Raising Standards Together

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Masters in Educational Practice: Professional learning


Collaborative working


Collaborative approaches

Practitioners can be thought of as a form of ‘human capital’: their individual knowledge and skills provide an important resource for schools, colleges, and all other educational institutions. The value of this human capital increases if combined with ‘social capital’ (or ‘collaborative capital’): put simply, we learn a great deal from talking to each other. The following activity will tell you more about social capital, and emphasises the importance of working collaboratively.

Activity 4.1.1

The following video shows Professor Carrie Leana from the University of Pittsburgh explaining what is meant by 'social capital' in the context of education (external link). Watch the video, and then move on to the information below.

Professor Leana carried out research on the roles of teachers in schools in New York City (at ages/grades approximating to primary schools in the UK), and the outcomes of this research are outlined in an article (external link) she wrote in 2011. You will find the whole article of this online article a very interesting read, but for this activity you need only focus on the sections entitled ‘What is social capital?’ and ‘Research Findings’. After reading these sections, reflect on the questions below.

  • Professor Leana’s research mainly focused on the links between teachers and learner achievement. Why, then, did she also record information such as learner attendance and economic need?
  • The article explains that ‘human capital indicators included teacher education, experience, and ability in the classroom’. What other factor(s) were found to be important influencers of the ability to teach mathematics in the group of teachers involved (approximately primary)?
  • Professor Leana and her co-workers found that ‘low-ability teachers can perform as well as teachers of average ability if they have strong social capital’. What is the best combination of human and social capital?

The research described above leads us into a reflection on how working with colleagues can add benefit above and beyond what we might be able to do for ourselves. This is variously described as ‘collaborative working’, ‘joint practice development’, and ‘peer-to-peer’ support, and is an illustration of social constructivism in action. Many key educationalists believe in the value of collaborative working to support practitioners (for example, Dylan Wiliam in the context of formative assessment – see subtopic 4.3 ‘Summary’), and there are many good examples of teachers working together from across the world which can help inform what we do as practitioners. Activity 4.1.2 will take us back to the USA, and also to Japan.

Exploring further

You may recall learning about social constructivism during your initial training, and hearing about the work of theorists such as Vygotsky and Brunner. They maintained that we construct our knowledge from our ideas and experiences, including interactions with the people around us. You can find out more about this in the social constructivism (external link) section of the Berkley Teaching and Resource Center.

Activity 4.1.2

In 2007, McKinsey and Company, an influential US management consultancy, brought out a report entitled 'how the world's best performing schools come out on top' (external link). One of the points addressed in the report is effective practitioner development. Download the report, and turn to pages 31 and 32. Read, in particular, ‘exhibit 21’ (Japan) and ‘exhibit 22’ (Boston), and respond to the points below.

  • How have specific patterns of timetabling, and arrangement of teaching spaces, helped practitioners in Boston to learn from each other?
  • Why is it that when a Japanese practitioner retires, his or her teaching legacy continues?
  • In what ways has teaching practice in both Japan and Boston benefitted from collaborative planning activities?

There are many other examples of practitioners working together to improve outcomes for learners, and the following activity provides an example from Wales.

Activity 4.1.3

Observe the video featuring  Alison Bevan, Deputy Head at Ysgol Bryngwyn, Llanelli, who discusses the use of teacher ‘triads’ and how this has helped professional learning at the school (note that there is an Estyn case study (external link) covering this initiative).

Unable to play video as javascript is disabled on this browser. Please enable javascript to play video.
  • How is the use of teacher ‘triads’ at Ysgol Bryngwyn improving learner outcomes?
  • How might this idea work for your practice?

The examples in Activities 4.1.2 and 4.1.3 involve ‘communities of practice’ within schools. Because this type of community can contribute so much to practitioners’ development, it is often referred to as a ‘professional learning community’ (PLC), or alternatively as a ‘teacher learning community’. A key focus for effective PLCs is action enquiry (as discussed in subtopic 2.5), but because this is undertaken in a collaborative way, it may be referred to as ‘collaborative enquiry’. This is an active process in which practitioners collectively analyse current practice, pose questions, and investigate ways of overcoming barriers to their students’ learning.

Exploring further

The Welsh Government’s definition of a PLC is as follows.

