Educators today face many exciting challenges: preparing students for life and careers in the 21st century and helping every student overcome obstacles and experience the joy of learning. To meet these challenges, every teacher and every administrator must work together within their schools and across schools, breaking free of their silos and collaborating. Just as principals can no longer stay in their offices, administrating behind closed doors, teachers also cannot seal themselves inside of their classrooms.
Research proves that when teachers collaborate effectively to analyze student performance, create interventions for struggling students, and continue their own professional learning, they can increase their efficacy. When principals empower teachers to do what they know is best for kids, children learn more and teachers find more satisfaction in their work. Collaboration creates a win-win-win situation for students, teachers, and administrators.
In the perfect scenario, teachers would have the necessary time to meet during the school day, several times a week. Collaboration between teachers who share responsibility for student achievement would not be considered an add-on; it would be the normal way of doing things.
The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Collaborating for Student Success (2010) examined how public school teachers and principals view collaboration and the ways that it is practiced in their schools. The survey found that "public school teachers and principals share a belief in the relationship between student success and collaborative school environments that emphasize a sense of responsibility for teachers, the principal and students themselves." The study also found that "irrespective of their role, school level, proportion of low income or minority students, or whether the school is urban, suburban or rural," teachers and principals agree that collaboration is essential to student success.
This article offers insight and resources from ASCD authors and experts to assist school leaders in building a collaborative learning environment.
Share Responsibility for Student Learning
Sharing responsibility for student success may require a paradigm shift for teachers and school leaders. Anne Conzemius and Jan O'Neill explain in their ASCD book Building Shared Responsibility for Student Learning that when educators take equal responsibility for student learning, the entire framework of teaching and learning changes. So, what does this new framework look like? First, Conzemius and O'Neill explain, educators need to create a loop of focus, reflection, and collaboration.
"Focus creates shared clarity of thought, direction, and purpose. Reflection helps people learn from what they've done in the past and identify better ways of accomplishing their goals. Collaboration brings people together to share ideas and knowledge," Conzemius and O'Neill say.
First, in order to achieve focus—clarity of thought, direction, and purpose—educators need to really know their stuff. But what does that mean? It means teachers, principals, coaches, and all staff need to be constantly learning.
In a focused learning environment, "teachers and principals would need to know the best instructional practices," Conzemius and O'Neill say. "They would have to understand the purpose, role, and value of assessments and data-gathering techniques; use wisdom, commitment, and professional expertise to set results-based goals; and use the data to inform continuous practice improvement."
Rather than chasing education fads, the authors say, principals should empower teachers to develop their competencies within their curricular areas and provide those teachers with high-quality technical resources, rigorous curriculum, and sound assessments. Staff, the authors add, would need to learn how to work collaboratively with teachers and principals to achieve the best possible results. Staff must also strive to continuously refine and improve noninstructional processes to ensure programs and systems run efficiently.
Set High Expectations
While researching schools for the ASCD book Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools, William H. Parrett and Kathleen Budge found that the successful schools had created a culture of both high expectations and collaboration.
"A toxic atmosphere of low expectations permeates everything in a low-performing school," Parrett and Budge say. "[A] mind-set of high expectations and resulting action often begins with the development of a common vision of what powerful learning looks like for all students and a verbalized belief that every student can and will achieve at high levels and experience other types of success in school."
When setting high expectations for all students, there are many important questions to consider: What do you want your students to learn and be able to do? How are you defining success in your school? And how will you work collaboratively to move every student onto the path to success?
"High expectations hold incredible power, often single-handedly determining the fine line or enormous chasm between success and failure," Parrett and Budge say. "Schools routinely serve as a broker to parcel out both types of expectations, high and low, and student success follows accordingly."
Start Building a Collaborative School
In establishing a new framework, school leaders must also confront the problems in the existing one, such as counterproductive policies, entrenched mind-sets, ineffective data gathering and management systems, and staffing and funding issues … to name just a few.
It's also important to note that creating a collaborative learning environment requires time, patience, and trust. The picture won't always appear rosy, Conzemius and O'Neill warn. "Collaboration is not easy. Every school and district has its share of the interesting 'messiness of humanity,' and sometimes this messiness can overwhelm attempts to achieve an ideal of collaborative harmony and productivity," the authors say. "Still, it's the process of trying to work together that enables stakeholders to build a strong foundation of collaboration and learning."
And, of course, there will always be more questions: What is your school's new mission? What are your values? What is your vision? What discrepancies currently exist in leadership, instructional strategies, and content knowledge that will hold the team back from being successful? How does the day need to be restructured to fit a new collaborative framework? And, most importantly, what do you expect from every teacher, every student, every parent, and the principal?
Take the time to make the time for collaboration. Through effective collaboration, educators and students will all achieve higher levels of success.
ASCD Tools for Collaboration
Now that you're ready to create space and time for collaboration in your school, what's the best way to get started? Here are just a few of the ASCD resources that can help your school create a collaborative learning environment. For more information, go to www.ascd.org.
- Building Teachers' Capacity for Success: A Collaborative Approach for Coaches and School Leaders, by Peter A. Hall and Alisa Simeral, offers advice from a principal and instructional coach and looks at ways to identify teachers' strengths, maximize their potential, and build their capacity in order to increase student achievement.
- Connecting Teachers, Students, and Standards: Strategies for Success in Diverse and Inclusive Classrooms, by Michele J. Sims, Deborah L. Voltz, and Catherine Nelson. Learn how to work collaboratively to teach a standard-based curriculum to English language learners, students from culturally diverse backgrounds, or students with disabilities.
- Creating Dynamic Schools Through Mentoring, Coaching, and Collaboration, by Judy F. Carr, Douglas E. Harris, and Nancy Herman, addresses ways of creating a collaborative school environment and promoting and sustaining shared leadership that focuses everyone on mutually agreed-upon goals.
- Improving Teaching with Collaborative Action Research: An ASCD Action Tool, by Diane Cunningham, will help you move your Professional Learning Community (PLC) to the next level. This tool explains how your PLC can use collaborative action research to unearth the root causes of issues and plan corrective actions while fostering ongoing and collaborative teacher staff development.
- The Professional Learning Community Series: This series features three books to help you establish a PLC and keep the group focused, on-track, and moving forward. The series includes Exploring Differentiated Instruction by Cindy A. Strickland, Exploring Formative Assessment by Susan M. Brookhart, and Protocols for Professional Learning by Lois Brown Easton.
- Strengthening and Enriching Your Professional Learning Community: The Art of Learning Together, by Renate N. Caine and Geoffrey Caine, explains how to use the Process Learning Circle method to ensure your professional learning community advances the type of teacher learning that is essential to improving student achievement.
Videos and Courses
- Examining Student Work demonstrates how educators can use actual student work as data to build a rich picture of student learning, improve classroom instruction, and increase the rigor of teaching assignments.
- Schools as Professional Learning Communities: An Introduction: This six-lesson online course investigates how school leaders communicate and collaborate with all stakeholders to promote the vision of improved student learning through the use of professional learning communities.
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