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April 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 7

Making Protocols Work

Here are some tips for guiding teams as they look collaboratively at student work.

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Student work—the things students have made, said, and done—provides revealing evidence of the quality of student learning. The information becomes even richer when teachers examine that work collaboratively—describing, analyzing, questioning, and evaluating it with colleagues.
Over the past 20 years, many schools have made such collaborative examination of student work a core practice for professional development and instructional improvement. In collaborative inquiry groups, professional learning communities, teacher study groups, faculty meetings, grade-level team meetings, and department meetings, educators regularly share and discuss student work. They do so for many reasons: to fine-tune instruction, calibrate grading or scoring of student work, develop benchmarks for student performance, understand how students learn—and sometimes, simply to share stories of the exciting, interesting, perplexing, or funny things students say and do.
As long-time researchers and facilitators of the collaborative examination of student work, we've seen how such practices strengthen teaching and deepen professional learning. Much of our work has focused on the use of protocols, which are structures to support purposeful and inclusive conversations about student work (as well as teacher work).
Protocols specify a set of steps for a group to follow. (For example, see ".") Typically, such protocol-guided discussions are facilitated by a coach, an administrator, or a teacher within the group itself. There are many collections of protocols and resources for facilitating them effectively. The School Reform Initiative offers an extensive collection.
No matter what protocol is used and who facilitates it, looking collaboratively at student work has its challenges. It can be hard to get the practice started and even harder to sustain it in a thoughtful and responsive way. Here are some of the common challenges educators have shared with us over the years.

Challenge 1. Getting It Off the Ground

I think it would be a good idea if all of us on my grade-level team shared student work from our classes at our weekly meetings. I've explained to my colleagues a few times why I think this would be beneficial, but it never seems to go anywhere. I'm just one person—what can I do?
Our advice here is simple: Push less, listen more. Trying to argue people into doing things the way you think they should be done implies that you think the way they've been doing things is wrong or unproductive—which many people find irritating at best and insulting at worst. When you feel the impulse to try to convince a group that it ought to be discussing student work, here are some alternatives you might try.
Listen more and ask more questions. Focus on understanding what the group needs. What daily issues or challenges do group members face (for instance, supporting students' questioning skills, developing common assessments, or calibrating the use of a new writing rubric)? How could collaboratively looking at student work help address these challenges? An idea proposed in response to an acknowledged problem is more likely to get a hearing.
Ask for your colleagues' help. If you are interested in getting others' perspectives on your students' work, then start with that. Find a few colleagues you think might be willing to give it a try, share your goal for looking at student work, and ask for their help: "I'm struggling with getting my students to demonstrate their problem-solving processes in math. Would you be willing to look at some samples of their work with me?" Genuinely asking for help is different from trying to convince others that you have an idea that you think they should try.
Propose an experiment. Rather than asking a group to buy in, you might invite them to try out the practice of collaboratively examining student work. You might say something like, "I'm curious about how this kind of approach might work in our group." Ask if they'd be willing to try out a protocol or two and discuss how the process might be adapted for the group's goals.
Of course, none of these approaches guarantees that your colleagues will embrace the collaborative examination of student work as an ongoing practice—but they do make it more likely that skeptical educators will give the practice a fair try.

Challenge 2. Pushing Through Initial Discomfort

We tried a couple of times to talk about student work using a protocol. It was a disaster. Maybe this approach just doesn't work for my department.
Sharing and discussing student work can be challenging for many reasons. It's a rare teacher who doesn't feel at least a little vulnerable when sharing with her colleagues the things her students have made or done. Many of us want to believe that our work as educators is highly effective, and we want our colleagues to see our strengths as professionals. So almost as soon as the student work hits the table, the stakes become much higher. In fact, we've found that teachers are typically more comfortable sharing their own lesson plans with colleagues than the student work that results from those plans.
In addition, protocols require practice. By design, protocols interrupt our conversational habits in favor of slower, more intentional, more reflective discussion. They require us to be conscious not only of what we want to say, but also of how and when we say it. For example, most of us, upon first seeing a piece of student work, immediately evaluate its quality. Although some protocols allow for such evaluation, that opportunity often comes only after a period of description or clarifying questions, meaning that we have to hold our initial responses at bay, at least for a time. This level of awareness is difficult to maintain. The default "protocol" for most of us might be called "I just want to say what I want to say when I want to say it."
It takes practice to learn to choose, modify, or create a protocol that best suits the group's purpose. Even with an appropriate protocol, the tool itself—like any craftsman's tool—requires repeated use before a group can employ it skillfully. Here are a few strategies for getting started.
Help your group prepare. If your group is new to examining student work or protocols or both, you might acknowledge at the outset that such conversations are not always easy: "We're going to try to use a specific structure to guide our discussion. This won't be like having a natural conversation. Structures like this take a little practice, so it's okay if you feel a little awkward while we go through it." For this and other reasons, it is essential not to skip the next strategy.
Debrief the conversation. Most protocols include a final step in which participants reflect on the process—what was helpful about the conversation, and what was challenging. Given the limited time usually available for examining student work, it can be tempting to skip this step in favor of spending more time on the student work itself. We recommend resisting this temptation. Only through reflecting on its process will the group become more effective in its efforts to learn from student work. Consider framing a specific debriefing question, such as, "What could we do differently, both individually and as a group, that would make this examination of student work more productive the next time?"
Acknowledge the difficulty when it emerges. Discomfort can surface in both direct and indirect ways during protocol-guided conversation. You might see a participant who seems hesitant to participate or one who becomes frustrated when his or her comments need to be redirected by the facilitator repeatedly. Occasionally, a participant will forcefully express anxiety about the experience: "I just don't get this whole 'protocol' thing—why can't we just talk?" We find that a straightforward acknowledgement often helps: "Yes, this is more challenging than having a typical conversation. Protocol-guided conversation takes some getting used to. It's normal to feel restricted by the guidelines, especially at first." You might ask participants to give the protocol a try, with the understanding that "in the debriefing, we will discuss why the protocol is structured this way, as well as ways to make it more comfortable and productive for everyone."
Hit the reset button. Occasionally, a protocol-guided discussion gets bogged down or derailed. The discussion turns into a debate about a particular instructional strategy, the presenting teacher becomes defensive, or a group member decides not to participate. A natural reaction may be to scrap the idea of using protocols—or at least this protocol. Instead, we suggest using the next meeting to revisit the group's goals for examining student work. In what ways did the previous protocol-guided conversation support those goals? In what ways did it not? What did the group learn in the course of that conversation that would be helpful moving forward? Next steps might involve trying the protocol again, after carefully reviewing its specific purpose and steps; adapting the protocol; trying another protocol; or not using a protocol at all.

