Written by Christophe Mullings

Teacher collaboration within a school is a powerful professional development activity and sharing good practice can help educators improve their subject knowledge, think about teaching strategies in different ways and learn new ideas to try in the classroom.

In fact, teachers have been found to learn more from each other than with mentors or in traditional classes and workshops. Even better news is that teachers using collaborative practices are more innovative in the classroom, hold stronger self-efficacy beliefs, and have higher job satisfaction (The Teaching and Learning International Survey —TALIS 2013).

What your school stands to gain through teacher collaboration

In this post, Shaun Allison talks about the previous experience of science teacher, Bex Owen. Regular collaboration with lead practitioner, Colin, helped Bex improve her subject knowledge, learn new teaching strategies and fall in love with physics again.

Colin and Bex would go through topics that she was going to be teaching; discussing them at a high level with Colin, then breaking them down and suggesting the best way to teach. They would also discuss misconceptions and talk about how to address them.

In your school, there could be a number of ‘Colin’s’, with expertise that they could use to share good practice and help colleagues to achieve the kind of results that Bex has seen. Additionally, Shaun suggests also looking for experts in other schools. This could be within your Kāhui Ako or CoL, as most teachers are happy to give their time to support peers.

Strategies to encourage teacher collaboration

You’re likely to already have excellent teachers in your school who excel in certain areas. Maybe highlighting who these teachers are will help to recognise them in times of need. Here’s how you can develop teacher leaders:

What is ‘teacher leadership’?

According to the University of Warwick’s Institute of Education, teacher leaders are expert teachers who spend most of their time in the classroom but take on leadership roles at times when development and innovation is needed.

In these roles, teacher leaders help their colleagues explore new ideas and share good practice, offering support with critical but constructive feedback.

The University defines teacher leadership as: a form of agency where teachers are empowered within and beyond the classroom to lead development work that impacts directly on the teaching and learning of others, involving 3 main areas of activity:

  • The leadership of other teachers through coaching, mentoring and leading working groups.
  • The leadership of developmental tasks that are central to improved teaching and learning.
  • The leadership of pedagogy through the development and modelling of effective forms of teaching.

For sustainable teacher leadership, your school needs to create a culture of:

  • Empowerment: Expert teachers need to feel confident in their ability to help others.
  • Time: There needs to be enough time for lead practitioners to meet with their peers. Using video could be a way to overcome timetabling issues and relieve time pressures.
  • Opportunities: Teacher leaders need to be given the opportunity to take on a variety of responsibilities, such as coaching and mentoring peers, as well as leading teacher collaboration around specific areas.

“All teachers have the skills, abilities and aptitude to lead and should be trusted to do so.” (Harris and Muijs, 2016)

How to collaborate with other teachers

1. Sharing good practice in teaching and learning

Educational and teaching expertise is a powerful gift, especially when shared. 

Some teachers may have solved problems with access to the same resources in the same context as others who haven’t been able to solve them yet (also known as ‘Positive Deviance Inquiry’). Sharing each other’s experiences and examples of good practice can help to discover these successful behaviours and strategies and promote their adoption.

But not only does it help the recipient of the shared knowledge, it also greatly benefits the teacher who’s sharing it.

Nothing helps to effectively acknowledge what someone already knows and realise how well-versed they are on certain topics like sharing does. Sharing their expertise means having new conversations that open up what they have learnt to a new perspective, helping them and others to grow. Sharing good practice builds a teacher’s reputation as a leader in your school and increases their professional value. Rather than telling people they’re an expert, sharing lets other teachers discover it for themselves in a way that helps them to raise their own level of expertise.

To identify and share good teaching practice, follow these steps:

  1. Define 

What’s the problem? What are the causes and the related community behavioural norms? What would success look like, described as a behavioural outcome in teachers and students? 

The first step in Positive Deviance Inquiry is to define the problem and to describe what success looks like. It’s important to remember that the problem needs to be defined within a specific context. Success should be clearly defined as measurable attitudes and/or behaviours.

  1. Determine 

Are there any teachers in the community who already exhibit the desired behaviour or outcome? 

