voice concerns. They also help reassure participants that the investment of time will be worthwhile.

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