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Effective Teacher Collaboration

A research summary by Cordelia Myers, December 2021

“The fact that we must collaborate is no longer contentious … even if it is sometimes challenging to implement … professional collaboration and building social capital … improves student learning” (Hargreaves, 2018, p2). Accepting this premise, I am going to focus on types of effective collaboration and the characteristics of a school culture necessary for effective collaboration.


In Singapore, teachers engage regularly with collaborative PD. Their focus is primarily on collaborating over a research task. This may be within their own classrooms or in studying research. “Today teachers work in teams, they grow together, they research together, they work together” (Building Bridges, 2018). There can be little doubt that the PD undertaken in Singapore is highly effective.

Hargreaves (2018) suggests three effective forms of collaboration. Firstly, he promotes professional learning communities (PLCs).  Bolam et al.’s (2005) paper on PLCs is based on a literature review, questionnaires and case studies and presents a strong case for PLCs.  It indicates these communities have a positive impact on student learning and are a potential structure for sustainable teacher growth. An aspect of PLCs that is powerful is they can be across schools (as well as within) and therefore have wider impact. Given the research around improved teacher retention and well-being that results from collaboration, this can have a system-wide influence. This implies that our work, through the Cambridge Maths Hub, has the potential to impact not just maths teaching but wider school culture. We are beginning to see evidence of this.

Hargreaves’ second suggestion is lesson study. Lesson study is highly regarded and used widely in East Asia. For many teachers it is a normal part of their work. Although an EEF report (2017) shows no impact, EEF acknowledges their findings are of limited value (for example, it was only trialled in two year groups). Its impact for many teachers has been so significant that we cannot dismiss it lightly.

The third suggestion is forming a network. In my experience, many teachers in England never have the opportunity to engage in professional discussion with a teacher outside their own school. In our region’s small primary schools where there might be only four teachers, collaboration is essential for learning and challenge. I have observed how powerful this is; teachers grow professionally within their existing context improving student outcomes and staff retention.

Hattie’s (2015) research, based on extensive studies of teachers, indicates “teachers working together as evaluators of impact” having a significant effect on student learning (effect size 0.93, average 0.4). Hattie states this focus is critical for meaningful learning (p32). While I understand that is important, there is also a place for other forms of collaboration (of which he seems to be quite dismissive, including PLCs) for example subject knowledge. It is impossible to assess impact if a teacher is unaware of the misconceptions that their teaching may have generated. Asking students for the perimeter of 4×4 square (for example) may result in all of the class giving a correct answer of 16 (assumption: topic has been learnt) but it is likely some children instead calculated the area (which also has a numerical value of 16). Discussing questions like these enhances subject knowledge and leads to deeper understanding of how to accurately evaluate impact.

It is clear there are multiple effective ways in which teachers can collaborate. What is also clear is that the work must focus on student learning to be of significant benefit.

Meaningful and effective collaboration requires the right conditions. Deep collaboration will involve conversations that challenge as well as support. It requires a move “from comfortable or contrived conversations to challenging yet respectful dialogue about improvement” (Hargreaves, 2015, p13). This is a challenge for us in the Cambridge Maths Hub. I believe there are high levels of trust in our community. Can we build on this to challenge one another, respectfully and with a focus on improvement?

Bolam et al. (2005) explored the necessary framework for meaningful collaboration: “Shared values and vision; collective responsibility for pupils’ learning; collaboration focused on learning; individual and collective professional learning; reflective professional enquiry; openness, networks and partnerships; inclusive membership; mutual trust, respect and support.” (p iii). The findings indicate that where these characteristics were stronger, student outcomes were more improved. Added to this, Ronfeldt’s (2015) findings showed teachers improve more quickly when they work in schools with higher levels of quality collaboration. Again, we are already on this journey and our influence on schools is such that we are promoting this same culture in the schools we work with. In this situation, everybody gains. Could I encourage you to look at the beginning of this paragraph again and challenge yourself about which areas are stronger and which can be developed further?

“To become a fully self-led system… improving the life chances of all young people, we believe peer review and collaborative working must be the norm, not an exception.” (NAHT, 2019). Hattie’s (2015, p4) advice to leaders is that they “need to create opportunities, develop trust, provide resources for understanding the impact..”.

There is a clear call for leaders to consider school culture. Collaboration is effective if we create communities where there are high levels of trust. This requires collective responsibility for student outcomes – not just those in a teacher’s own classroom or even in a department.  I think this should be extended to all children, in all schools. We need to work together across the system. (The Sutton Trust report (2015) explicitly recommends this). Creating and sustaining a culture of trust, sharing responsibility and focusing on designing and evaluating student learning together is not easy. It will only be embedded if school leaders are willing to embrace it, bearing in mind ‘there is a sense of urgency about challenging teachers’ practice, yet also a patient realisation that the essential trust and relationships .. can only develop over time’ (Hargreaves, 2018).

As far as I am aware, there is a distinct lack of evidence/ case studies about which collaborative activities/actions constitute effective professional development. If you want to share ways in which you have worked collaboratively and the impact these have had, please tweet @cammathshub

References

Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Stoll, L., Thomas, S., Wallace, M., with Greenwood, A., Hawkey, K., Ingram, M., Atkinson, A. & Smith, M. (2005). Creating and Sustaining Effective Professional Learning Communities. Universities of Baths, Bristol and London IoE. (Available here)

Building Educational Bridges (2017). A report from a research study in Singapore. (I can’t find it on the internet but would be happy to provide it on request. It is very interesting.)

EEF (2017). Report on Lesson Study. (Available here)

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional Capital. Routledge: London and New York.

Hargreaves, A., & O’Connor, M.T. (2018). Leading Collaborative professionalism. Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series #274. (Available here)

Hattie, J. (2015). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. Pearson. (Available here)

NAHT (2019). The principles of effective peer to peer review. (Available here)

Ronfeldt, M. (2015). Teacher Collaboration in Instructional Teams and Student Achievement. American Educational Research Journal. (Available here)

Sutton Trust (2015). Report on teacher development. (Available here)

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