Now we need to identify the positive deviants. Who are the educators in your community that are already achieving your defined success? This identification should be data-driven, using clear metrics to identify teachers who are overcoming the defined problem and achieving successful outcomes.

  1. Discover 

What are the unique practices or behaviours that enable positive deviants to outperform others in their community? 

This is where video plays a key role. Sharing videos of a teachers’ good practice provides a means to identify exactly how they are being successful. These videos can be annotated with detailed, specific explanations of exactly what is happening in their teaching practice. When a novice observes an expert, they often miss the nuances of the performance. 

Also, many critical factors such as cognitions and decisions the expert makes simply aren’t observable. For example, formatively assessing student understanding by asking probing questions, adjusting the lesson plan in real-time based on these assessments, and subtle behaviour management techniques are critical to success, but can’t necessarily be seen.

The IRIS Connect video platform enables successful teachers to annotate and share their good practice using time-linked notes and analytical tools to make these implicit factors explicit. The video model combined with these annotations provide others with a rich resource that enables them to begin applying these practices in their own classrooms.

  1. Design 

Design and implement an intervention that enables others in the community to experience and practice new behaviours (focus on doing rather than transfer of knowledge). IRIS Connect is the platform upon which such an intervention can be built. 

Successful teachers can record, annotate, and share videos of their good practice across school districts. The focus is on doing so other teachers need to put into practice what they’re observing. By recording their attempts, teachers can self-reflect, using rubrics to focus their attention on the key elements of the practices they’re emulating. 

But teachers shouldn’t always do this work in isolation. They can work collaboratively, sharing videos of their teaching within their professional learning communities. Teacher collaboration within these communities can help to identify successes and challenges, as well as provide feedback and suggestions for how to adapt the modelled instruction for their own classroom contexts. Teachers can also share videos with a coach to receive ongoing, individualised implementation support.

  1. Discern 

What is the effectiveness of the intervention? 

As teachers view models of successful instructional practices and begin to implement them in their own classrooms, they can use the analytical tools on the IRIS Connect platform to measure their progress. IRIS Connect enables teachers to collect objective, qualitative and quantitative data, linked to specific moments in their videos. This data helps them determine where they have been successful and where improvements can be made. Although formative professional learning is a sacred space that should be protected to allow teachers to take risks while learning, if they choose to, teachers can eventually share their videos of good practice with colleagues to demonstrate their mastery of effective teaching.

  1. Disseminate 

Make the intervention accessible to a wider constituency (replication/scaling up). 

Again, video makes dissemination of effective teaching practices easy. The IRIS Connect platform enables schools to produce libraries of annotated video models aligned with standards. These models are not meant to be prescriptions to be copied, but rather are a rich resource that prompts discussion, self-discovery, adaptation, and collaboration. 

2. Joint Practice Development

Sharing good practice is a great start. However, sharing alone isn’t enough.

David Hargreaves explains it best in ‘A self-improving school system: towards maturity’:

“The people who originally designed the new practice had to develop it over time, learning to adjust it in minor ways until it assumed its final shape. But this learning on the job is difficult to transmit to a listener or reader, who without help and support may find the transfer is simply too difficult and so give up. The practice was shared, certainly, but not actually transferred.

However, if the sharing also includes mentoring and coaching, then the necessary help and support are at hand, so when problems in the attempted transfer arise, they can be talked through and demonstrated with reassuring encouragement.”

This is where Joint Practice Development comes in.

What is Joint Practice Development (JPD)?

Joint Practice Development is more effective way of improving practice. One that moves away from one-off professional learning days and training courses, towards one that is associated with whole-school improvement, is continuous not occasional, and where everyone is an active participant, combining learning and development with practice. 

Michael Fielding and colleagues defined it as “…learning new ways of working through mutual engagement that opens up and shares practices with others”.

This may seem obvious, but it is worth highlighting here, that it is an approach that needs to be prioritised and actively modelled by senior leaders. Research carried out by Professor Viviane Robinson, Margie Hohepa and Claire Lloyd made it very clear that it is leaders promoting and participating in the professional development of their teachers that makes the biggest difference to pupil outcomes, and Joint Practice Development is a great way to do this.

