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Professional Development Opinion

Learning Teams and the Future of Teaching

By Tom Carroll & Hanna Doerr — June 28, 2010 6 min read
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Learning is no longer preparation for the job, it is the job. In a world in which information expands exponentially, today’s students are active participants in an ever-expanding network of learning environments. They must learn to be knowledge navigators, seeking and finding information from multiple sources, evaluating it, making sense of it, and understanding how to collaborate with their peers to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into action.

What does this mean for teachers? It means that they should be constantly learning with and from accomplished colleagues and experts in the field, modeling for their students the collaborative learning and knowledge construction that is at the core of 21st-century competencies.

Yet according to the most recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (2009), today’s teachers work alone—they spend an average of 93 percent of their time in school working in isolation from their colleagues, and they continue to work alone during their out-of-school hours of preparation and grading. Their day-to-day work is disconnected from the efforts of their colleagues, and their pullout professional development is fragmented and poorly aligned with their students’ learning needs.

This fragmentation prevents any substantial education reform from gaining traction, because teachers are not given the support they need to collectively build a coherent body of knowledge and practice to improve student achievement. Today’s new teachers are eager to work with their accomplished colleagues, but they find themselves working alone in self-contained classrooms where they are bound to the teaching practices of the past. Faced with a choice between working in the last century or the 21st century, they “vote with their feet”: The young people we are counting on to teach for the future are leaving our obsolete schools at an alarming rate.

It is time to change this picture. Today’s teachers want to team up to teach for the future. In survey after survey, teachers who are most satisfied with their careers and the contributions they are making to their students’ lives are more likely to work in schools with higher levels of professional collaboration.

To expand on these survey findings, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, with the support of the Pearson Foundation, has conducted an extensive review of research reports and practitioner case studies to document the specific learning-team principles and practices that improve teaching effectiveness and student achievement. Based on our findings, we have concluded that the nation has a pressing need, and an unprecedented opportunity to improve school performance by using learning teams to systematically induct new teachers into a collaborative learning culture—teams that embed continuous professional development into the day-to-day fabric of work in schools that are constantly evolving to meet the needs of 21st-century learners. This calls for a cultural shift in schools, a shift that is gaining momentum across the country.

NCTAF’s review identified six learning-team principles and practices that are most effective in improving teaching and student achievement, described in the report “Team Up for 21st Century Teaching and Learning.” While there is no magic formula, we found that highly effective learning teams have the following:

Shared Values and Goals. The team members have a common vision of student learning needs and a well-defined understanding of how their collective teaching capabilities can be orchestrated to meet those needs. They clearly identify a learning challenge around which the team can join forces to improve student achievement.

Collective Responsibility. Team members have appropriately differentiated responsibilities based on their experience and knowledge levels. They hold themselves mutually responsible for each other’s success, and they are collectively accountable for improving the achievement of every student served by the team.

Authentic Assessment. Team members hold themselves personally and professionally accountable by using assessments that give them real-time feedback on student learning and teaching effectiveness. These assessments are valuable to them—not because they are linked to high-stakes consequences, but because they are essential tools to improve the team’s teaching effectiveness, as measured by student learning gains.

Self-Directed Reflection. Highly effective learning teams establish a reflective feedback loop of goal-setting, planning, standards, and assessment that is driven by the learning needs of the students and the corresponding professional-development needs of the teachers.

Stable Settings. Highly effective learning teams do not function within dysfunctional schools, but they can transform low-performing schools into successful learning organizations if they are given dedicated time, space, resources, and leadership for their collaborative work. Even the best teachers in the world can’t turn around a low-performing school by working alone.

Strong Leadership Support. Highly effective learning teams are supported by school leaders who build a climate of openness and trust that empowers team members to make decisions on how to improve teaching effectiveness that are directly linked to student needs. This support must be balanced with appropriate, positive pressure to continuously increase school performance with improvements in teaching effectiveness that are explicitly linked to specific student learning needs.

Transforming American education is the rallying cry heard throughout the country today. The Obama administration has focused the nation’s vision for education in 2020 on two basic goals: assuring that every student is college- and career-ready, and closing the achievement gaps for low-income students and children of color.

NCTAF is answering this call by creating “learning studios” for teaching the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that are based on the documented effectiveness of these six principles. Similar to architectural-design studios, these STEM Learning Studios enable learning teams composed of digital-age teachers, tech-savvy youths, veteran educators, and skill-based volunteers to develop innovative responses to complex learning challenges. Learning studios improve student achievement, increase teaching effectiveness, and amplify the impact of community resources.

NCTAF developed its first such learning studios in two Maryland school districts, with a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in partnership with the Goddard Space Flight Center. We then launched a STEM Learning Studio expansion with the Albuquerque, N.M., public schools and Lockheed Martin/Sandia National Laboratories. Learning studios, we have found, keep veteran teachers engaged and improve novice teachers’ effectiveness by teaming them with industry and government professionals. The studios deploy volunteers in inquiry-based learning projects with teachers and students in a way that calls on their professional skills and experience. They work with students on authentic learning challenges, and work with teachers to help them model for their students the collaborative inquiry, knowledge construction, and innovation that are at the heart of 21st-century competencies.

This kind of teaching and learning represents ambitious goals. Making it happen will require changes that go beyond tinkering with today’s schools. If all we do is to give today’s students a better factory-era school, with stand-alone teachers who continue to deliver monolithic instruction in self-contained classrooms, the future is already over. It is time to team up to teach for the 21st century.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2017 edition of Education Week as Learning Teams and the Future of Teaching

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