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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

Study Groups Foster Schoolwide Learning

Professional study groups take us back to the basics of learning. As faculties assume responsibility for their own learning, that of their colleagues, and, most important, that of their students, they will transform the culture of their schools.

Upon entering a 1st grade classroom and seeing that the adult leading the discussion was not the teacher, I asked a student where might I find her teacher. The youngster replied, “She is studying.” Of course, I knew the teacher was with her study group, but I was curious as to how the student perceived the absence. It is this child's view of her teacher—as an active learner—that will demonstrate to her that learning and serious study with peers is continuous—from childhood throughout adulthood.
Organizing teachers into small groups to promote collegial interchange and action is not a new idea. However, organizing entire faculties into study teams to bring about school improvement is unusual. Study groups have been a dominant feature of school improvement in the Richmond County Public Schools in Augusta, Georgia, since 1987. In the spring of that year, the district initiated a whole-school staff development effort—the Models of Teaching program—to train teachers in several new teaching strategies.
Since then, study groups have become a chief vehicle for follow-up and support in many of the district's 54 schools. My experience in organizing, facilitating, and observing many such groups has taught me valuable lessons about organizing whole faculties into groups for continuous study.

Why Study Groups Are Needed

Why should educators spend some professional time in study groups? I see three major functions. Study groups help us implement curricular and instructional innovations, collaboratively plan school improvement, and study research on teaching and learning.
Our individual abilities to understand and use new curricular and instructional ideas vary considerably, depending on personal values and beliefs as well as prior experience. Current studies tell us that only about 10 percent of teachers trained to use a new procedure actually use it in their classrooms. Study groups provide a regular collaborative environment for teachers of varying backgrounds, knowledge, and skills. Such settings enable teachers to help one another use new learning appropriately.
The second purpose—studying how to make the school better—involves altering the workplace so that students can learn more effectively. Schools get better as the adults in the building develop a shared understanding of good teaching and learning. As the workplace becomes more congenial, it is easier not only to put improvement initiatives in place but also to better focus, articulate, and integrate them. For example, teachers who study how to assess writing progress examine the writing of their students and then reflect on that information so they will be more prepared for the next round of implementation.
Another aspect of improving the school through study groups is to use them as the organizational mechanism for restructuring the school. In the Models of Teaching schools in our district, study group leaders, with other key leaders, make up the school's Instructional Council. The council meets monthly to examine staff development needs and to determine the school's progress toward attaining its goals. In this way, the study groups and the council become a framework to restructure the problem-solving, goal-setting, and decision-making processes.
Educational research is increasingly focusing on school-related problems and what constitutes effective schools and teaching. A third important function of study groups is to increase contact with that data base and with innovations developed in the United States and abroad. As teachers become more objective about teaching and learning practices, they counter the isolation of their profession. In addition to exploring what other districts are discovering about school improvement, teachers should be actively collecting and analyzing the data from their own classrooms and schools. Action research conducted by groups of teachers is a powerful force for setting improvement targets and measuring student outcomes.
If we learn to work together through study groups to accomplish these three purposes, a number of good things should follow. First, as we get to know one another better as teachers and borrow from one another's storehouses of ideas and practices, we will become more cohesive as faculties and better able to work together to improve our schools. And, as individuals, we will be empowered by our new knowledge as we work with children and parents.