A while back, a group of Teaching School Alliances, along with the University of Sussex, undertook a number of Joint Practice Development projects. These involved groups across schools looking at structured peer observations between teachers, training students to give feedback on teaching and learning, and specific activities based around themes such as transition and numeracy.

Their experience is outlined in ‘Powerful Professional Learning: A school leader’s guide to Joint Practice Development‘ and, interestingly, all five of the alliances conclude that they will work to replace professional development with Joint Practice Development.

How does Joint Practice Development work? 

Joint Practice Development is different to traditional methods of professional development because it requires teachers to work together over time in a trusting and democratic environment to share what they do (not what they know). Building expertise and developing interventions that improve their practice and impact on pupil outcomes.

Here’s what the process looks like:

Although, this process is not something new. In-fact Joint Practice Development already exists in many schools under the guise of lesson study and action research. But just because it’s not new, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to establish and embed in our schools.

A great way to foster Joint Practice Development in your school is by establishing professional learning communities for teachers.

3. Professional learning communities for teachers

This section was contributed by Andrew Ball, Quality Manager & Teaching Learning Senior Leader, Itchen Sixth Form College. @MY__teaching

First things first, what is a professional learning community?  

A professional learning community is a group of educators who meet on a regular basis, work collaboratively and share knowledge, creating a professional dialogue to improve teaching skills and student outcomes. Simply put, it’s professionals coming together in a group to learn.  

Have you ever felt that the teaching and learning initiatives you endorse to staff each year are on repeat? A decision I took was to invigorate staff PLD mindsets, build cohesion and teacher collaboration, and harness productivity through researching the impact on our learners using six different learning themes. The six themes allowed for greater depth of professional discussions and achieved a huge objective I have been chasing for years… getting teachers to talk about teaching and learning in the staffroom!

Welcome to my story of the Professional Learning Community project.

Task 1: Choose six themes that will get all staff interested in educational research and sharing ideas

This was tricky, however the best place to start was the past. Use your older evidence streams to find patterns. Then, use this information to redirect the energy away from a management monitoring tool such as “we must focus on better questioning” to “how does questioning benefit level 2 learners compared with level 3?”. The more the themes related to practical applications of educational research, the greater the staff support for its creation.

The themes our school decided on for the Professional Learning Communities were:

  1. Written and verbal feedback
  2. Assessment for learning
  3. Information and Learning Technology to advance learning
  4. Academic writing
  5. Growth mindset
  6. Retrieval and distributed practice

Task 2: Give the Professional Learning Communities direction and objectives

It was important to galvanize efforts into a direction that would result in teachers actually talking about teaching practices and making adaptations to their activities within lessons. Each Professional Learning Community had between 12-16 members, including a lead member to work closely with. They had the freedom to look at their theme in any way they chose. However, a pathway would be needed to ensure productivity and innovation. 

This was achieved through a programme that had a clear timeline:

  • Session 1: Bring two pieces of research on your theme and discuss with your group.
  • Session 2: Agree on an intervention, idea to use, research comparison or student survey based upon your theme.
  • Session 3: Share findings and agree on the next intervention, review or classroom practice change.
  • Session 4: Present the years findings in a visual display in an in-house Festival celebration of Teaching and Learning.

A clear timeline and set of objectives allowed for each community to support the evidence gathering process and share progress stories.

Task 3: Support staff to be brave with interventions, evidence gathering and responsive student surveys

A key role I needed to play in this project was to be able to model successful evidence gathering. I regularly collected my own data, student forum voice and work scrutiny observations, which allowed me to show others how/why evidence gathering was less time consuming than they expected. The other major reason to support and coach staff through this in the early months was to build in quick wins and gain the support of the big hitters which would feed the staff room chat groups enthusiasm for the programme itself.

Task 4: Present the findings visually

If staff have given large amounts of time and energy to a task, then they deserve to be able to show it off in its full glory. I decided a festival-style PLD day would be a perfect opportunity for each group to display their findings, talk to each other about their evidence and swap resources for future lesson practices. This idea also ensured compliance as all teachers knew their work would be seen by their peers so extra effort, quality and detail was produced on the displays in friendly competition.

