Teach Harder, or Teach Smarter?

In fields as diverse as disaster management, computer engineering, trauma care, and architecture, collaborative decision making is driving innovation and improved outcomes. In education, well, we haven’t really given it a chance yet.

It isn’t that collaborative structures don’t exist in US schools. As revealed in the soon-to-be-released NCLE report, Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works, a substantial share of US educators participate in grade-level teams, subject-area teams, data teams, or other forms of professional learning communities. The problem is, given the paucity of time available for educators to work together in structured collaboration (for instance, among those participating in a collaborative inquiry group, 70% meet only once a month or less), it is very difficult for team members to sustain progress—or even function as a true “team.”

It seems paradoxical that, just as expectations for student learning rise in most states with the introduction of new standards, time for meaningful collaboration among educators is declining. According to a MetLife survey, as recently as 2009, 41% of educators participated in structured collaboration with colleagues for more than two hours a week. By 2012, only 24% of educators reported that they collaborated with colleagues more than two hours a week. Multiple recent studies (such as OECD's 2011 Education at a Glance) show that US teachers spend a higher share of their professional time in front of students than teachers in nearly any other economically developed country. It seems that as the pressure to “produce” more learning mounts, we’re being asked to “teach harder.”

Instead, what if we taught smarter?

The NCLE survey shows a correlation between the routine practice of collaboration among educators, higher levels of trust in a school community, and faster spread of innovative practices. Thus the lesson seems to be that if you want innovation, practice collaboration.

As Michael Fullan has written, there are two compelling reasons to invest in the collective capacity of educators in school settings: “One is that knowledge about effective practice becomes more widely available and accessible on a daily basis. The second reason is more powerful still—working together generates commitment.”

Which brings us to the good news— results from NCLE's survey suggest that educators don’t need to be incentivized or coerced into taking responsibility for improving student literacy: across all grade levels and subject areas, more than 77% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “developing student literacy is one of the most important parts of my job.” Moreover, the full spectrum of educators including librarians, literacy coaches, and principals are widely participating in the collaborative structures that currently exist. All evidence suggests that the education work force is highly motivated to improve student literacy learning.

NCLE has been established to move reform efforts to the next, critical step: building the capacity of schools to systematically support effective professional decisionmaking.  NCLE's Framework for Capacity Building (Domain 6) outlines what is required to support collaboration systematically:

  • Dedicated time in the work week for professional collaboration
  • Training, tools, and assistance to improve collaboration (a skill that can be learned!)
  • Leaders who promote collaborative work and ensure timely access to meaningful data about student learning
  • Encouragement of new ideas and sharing what educators learn from using innovative practices

Nearly everyone I know is impatient for learning outcomes to improve, and for the student learning opportunity gap to narrow. This frustration fuels the pressure to maximize teacher “contact hours” with students.

But if we really want to see students engage fully to develop the literacy practices they will need for a lifetime, we need to invest in the knowledge, creativity, and teamwork of the professionals who can inspire our students daily. Collaborative decision making works in crisis centers, hospitals, and building sites—why not schools, too?


Most Recent: April 3, 2013
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    Collaborative Teamwork


    "Thus the lesson seems to be that if you want innovation, practice collaboration."

    I couldn't agree more!  We must give educators time to develop ideas and grow professionally.  This time must be built into the schedule.  We have to believe in the power of collaboration.  Thank you for an insightful post.