How to Organize Study Groups

When forming study groups, we have found that groups of six or fewer individuals function best. In larger gatherings, it is easy for some individuals to stay uninvolved and for cliques of two or three to “splinter off.” The groups may be homogeneous (by grade level) or heterogeneous, depending on the six people who are available at the same time. I have seen cross-grade study groups that are just as effective as grade-level study groups. Because the individuals are not as familiar with one another, they are more likely to stay away from administrative trivia and not delay commitments.
When should study groups meet? The highest indicator of a district's commitment to the ongoing study of teaching is reflected in when groups meet. If top district-level administrators view study groups as a critical element in school improvement, then the district will provide time within the school day. For example, after consulting with the community, one district in the Midwest decided to keep students one half-hour later every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and release them two hours earlier on Wednesday. During the two-hour block of time on Wednesdays, study groups meet in every school throughout the district.
In our district, meeting times for study groups is a site-based decision. In elementary schools, where there are no planning periods, teachers who can be freed up at a given time through the music, art, media, and physical education programs may regularly get together. In addition, teaching assistants (if available), parents, and business “adopters” may relieve teachers in classrooms while they are “out-to-learn.”
In middle schools, where our teachers do have a set planning period each day, study groups are usually scheduled for all or part of one planning period each week. Teachers traditionally plan in isolation or in pairs, or the planning period is spent calling parents or tending to other administrative tasks. The study group time is distinguishable in that the focus is clearly on “how I am doing as a teacher.”
In secondary schools, using a planning period for study groups has not worked well—probably because those having the same planning period are from differing content areas. So, in the one high school where study groups (called “quality circles” at this school) are in place, the teachers meet either before or after school. However, the decision is theirs, and the district has not allocated funds to release or pay teachers for study group time, leaving the mechanism to be worked out at the school level.
Where do study groups meet? Anywhere and everywhere. No special arrangements are necessary. I have seen groups meeting in an empty classroom, the media center, the faculty lounge, the school courtyard, and even a hallway. Teachers meeting in study groups are encouraged to tell their students what they are doing, so that students understand the significance of the groups. Students realize that serious study with peers is a lifelong endeavor.
Outside the school, study groups can meet in homes, restaurants, college libraries, and at the chamber of commerce or other community/business sites.

How Study Groups Operate

Establishing and keeping a regular schedule is critical to the success of study groups. Meeting once a week for about an hour is recommended. I have not seen strong evidence that groups need to be trained as groups nor that study group leaders need to be trained. Study group leaders are informal leaders, and leadership is easily rotated among members. All members have equal status. The absence of hierarchical overtones reinforces the equality of ideas and develops a greater sense of individual responsibility for the whole.
Study group leaders are the chief communicators with persons outside the group. After each meeting, the leader completes a log stating who was present and what was discussed. The log informs the principal or staff development consultant about specific types of support and resources that are needed (Murphy 1991a). The weekly logs also alert the leadership team to groups that may need extra attention.
While the content of study is a decision of the entire faculty, each group should decide its own focus. For example, if the faculty decides to study the teaching of language, one group may choose to focus on using computers to teach language skills. The choice of content is often essential to the long-term success of the group. The content gives direction and focus to the “teacher talk,” grounding it in the day-to-day world of practice.
Whatever it is, the content needs to be substantive enough to solidify the group while individuals are learning to work together and develop trust. The content takes the focus off the individual, and it is the content that will lead the group to an atmosphere of collegiality and support. For example, in Richmond County, teachers in a K–5 school decided to teach all the students about the 40 presidents. The presidents were divided equally among the study groups, and each group developed mnemonics for teaching the presidents in consecutive order. Eventually, teachers compiled a booklet containing all the mnemonics. Not only did this activity provide a powerful activity for collegial “joint work” (Little 1990), but it also unified the study groups as they were learning to work together.
While the original focus of our district's study groups was the Models of Teaching program, over time, other innovations have been introduced into the study groups. It is important that teachers consolidate new and ongoing initiatives so as not to isolate them from one another.
For example, when we purchased math manipulatives for the schools, the question was: How can we develop lessons using math manipulatives with each of the strategies we are learning: Teach a concept attainment lesson with shapes? An inductive lesson with fractions? A mnemonics lesson with vocabulary? And, all within a cooperative learning setting? Now, as whole language becomes a focus, the study groups again ask key instructional questions.
Study groups are self-evaluative in that the level of use of the innovation in the classroom is the desired outcome. Self-report logs of meetings are useful, but only from the standpoint of charting the group's growing level of confidence in its use of new practices and to inform outsiders to the group what support and resources may be needed.

