Student Well-Being

In Schools, Classroom Proximity Breeds Teacher Collaboration

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 09, 2018 4 min read
A geographic information system analysis of teachers’ daily work habits shows how two different teachers might interact during the course of the day on the way to common areas like the photocopier or the principal’s office.

When a teacher has a problem, she might go to a mentor or an instructional coach—but often, she goes to whomever is closest at hand.

That’s why a new series of studies suggests that school administrators can boost teacher collaboration and build on formal teacher training by paying more attention to how teachers are assigned to classrooms within the building.

“Clearly, it can make a big difference,” said co-author James Spillane of Northwestern University, whose most recent work is published Tuesday in the magazine Education Next. “If you want to maximize the returns from master teachers or mentor teachers, you would want to carefully place them in a building to maximize the overlap in their [work] zone and that of new teachers … so you increase the likelihood they will interact.”

Spillane and Matthew Shirrell of George Washington University analyzed data from 14 traditionally laid out “egg crate”-style elementary schools in an unnamed 6,000-student Midwestern suburban school district. They surveyed principals, instructional coaches, and teachers about their work habits and which colleagues they had reached out to for instructional problems in math.

“Teaching has this history of being a very isolating occupation,” said Shirrell, an assistant professor of educational leadership at George Washington University. “It has generally been designed and thought of as solitary and confined work behind your classroom door, and it’s only kind of recently that people have tried to get people to work together in clear ways.”

The researchers then used digital mapping software to track teachers’ typical paths during the day, including to key destinations like the principal’s office, rest rooms, the photocopier, and the teachers’ lounge. They calculated how close staff were to each other in the building and how much of their “functional work zones”—their typical paths during the day—overlapped with each other.

They found that teachers who were near to each other and tended to follow similar schedules were much more likely to compare notes on math instruction, even if they taught different grades or weren’t in a formal professional development group with one another.

Overlapping ‘Zones’

Take, for example, a pair of teachers that has about a 30 percent chance of collaborating with each other about their math instruction, based on the grades they teach and their relative teaching experience. If their classrooms are 78 feet farther away from each other in the building—about three doors away, rather than next door—their likelihood of interacting drops to 19 percent. Those whose offices are 156 feet away or more, such as those along a separate hall or another wing, end up collaborating only 11 percent of the time.

The researchers found that teachers who collaborated on math were not more likely to have classrooms closer to each other in the following year, but teachers who were moved closer to one another in one year were more likely to collaborate the following year.

“There’s a strong association between physical proximity in a building and who teachers talk to about their work,” said Spillane, a professor of learning and organizational change at Northwestern University. “When you are close to somebody and your functional zone, your work zone overlaps with theirs. You are more likely to have a chance encounter.”

The importance of proximity and communal spaces is not a new concept, of course. A 1977 study found that engineers were exponentially less likely to collaborate with others whose desks were 75 feet away—an almost identical distance to the teacher study—and that a company’s speed in developing new ideas was directly related to how often its employees engaged in casual discussions.

“They are brief—we’re talking about a couple minutes each—but these supplement and build on the more formal interactions schools have” for professional development, Spillane said. “We should never underestimate the power of the chance encounters. It’s the just-in-time training: ‘I have a challenge and I’m going to forget it by the time we have our weekly meeting, can I just ask you a question about this?’”

That’s important, said Shirrell because prior research has shown teachers are less likely to collaborate with peers about math instruction than reading and other subjects. A related study published last year in the journal Sociology of Education found these casual meetings enhanced teachers’ formal professional development in math. “Teachers interact a lot less about math,” Shirrell said. “It’s interesting to think that this could lead to different patterns in math than in other subjects. … Maybe proximity matters more in math because teachers are talking about it less overall.”

While the study did not link student math achievement to their teachers’ collaboration, other studies have suggested that students benefit from having teachers who engage in ongoing instructional discussion with their peers.

For example, in the 2017 study, one 1st grade teacher recalled doing a graphing exercise with her students and then stepping out of her class to discuss the lesson. Another teacher who had been in her professional development group “happened to walk by and she just kind of sat down and joined us, and so then I just asked her ... what I could have done to ... deepen the kids’ understanding.”

It’s also not clear yet whether teachers collaborate differently in a more open-plan building layout, or in a school with more high-need students; about 25 percent of the students in the study district were low-income, and more than 80 percent were white. The researchers are now studying how patterns of collaboration differ for new and more experienced teachers, and for teachers in different types of schools.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as How Classroom Location Matters in Teacher Collaboration

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