A PLC is a group of practitioners working together using a structured process of enquiry to focus on a specific area of their teaching to improve learner outcomes and so raise school standards.

You can access detailed information about PLCs in Wales, including interactive case studies, from Learning Wales.

Figure 4.1.1: Model of professional learning communities
Figure 4.1.1: Model of professional learning communities

Figure 4.1.1 shows some of the key stages in the functioning of a good PLC. Note that this model is not unlike the cycle you were shown in the professional learning model (PLM) in Topic 1, and many other models of reflective practice (as in Topic 2), and it approximately follows an ongoing pattern of planning, implementing, reviewing, and evaluating. Step 2 is important: your PLC should identify a priority to address, and focus on that before moving on to others. Step 1 is, of course, even more important, and if you are not aware of any professional learning groups or communities within your institution currently, speak to colleagues and managers so that you can work together to set one up. You may already be part of a PLC within your own institution, but it’s also worthwhile to discuss, exchange ideas, and plan new initiatives with colleagues from other institutions and phases in your region, and across Wales. There are also details of virtual opportunities to work with practitioners from other institutions across Wales via the Hwb community area (external link).

Activity 4.1.4

The Lead and Emerging Practitioner School Pathfinder Project is a Welsh Government funded project to raise standards within primary and secondary schools in Wales by facilitating school-to-school support. The project involves partnership between specific Lead Practitioner Schools – high-performing primary and secondary schools – and Emerging Practitioner Schools which have shown an early improvement of learner outcomes, but which may have a mixed record. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) were commissioned by the Welsh Government to provide an interim assessment of the project. Read section 5.2, p.37, of the resulting report [.pdf] (‘key features of effective partnerships’), and consider the following points.

  • Why is it important to recognise the challenges that institutions and practitioners face?
  • What is the value of reflective practice in relation to school-to-school support schemes such as this?
  • Suggest indicators that you would use to measure progress if you were involved in collaborative initiatives of this type.

Exploring further

The model for professional learning communities has links with school development plans and the National model for regional working (external link). Regional consortia have a key role to play in this model, and are involved in the organisation of school clusters and federations, and ‘school- to-school improvement activity’. If you work within a school, which consortium covers your area? If you work within further education (FE), or other branches of educational provision, what regional services are available to you for networking or other social aspects of professional learning?

Activity 4.1.5

Listen to the audio recording of Pete Richardson, a lecturer and learning technologist at Coleg Llandrillo, who describes his experience of ‘Teachmeet’, an example of a whole-Wales network (you can read more about his experiences in his blog (external link).

Experience of 'Teachmeets'
Pete Richardson, Lecturer & Learning Technologist, Coleg Llandrillo
Experience of 'Teachmeets', an example of a whole-Wales network. Download transcript [doc] Download this track [mp3]
  • Have you participated in a Teachmeet or Hwbmeet to date?
  • Were there topics that Pete encountered in his Teachmeet that might be useful for you?
  • When and where is the next Teachmeet being held for your age-group and/or subject?

There are also many online communities and networks of practitioners across the world that we can join as individuals and/or institutions. Examples include the 'Expansive Education Network' (external link), and the 'National Teacher Enquiry Network' (external link) – both offer membership for schools and practitioners, and also provides resources and development opportunities. Don’t forget that Learning Wales and Estyn (external link) have a wealth of resources and case studies that you can also consult.

Activity 4.1.6

Imagine a scenario in which you have a pressing issue with a particular class or group – it could be related to assessment outcomes, or perhaps involving a behaviour management concern. You have spent significant time and energy trying out various ideas and strategies to improve the situation, but with limited effect.

Complete the following questionnaire to help you identify priorities for collaborative approaches that you might employ in this situation.
[Possible responses for each point are: high priority, medium priority, low priority.]

  • Consult with Head of Department.
  • Meet with, and/or initiate, a PLC at my institution.
  • Set up an action enquiry within department and/or PLC.
  • With backing of Head of Department, seek support from regional consortium.
  • With backing of Head of Department (and possibly regional consortium), meet with, and/or initiate, a PLC involving several institutions within my local area.
  • Look up case studies on Learning Wales and/or Estyn websites.
  • Investigate community options via the Hwb.
  • Submit e-mail/forum message to other online PLCs/networks, and/or make use of resources available.
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