Some Lessons Learned

As a district leader who has observed many study groups in action over the past five years and who has been a member of a study group, I have learned a number of lessons.
First, for study groups to achieve the above purposes, participation should not be voluntary. It is not optional that student learning improve and that schools get better. Volunteerism supports individual, not organizational, development. I understand that there is a fine line between individual rights and the rights of the organization. While I support the individual in selecting development activities that meet personal needs, those individual rights should not hinder the organization's progress. The course that individual professional development follows may be in conjunction with the study group or entirely separate.
In Richmond County, when a school is given the option of adopting the Models of Teaching program as its vehicle for improvement—and 80 percent of the faculty agree to such a design—then all certificated staff members, including administrators, are expected to join a study group. Initial indifference and even opposition can be turned around when the meetings satisfy a need and members are given ongoing, high-quality, meaningful assistance.
Second, district-level leaders play a critical role in facilitating school change. The superintendent and other leaders establish the climate that enables study groups to be a powerful force for “reculturing” and restructuring at the district and the school levels. Expectations must be clear and structural changes made to provide the time for study groups to meet. At the least, until district-level adjustments can be made, the superintendent must convey that he or she is open to letting schools decide how study groups will function. Without visible support from top district administrators, study groups will have a very short life.
A lesson not newly learned, but certainly reinforced, is that consistent, supportive leadership at the school level is necessary for study groups to fulfill their purposes. Active participation by the principal clearly communicates the importance of study groups and underscores Fullan's (1991) assessment that key leaders set the conditions for continuation of a new practice.
For example, in Richmond County, during the 1990–91 school year, all district administrators and principals were organized into study groups (Murphy 1991b). The superintendent announced that the groups would meet at least once every two weeks, was a visible member of his own group, and was a vocal supporter of study groups. That year, all the groups functioned productively. The following year, the superintendent made study groups voluntary, and it was not clear that top-level leaders would continue as members of a study group. To my knowledge, not one study group formed from the 117 administrators. I do not believe that the superintendent felt any less strongly about the need for collegial study. Rather, we underestimated the powerful influence of personal modeling by top-level leaders, which would have provided the pressure still needed as the meeting of administrators in study groups was struggling to be legitimized. In their studies of the long-term success of 45 innovative programs, Huberman and Miles (1986) concluded that educational leaders should not think that even effective innovations will automatically lock themselves into the existing culture without ongoing pressure and support.
An insight that came early on was contradictory to my assumption that teachers would eagerly jump at the opportunity to meet regularly with colleagues to focus on their own new learnings and that of their students. I was not prepared for the resistance. Teachers accustomed to following instructional materials closely and “letting the textbook do the planning” sometimes found that thinking through lessons was onerous work. Some felt that asking for help was a sign of weakness. A few wondered whether colleagues were a legitimate source of help and were not sure that their colleagues knew enough. Whereas isolation leads to passivity, collegial work often leads to conflict and confusion. However, these feelings can be overcome and resolved as teachers focus on the content, becoming more skillful in their use of the innovation, collaborating on school improvement, and tracking student progress.
I have also learned that staff development is itself an innovation—if practiced as the current literature describes. The time and energy it requires, the changing belief systems it demands, and the necessity for forming study groups make staff development a bundle of innovations. As we consider what Fullan calls second-order changes—those that alter roles and relationships—we view staff development as organizational development (Murphy 1991c). When teachers are organized into study groups to explore a new teaching strategy, the process of study groups is as much of an innovation as is the content.

A New Culture of Learning

Organizing the workplace for the continuous study of teaching and curriculum is not for the fainthearted. Bruce Joyce recently put it into perspective when he said, “Efforts to change the culture of the school ... require a magnitude of change in behavior and norms far more complex than we can presently imagine. Focusing directly on attempts to change the culture by involving all personnel in the study of change may cause educators to gradually `work their way into' a new culture.”
Study groups offer a structure that brings everybody back to the basics of being a learner, of taking responsibility for our own learning, the learning of our colleagues, and the learning of those for whom we are responsible. Students are the common denominator of study groups: What are students learning? How are they learning? How can classrooms be more engaging for them? By becoming learners again, we will work our way into that new culture. Because study groups are changing “the way we do things around here,” I believe it is “reculturing” through study groups that will focus “restructuring” on instruction.

Fullan, M., with S. Steigelbauer. (1991). The New Meaning of Educational Change. New York: Teachers College Press.

Huberman, M., and M. Miles. (1986). “Rethinking the Quest for School Improvement: Some Findings from the DESSI Study.” In Rethinking School Improvement, edited by A. Lieberman. New York: Teachers College Press.

Joyce, B., C. Murphy, B. Showers, and J. Murphy. (November 1989). “School Renewal as Cultural Change,” Educational Leadership 47: 70–77.

Little, J. W. (1990). “The Persistence of Privacy: Autonomy and Initiative in Teachers' Professional Relations.” Teachers College Record 91, 4: 509–536.

Murphy, C. (October 1991b). “Changing Organizational Culture Through Administrative Study Groups.” The Developer. Oxford, Ohio: The National Staff Development Council.

Murphy, C. (1991a). “The Development of a Training Cadre.” The Journal of Staff Development 12, 3: 21–24.

Murphy, C. (1991c). “Lessons from a Journey into Change.” Educational Leadership 48, 8: 63–67.

Carlene Murphy has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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