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Collaborating with colleagues for professional development

Written By: Kieran Briggs
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7 min read
Working together provides a shared vulnerability and sense of purpose

Peer support is a common feature for effective continuous professional development and learning (CPDL). It can take many forms including shared planning, peer observation, collaborative work scrutiny, structured research lesson study and/or collaborative action research. It also contributes to the development of a culture of professional learning and a shared sense of purpose. The shared vulnerability and sense of purpose that comes as you and your colleagues work together helps you to take risks by experimenting with new approaches and examining what does and does not work in different contexts. This culture should include school leaders: effective leaders do not leave the learning to their teachers—they become involved in experimenting with practice and modelling professional learning.

Collaboration in peer support is necessary, but is not sufficient on its own. Where collaboration is the only focus, learning is limited. Collegial support, together with input from an expert leader, both need to be harnessed to solve important problems and establish common goals and new approaches for achieving them.

Why is peer collaboration important?

Peer support is a key feature of effective collaborative CPDL, and peer collaboration often acts as the principal vehicle for professional development. It is also possible that a lack of collaboration is a significant factor in CPDL programmes that do not have long-term impact.

What are some effective approaches?

Peer observation is an effective collaborative CPDL approach to supporting working relationship between colleagues.  In peer observation teachers work together in pairs or small groups, using observation as a research tool to explore specific features of teaching and learning. Information gained in this way can be fed back to refine lesson planning and teachers’ practice. Other approaches include peer or co-coaching, shared planning, peer observation, collaborative work scrutiny, structured research lesson study and/or collaborative action research.

What evidence is there around this area?

In a review of the research evidence about sustained, collaborative CPD and its effect on teaching and learning by members of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) there was strong evidence of:

  • Greater confidence among the teachers
  • Enhanced beliefs among teachers of their power to make a difference to their pupils’ learning (self-efficacy)
  • The development of enthusiasm for collaborative working, notwithstanding initial anxieties about being observed and receiving feedback
  • A greater commitment to changing practice and willingness to try new things.

Positive outcomes of the impact of collaborative CPD sometimes emerged only after periods of relative discomfort in trying out new approaches; things often got worse before they got better. Collaboration, including joint planning and team teaching, was also important in sustaining change. There was evidence in some of the studies that teachers changed their practice to make use of specific tools or interventions which introduced greater collaboration. Such collaboration also related to generic learning processes, such as activities to generate more effective and targeted dialogue between pupils (Cordingley et al., 2003).

A more recent review of research reviews reinforced this finding, emphasising in particular the importance of  peer supported, iterative exploration of evidence about how pupils respond to changes in teaching practice (Cordingley et al., 2015).

What are some ideas I can try in the classroom?

If CPDL is oriented towards participants as individuals, you may want to maximise your opportunities for peer support by developing partnerships with other teachers and setting time aside for shared planning or talking together about shared experiences. You could also consider how you can follow up individually oriented CPD by acting as a coach for other teachers

Video is proving to be a great tool for professional development. The use of video is significant in enhancing the coaching conversations.  You could video record a lesson with different sub groups of pupils, and go back through the recording with a colleague or coach to tackle any areas for improvement in your teaching.

Things to consider

  • How can you and a professional learning partner plan to help each other work through your experiments with implementing new approaches and/or curriculum planning?
  • How will you and your partner identify a rhythm and timescale that enables you to sustain your partnership and also fit in with the grain of school life? For example, are there ongoing meetings in school within which you can identify time and/or support for your learning partnership?
  • How will you find out which colleague is available for you to develop a sustained partnership with?

Questions for reflection/discussion

  • How could experimenting with new approaches help you and a partner make a breakthrough for two sub groups of 3 pupils (1 for each of you if you don’t teach the same pupils) whose learning seems to be stalled?
  • Would you find it helpful to highlight which jobs and roles in school provide a natural environment for increasing your opportunities to learn reciprocally with colleagues?
  • What will your pupils’ learning look like if you are successful in implementing new approaches and / or curriculum planning that you planned with a partner?

Case study: examples of practice

The following case study by Jianzhong Xu is helpful.

Avery is a public elementary school located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in New York City. For the 1994 to 1995 school year, it employed 45 teachers with a mean of 15 years of teaching experience and enrolled approximately 880 pupils from kindergarten through the sixth grade.

Initially, teachers at the school wanted to work out how to better meet the needs of their pupils, especially in reading. Teachers were encouraged to use teaching portfolios as a means to promote school-centred professional development. The portfolios were incorporated from research by Miller (1998) and Wilson and Berne (1999) on school-centred professional development. This approach to professional development encourages teachers to learn with and from colleagues in their school communities, to reflect critically on their daily practices, and to enhance their capacity to understand complex subject matters from the perspectives of diverse learners. The impact of the portfolios on teacher’s professional learning and professional collaboration was investigated throughout an academic year.

The headteacher of the school encouraged the teachers to collect and reflect on samples of pupils’ work over the year to help them examine and adjust their teaching strategies so that they could help the pupils learn better.  For example, one teacher wanted to work out how she could better meet the needs of her 6-7 year old pupils in reading. She chose three pupils, one each from the top, middle, and bottom reading levels of her class and tried to address their needs so they could advance to the next level. Her portfolio documented the journey she had travelled from the beginning of the school year.

Each teaching portfolio consisted of three sections:

  • An explanation of why the teacher was pursuing the topic
  • Documentation of the teacher’s learning in the area of interest (for example cooperative learning) along with practical suggestions for other colleagues
  • supplementary materials (such as references to research and examples of children’s work).

The materials used were to provide justification for the work as well as to enhance individual learning and group sharing amongst teachers to incorporate a greater sense of collaboration and peer-support in relation to the teaching portfolios. Teachers were encouraged to learn from their colleagues by connecting colleagues to one another and by referring teachers who were just beginning, or who were midway in the process, to talk with those who had already completed a portfolio.

The portfolio project affected professional collaboration across the school in three ways:

  • It became a vehicle for them to learn with and from each other – Particularly, the project became ‘a common language’ to help connect new teachers with experienced teachers. One teacher said, ‘It gives us something on paper to use and to share with others about our teaching styles and our ideas’.
  • The portfolio project changed working relationships between teachers and senior leaders. Many teachers agreed that the project enabled them to connect better with the senior leaders. One senior teacher found that it gave her another channel to communicate with them about the ‘nuances’ of classroom teaching.
  • Finally, the changed relationships between teachers and senior leaders, along with the knowledge and confidence gained from writing and sharing their work with their colleagues started to change teachers’ stance toward other senior leaders and university-based experts. For another teacher, the insights gained from working on his portfolio and from trying out new ideas in practice prompted him to examine ‘expert knowledge’ more critically.

For the most part, the conditions that supported professional collaboration were loosely structured through promoting a collaborative social climate rather than through making formal organisational arrangements. The portfolios as texts made teacher sharing and collaboration possible without having the teachers be physically together for extended periods of time.

Further reading

Rachel Lofthouse (2016) Teacher Coaching: A collection of think-pieces about professional development and leadership through teacher coaching. Research Centre for Learning and Teaching, Newcastle University, UK. This is a collection of ‘think piece’ blog posts, all around 2 or 3 pages. They all end with key questions to support making your next steps in the area as well as links to research and resources underpinning each piece.

Bruce Joyce and Beverley Showers, Pupil Achievement through Staff Development: This paper summarises a book chapter about designing training and peer coaching. This includes a section on how teachers learn to acquire new skills and identifies a short list of practices, attitudes and skills which support professional learning. Subsequent sections summarise the value of coaching and how it fits into a wider organisational ethos and approach to professional learning.

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