Collaboration as a Change Force: The Power of "Know How" over "Have To"

Every educator has had them: the “ah-ha” moments that happen when teachers pool their collective expertise to crack a tough instructional problem. Maybe it happens in a grade level or department meeting, as teachers are reviewing data or student work together and realize what misconception is causing so many of their students to stumble on a particular problem and how they can address it. Maybe it happens when a teacher has a chance to observe a colleague in action and then debrief together about the structure of a lesson and how it impacted student learning.

We all know from experience the power of such collective work. And we all know how difficult it can be to find time for it. New research from NCLE provides compelling evidence that we must commit to collaboration if we hope to create sustainable change in literacy teaching and learning.

NCLE has conducted national surveys of educators over the last two years to document the opportunities that educators have for professional collaboration, the extent to which the conditions for effective collaboration exist, and specifically how collaboration is or is not being used to tackle the challenge of elevating literacy learning for all students.

In our 2013 study Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works, educators told us clearly that working with colleagues is the most powerful form of professional learning but that the time that teachers have for such work is small and declining.  Most importantly, our study showed that in schools where collaboration is routine, professional culture is stronger and best practices spread more quickly. This suggests strongly that collaboration is an important foundation for any educational change effort.

This year we got more specific, asking educators how they are learning about the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy and how they are working to put them in place. Because they are a set of shared goals adopted by many states, the CCSS provide a natural experiment in the power of different change models. States and districts have taken widely varied approaches to putting the new standards in place. Some places jumped in fast; others moved more gradually. Some are putting in place a set curriculum; in others, teachers are taking the lead in figuring out the implications of the new standards for what and how they teach. Some states are linking the new standards tightly to assessment and teacher evaluation systems; others are going slower on accountability and incentives as they build their internal capacity to help all students reach new standards.

Although there is a broad spectrum of approaches to educational change, two contrasting theories at opposite ends of the spectrum might be described as change built on professional “know how” and change driven by mandates of “have to.” In its purest form, the “have to” approach is top down, powered by accountability and the assumption that individuals in the system need to be incentivized to work harder. The “know how” approach, by contrast, is a bottom up approach to change, powered by the collective efforts of everyone in the system as they build up their capacity to take on shared challenges.

Our 2014 study, to be released on February 27, amplifies last year’s findings about the power of collaboration to create educational change, this time specifically in the context of the sweeping changes called for by the CCSS. Put simply, the transition is going better in places where teachers are more involved in the change, pooling their “know how” to implement the standards in ways that make sense in their schools for their students. We found that the more teachers reported being actively engaged in implementation—in ways ranging from planning how their school would implement to having time with colleagues to dig into the meaning of the standards and implications for classroom practice, to being trusted to exercise their professional judgment in terms of what materials will best help their particular students reach the standards- the better implementation was going. Teachers who are engaged in these ways report feeling better prepared to help their students meet the standards and are already making more changes in what and how they teach.

One reason why teachers currently have limited time for collaboration may be administrators’ uncertainty about what actually happens during that time out of the classroom and how it impacts what happens inside the classroom. In both years’ surveys we also explored what powerful collaboration looks like, identifying specific practices that make a difference for student learning. Among the most effective things that teachers do when they meet together: co-designing lessons and assessments, and collectively examining real samples of student work relative to specific standards.

Unfortunately another finding echoed from last year is that the amount of time teachers have to do this powerful work together continues to decline, even as the demands of change ramp up. Teachers who have the opportunity to be involved in building change from the ground up are not the norm.

Our two years of national data indicate that educational leaders and policymakers must consider how their systems are structured to make the most of teacher know how.  Change powered by the insight and ownership of educators on the front lines is the most solid and sustainable. NCLE stands ready to work with and be a resource to schools and districts who are making the commitment to implementing CCSS in this way.

  • File Type: Text
  • Selected Literacy Topics: Common Core Standards