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Teaching Commission Pushes Collaborative Learning Teams

By Elizabeth Rich — June 30, 2010 5 min read
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The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a Washington-based nonprofit, presented its findings late last week on what research and practice reveal about engaged, school-embedded professional learning teams: that teachers who collaborate in learning teams hold themselves to a higher standard, improve their practice, and lift student achievement.

The forum, “Team Up for 21st Century Teaching and Learning,” focused on the critical role NCTAF sees teacher learning teams playing in the 21st century classroom in terms of career and college readiness and the closing of the achievement gap. NCTAF stressed the general need in schools for learning teams, and where, according to the group, they should be headed.

Tom Carroll, president of NCTAF, referred to the study’s call to action on creating learning teams in schools as a “once in a generation opportunity.” Instead of trying to fix schools, we should create the schools that we need, Carroll explained. Professional learning teams are a pathway to accomplishing this goal, he said.

The forum stressed the concern over the future financial viability of schools, as well as the need for students to be prepared for the global knowledge economy. Carroll argued that effective teacher learning teams can both lower school costs and raise achievement. “At the heart of this enterprise,” said Carroll, “every school needs good teachers.”

“Good teachers are better when they work in a collaborative environment,” he explained. But, Carroll added, in order for learning teams to succeed, teachers need encouragement and support.

Creating a Model for Collaborative Culture

At the forum, Hanna Doerr, NCTAF’s program leader for learning teams and the study’s project manager, discussed six principles that her research revealed are critical to supporting effective learning teams: shared visions and goals; collective responsibility; authentic assessment; self-directed reflection; stable settings; and strong leadership support. Doerr explained that she and her team scoured research and peer journals to extract these principles.

As a further step for this study, NCTAF has created several “learning studios” in which professional learning teams are partnered (or will partner) with a government or industry leader to support teacher collaboration inside schools. (Currently, NCTAF has four learning studio schools, two more will begin in the fall, and as many as 29 will start over the next five years—pending funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation grant program.) Each learning studio is applying the six principles to their learning team model in the STEM subject areas of science, technology, engineering, and math.

NCTAF’s Six Principles of Success for Professional Learning Teams

Shared Values and Goals: The team should have a shared vision of the capabilities of students and teachers. They should also clearly identify a problem around which the learning team can come together, with an ultimate goal of improving student learning.

Collective Responsibility: Team members should have shared and appropriately differentiated responsibilities based on their experience and knowledge levels. There should be a mutual accountability for student achievement among all members of the learning team.

Authentic Assessment: Teachers in the community should hold themselves collectively accountable for improving student achievement, by using assessments that give them real time feedback on student learning and teaching effectiveness. These assessments are valued—not because they are linked to high stakes consequences—but because they are essential tools to improve learning.

Self-Directed Reflection: Teams should establish a feedback loop of goal-setting, planning, standards, and evaluation, driven by the needs of both teachers and students.

Stable Settings: The best teams cannot function within a dysfunctional school. Effective teams required dedicated time and space for their collaborative work to take place. This required the support, and occasionally, positive pressure from school leadership.

Strong Leadership Support: Successful teams are supported by their school leaders who build a climate of openness and trust in the school, empower teams to make decisions based on student needs, and apply appropriate pressure perform.

To obtain a copy of the study, visit NCTAF’s website. NCTAF also shares video examples of professional learning teams, including one school that relies on coaches for teacher support.

Source: The National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future

Three of the five teachers from one of NCTAF’s learning studio sites—Hammond High School, in Howard County, Md.—were in attendance at the forum. Working with a partnership grant from NASA, the teachers started their collaboration this year and will continue through the next school year.

The teachers, Lori Bradley, Alan Kostrick, and Michelle Moore, described how they worked together to integrate their math, computer, and science curriculum into three projects with the support from their partner, NASA’s Goddard Institute. The five teachers met with Goddard scientists and engineers for three day-long project design sessions during the school year. The Goddard scientists and engineers also met with the students at least once during each of the projects. The teachers received books and resources from Goddard. And with grant money from NASA for the partnership, their principal was able to pay for substitutes so the teachers could meet regularly during the school day. While not all five teachers had matching planning periods, they made the project work, meeting after school when necessary. Their three team projects, they explained, got off to a bumpy start; however, by the third one, they felt “more together,” explained science teacher Moore.

Going forward, Moore said, they were “excited” about their plans to collaborate in the fall. This is a far cry, they explained, from when they “barely talk[ed] about education” with each other. Computer teacher Kostrick said before he was a part of a learning team, it would never have occurred to him to discuss what was happening in his classroom with his colleagues across the hall. “Why would I do this?”


Healthy and successful learning teams require administrative support at both the school and district levels, NCTAF presenters emphasized repeatedly during the forum discussion. In the case of Hammond High School and NCTAF’s other learning studios, teachers have this backing and the support of a grant, but what was less clear from the forum discussion was how schools can sustain ongoing engaged learning communities, particularly in face of dwindling school budgets.

In a follow-up phone call with Teacher, Carroll and Doerr stressed the role of outside partnerships. Their research, Doerr explained, pointed to the desire for industry to support local school districts beyond just the one-to-one tutoring experience and the need for teachers to have that support. “We believe learning teams need to have industry and government outside expertise,” Carroll explained, citing the Department of Education’s National Lab Day this spring, when teachers across the country partnered with scientists via the Internet, as one such successful example. “You don’t have to be in an area near NASA. Resources can be tapped,” said Doerr, emphasizing that even rural school districts have access to resources through the Web.

Beyond seeking partners, though, the larger issue points to whether schools can create the environment where collaborative learning teams are encouraged and sustained. While a number of studies show that collaborative teacher models raise student achievement and improve practice, the culture within the four walls of a school doesn’t always promote collegiality among educators.

Carroll admitted that a transition needs to occur. “Schools are not just not collegial, they work against collegial relationships. The current structure works against collaboration. We need to break out of this model.” He added, “We’re finding that teachers want to collaborate, they just don’t know how to get there. They need a pathway.” Using the collaborative learning team model for administrators can also help in making this transition. If principals and superintendents have the opportunity to grow and learn, Carroll said, they can promote the culture shift by understanding what needs to take place and being supportive to that end.

Carroll cited a finding in last year’s MetLife Survey of the American Teacher showing that, while 70 percent of teachers believe that a collaborative culture enhances their instruction, 93 percent of teachers work alone. The approach to creating effective learning teams, Carroll explained, needs to be a systemic shift where the whole school structure needs to be reprogrammed, where the general understanding is that teachers who collaborate are more effective.


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