Challenge 3. Getting Past a Plateau

Every couple of weeks, we make time during our PLC to discuss samples of student work using a protocol. The meetings are always engaging, but the conversations never seem to build toward anything. They feel like nice one-offs, but we don't seem to be changing what we're doing in the classroom or improving students' learning.
If the goal of examining student work is to help teachers steadily improve their capacity to understand their students more fully and to help all students achieve learning goals, then the collaborative examination of student work needs to happen regularly; however, frequency alone is not enough. If you're feeling that your ongoing efforts are meeting with only marginal success, consider some of these strategies.
Invite the group to reflect on its purposes. What do group members hope to learn from their collaborative examination of student work? What puzzles, challenges, or questions about supporting student learning do they want to understand better? (It's surprising, but groups that meet often may never actually have a discussion about why they're meeting.)
Align the protocol and student work samples with the group's goals. If the group wants to understand how to help students use more accountable talk, it needs to look at either transcripts or videos of students engaged in conversation. If the group is more interested in helping students develop critical thinking skills, it needs to look at work that has been designed to make students' thinking visible. The choice of protocol requires similar attention: Many groups default to a problem-solving protocol, such as the Tuning Protocol, when a protocol aimed at surfacing and defining concerns, such as the Collaborative Assessment Conference, might be more useful.
Bring only work that concerns you. Share work from the students you're most worried about or from the assignments that startled you with their lack of success. Of course, we can learn a lot from successful teaching and learning experiences (and there is even a protocol to help guide such a conversation—the Success Analysis Protocol). But focusing on the students who got it doesn't enable us to understand the misconceptions and struggles of students who didn't get it, or to explore alternative strategies that may reach more students.
End the meeting with a short (1–2 minute) written reflection. You can experiment with the format of this reflection. You might have participants individually write down one insight they've gathered from the conversation about student work, one question the conversation generated for them, and one way they intend to explore their question during the interval between meetings. Group members can share their thoughts aloud at the close of the meeting, or someone can compile and circulate the written reflections electronically.
Begin the next meeting with a brief review of action steps. Take a minute or two for group members to share what they had planned to try at the end of the previous meeting, what they learned from their efforts, and what new questions emerged in the course of their experimentation. Even brief reports can reveal how much professional learning is going on and how it's affecting instruction.

Challenge 4. Remembering the Real Goal

Protocols seem clunky. Can't we just look at student work without using a protocol?
Sure you can. Protocols are not the only way to have in-depth discussions about student work. (In fact, people new to this work, in their enthusiasm for how protocols can support a group's learning, sometimes overuse them.) As with every technique and strategy in education, balance is important. Having a repertoire of approaches that you alternate using from time to time is essential. Although protocols are an important part of that repertoire, they shouldn't be the only tool the group uses.
Finally, it's not the protocol itself that matters; it's the features of a professional conversation that help us achieve and sustain: focus, clarity, depth, and inclusivity. The point is not to conduct a conversation that adheres perfectly to the steps of the protocol. The point is to learn to become more effective educators by examining some of the most revealing evidence of our previous efforts—the things our students have made, said, and done.

Authors' Notes:

Additional resources on looking collaboratively at student work: Looking Together at Student Work, 3rd Edition by Tina Blythe, David Allen, & Barbara Schieffelin Powell (New York: Teachers College Press, 2015); The Facilitator's Book of Questions: Tools for Looking Together at Student and Teacher Work by David Allen and Tina Blythe (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004).
Additional resources on protocols: The Power of Protocols: An Educator's Guide to Better Practice, 3rd Edition by Joseph P. McDonald, Nancy Mohr, Alan Dichter, and Elizabeth McDonald (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013); Protocols for Professional Learning by Lois Brown Easton. (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2009).

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