Successful outcomes of our professional learning community

I have learnt many lessons from the first year of the programme and will continue to develop the idea as we move into the next academic year. For me, the real value of the programme was to hear students talking to teachers about how their learning experience was more interesting, challenging, motivating or enjoyable due to the adaptations and opportunities that collecting research evidence created.

The person best positioned to improve the learning habits and practices of your students is you as the teacher. A programme like this will allow you to know for sure what they need now and next to improve.

I would argue that any teacher who could find out the most effective learning strategies for the majority of their learners would be smiling in the staffroom. Maybe even talking about teaching and learning over coffee?

Could it work for your school? There’s only one way to find out.

Building teacher collaboration school-wide

Arguably, the teaching profession has always been more open than most. However, there is now an explicit expectation for schools to foster teacher collaboration and for leaders to drive high quality professional learning networks.

Teachers themselves have also been drivers of change. From spontaneous connections via social media, to the more formal links via various federations, more teachers than ever before are working together to develop professionally and improve outcomes for learners.

Breadth vs Depth

However, there is tension at the heart of teacher collaboration over distance. Decades of research show that the key interactions required for effective professional learning are deeply rooted in context and practice. This challenge is neatly summed up by Richard Elmore:

“The effectiveness of professional development is the inverse square of its distance from the classroom.”

Consequently, as the number of schools in chains, Trusts and alliances has expanded, many have struggled to retain the quality of the support they offer. Spreading limited resources more thinly risks losing the depth and quality required to make sustainable change.

So how can the education system overcome these challenges? The answer, some have found, lies in technology. Windsor Academy Trust (WAT) in the United Kingdom have added depth to their school-to-school support with a collaborative video platform. The Chartered College of Teaching have also leveraged the same technology to enable effective professional learning and certification at distance.

Windsor Academy Trust

With seven schools (two secondaries and five primaries) making up the Windsor Academy Trust (WAT), it has grown significantly since its formation in 2011. Their thought leadership and success has been recognised by the Chartered College of Teaching who invited them to become a regional network hub in 2017.

Initially focusing on self-reflection and peer-mentoring, WAT created a Trust-wide Group in the IRIS Connect platform, named Hotspots, that focused on sharing good practice and practitioner expertise. This enabled teachers from all schools the opportunity to watch and comment on the examples of real classroom practice, this process reinforced the trust, collegiality and openness required for long term sustainable growth.

In 2017, WAT launched their latest IRIS Connect project, with their Pedagogy Champions. That programme brought together 40 teachers from different schools across the Trust with the aim of undertaking practitioner-led research to highlight and share good practice and develop their critical thinking skills.

Chartered College of Teaching

Historically, professional development and accreditation has missed concrete links between theory and professional skills in practice. The Chartered College of Teaching is using IRIS Connect to address this challenge. Through the IRIS Connect platform, teachers collaborate and refine their practice with colleagues in other schools. Participants document this process of refinement and demonstrate their use of educational research to improve outcomes in their classrooms.

Over 130 participants in more than 100 different schools are currently engaging in three cycles of collaborative enquiry using video as part of their broader accreditation process, again a process which would be very hard, if not impossible, to achieve without video collaboration technology.

“Our Chartered Teacher programme sits at the heart of our work to recognise the knowledge, skills and professionalism of teachers. We are pleased to be partnering with IRIS Connect to support the delivery of this pioneering programme. Through access to their tools we can further support our members to strengthen their professional learning, which in turn will benefit the children and young people they teach and, ultimately, the profession.”

Cat Scutt – Director of Education and Research for the Chartered College of Teaching

Not just video

IRIS Connect’s core purpose isn’t to promote technology but to ensure that professional learning is impactful. This means exposing teachers to a blend of learning experiences in a way which is aligned with broader organisational need.

Both the Chartered College of Teaching and Windsor Academy Trust have benefited from not only IRIS Connect’s video tools but also from engagement with their professional development team. IRIS Connect’s professional development team have worked to identify each organisation’s specific learning objectives and then built platform-based video learning experiences which deliver them.

Interested to find out more? Get in touch.

More about Collaboration

For more advice and tips like these, download our FREE Practical Guide to Identifying and Sharing Successful Teaching Practice. This guide includes research and examples on how Positive Deviance Inquiry can help you to identify teachers in your school who have solved problems that others have not been able to.