What Makes Teacher Collaboration Work?
Today’s guest authors are David Sherer and Johanna Barmore. Sherer is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He specializes in research on policy implementation and the social dynamics of K-12 school reform. Barmore is a former teacher and also a current doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She studies how policy impacts teachers' instructional practice as well as how teachers learn to improve instruction, with a focus on teacher education.
You’ve probably attended meetings that were a waste of your time. Perhaps there was no agenda. Perhaps the facilitator of the meeting dominated the conversation. Perhaps people arrived late or the wrong people were in the room in the first place. Maybe the team ran in place and no one had any good ideas. Whatever the reason, it’s common for teamwork to feel ineffective. Good teamwork does not just “happen.” Organizational researchers study teams with a goal of understanding the conditions that foster effective meetings and, more broadly, effective collaboration (see here for a review).
Meetings can feel like a waste of time in schools, just like they can in other workplaces. However, educational scholars have paid less attention, compared to researchers in other fields, to the conditions that foster productive collaborative work, such as management (see, e.g. Cohen & Bailey, 1997). Educational researchers and practitioners have long advocated that collaboration between teachers should be a cornerstone of efforts to improve instruction – indeed, teachers themselves often cite collaboration with colleagues as one of the key ways they learn. And yet, we know many teams flounder instead of flourish. So why are some teams more productive than others?
Recently, educational researchers have begun to peek inside this “black box” of collaboration and uncover the factors that make a difference for team productivity, and, ultimately, student learning. More work, however, is needed in this critical area. In this blog post, we review some of what we know, including our own ongoing research, about teacher collaboration, and argue for an increased focus on the conditions that foster effective collaboration.
The egg-crate school
Teaching has long been portrayed as an isolated profession. Daniel Lortie’s cornerstone sociological study Schoolteacher, written in 1975, depicts schools as “egg-crates,” in which each teacher spends the day “isolated from other adults.” Lortie argued that this lack of collaboration among teachers was a major hurdle to systematic efforts to improve teaching and learning. If teachers had no opportunities to learn from one another, then good practices could not spread across a school, a district, or a sector.
Other noted researchers (e.g. Johnson, 1989; Little, 1989) have made similar observations about the isolated nature of teachers’ work and workplaces. Over the past two decades, many educational researchers and school reformers have advocated for breaking down the silos of the “egg-crate” school and creating stronger collaborative communities among schoolteachers. Many schools have responded by creating collaborative time for teachers to work together, though it is doubtful that time alone is enough to foster productive collaboration.
Existing research on teacher collaboration
Much existing empirical research suggests that collaboration has a positive impact on student learning, but the research is not conclusive. First, many studies focus on school environmental factors and working conditions, but do not investigate collaboration directly. For example, Jackson and Bruegmann (2009) found that teachers improve student learning more when they are working with more able colleagues. Relatedly, Pil and Leana (2009) found a positive relationship between teachers’ social capital, as measured by the strength and number of their social ties, and student achievement. Finally, Kraft and Papay (2014) have established the importance of supportive professional environments for teacher improvement. These empirical studies all point to the importance of colleagues, relationships, and working conditions to promote teacher improvement. However, these studies don’t investigate collaboration itself.
Many studies that investigate teacher collaboration more directly (through observations or surveys) find that collaboration has a positive impact on teacher learning and student achievement (see a review by Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008). These studies, however, often suffer from important design limitations. For example, many rely on teacher-self reports of classroom practice, which is an unreliable measure of instructional change (for a discussion of the limitations of self reports, see Spillane & Zeulli 1999; Jacobs et. al. 2006). Other studies find correlations between higher levels of collaboration and higher student achievement, but they do not prove that higher levels of collaboration cause higher student achievement. It is possible that more effective teachers simply engage in higher quality collaboration.
Finally, few studies of teachers’ professional interactions investigate the specific conditions under which these interactions make a difference for student learning. For the rest of this post we focus on this last issue - what makes collaboration work?
The importance of looking inside the “black box”
We know that “all collaborations are not equal—or equally productive” (Ronfeldt, Farmer, McQueen, and Grissom, 2015, p.479). Research that probes the conditions that foster productive collaboration can help us answer important questions. For example, does it matter how often or for how long teachers meet? Are teams more productive with the support of an instructional coach? Are collaborations better if they focus on student work or on instructional practices?
These questions are theoretically interesting because they help us develop a better understanding of the mechanisms at play during teachers’ professional interactions. Perhaps more importantly, answers to these questions may provide practical guidance to teachers and school leaders seeking to ensure their teamwork practices are effective.
Some researchers have begun to investigate the specific conditions that are related to effective collaboration. In one recent study, Ronfeldt and colleagues (2015) investigated the extent to which the topic of collaboration was related to student achievement gains. In addition to finding that high quality collaboration in general was associated student learning, they found that collaboration focused on assessments was more highly associated with student achievement compared to other topics of collaboration (e.g. students or instruction).
Goddard, Goddard, Kim, & Miller (2015) examined the relationship between leadership characteristics and effective collaboration. Their findings suggest that instructional leaders who are viewed by their teachers as effective are more likely to promote high quality collaboration, and, in turn, higher student achievement. In our own ongoing research, we examine how the teaching quality of a grade-level team hinders or supports the effect of collaboration on student learning. Our preliminary findings, which we hope to share more fully in a later post, suggest that the effects of collaboration may vary depending on the instructional skills of participating teachers.
Researchers have begun to explore important questions about the conditions that make effective collaboration more likely. Taken together, studies in this area suggest that collaboration should be viewed as a potential but not guaranteed source of school improvement. Indeed, teacher collaboration may not provide benefits by default. Joint work among educators appears to be most effective only under certain conditions (e.g. when teachers are supported by knowledgeable leaders). It is our hope that future studies continue to pursue a deeper understanding of the conditions that support strong teamwork. Such research promises to help teachers and school leaders make the best use of their time together.