What Constitutes an Effective Collaborative Team?
Matt Larson, NCTM President
July 14, 2017
Over the past year, I have frequently referred to the importance of teachers of mathematics working collaboratively to improve teaching and learning. Over this same time period, many members have asked me what I think characterizes an effective professional learning community or
Experts in professional learning communities often emphasize various features, behaviors, or actions of effective collaborative teams. In this message I offer the perspective and characteristics of effective mathematics collaborative learning teams that I, along with
colleagues, have promoted for the better part of a decade.
When I visit a school district or make a presentation at a conference, I usually ask teachers in attendance if their school has professional learning communities. The nearly unanimous answer is yes. Next, I ask teachers if they believe that their collaborative teams are effective. For
example, are their collaborative teams (grade level or subject based) focused on instructional improvement, and do they respond to evidence of student learning to support each and every student? Typically, over half the hands in the audience go down. As is often the case, how something is done is as important as what
Professional collaboration is critical to instructional improvement. Simply put, in too many schools teachers continue to work in isolation. One danger of working in isolation is that it can lead to inconsistencies in instructional practice that in turn can contribute to
inequities in how students experience mathematics in the classroom, students' opportunities to learn, and ultimately student learning outcomes. If one is committed to equitable outcomes as well as high learning outcomes for each and every student, then working within effective collaborative teams is essential.
The Professionalism Principle in Principles
to Actions emphasizes teachers collaborating on instruction. In too many cases, professional learning communities are little more than cooperative groups of adults who meet periodically, often simply because the administration tells them they have to. Too often, this time is spent discussing trivial
administrative issues or dividing up routine tasks to reduce teachers' burdensome workload.
Effective professional collaboration is critical for changing how we think about our own continual development and improvement as teachers and for driving school improvement. Evidence indicates that differences in instruction and student learning within a school are often twice as large as
differences between schools. Collective professional expertise, when leveraged through professional collaboration by teachers in a grade level or subject-based team, has the power to dramatically impact the practice of all teachers and the effectiveness
of the school. This movement away from the "superhero teacher" model to one of continual and collaborative growth can work to diminish the access and equity issues that arise from the random assignment of students to teachers.
To improve instruction and student learning, collaborative teams must focus on planning and improving instruction, as well as responding to individual student needs in a timely manner. I believe this is best accomplished by breaking the instructional planning task down into three
phases. Specific questions to discuss, agreements to reach, and actions to take before, during, and after each unit of instruction, should guide your collaborative team's work.
Before the Unit
Effective instruction rests on careful planning, and much of this planning needs to occur before a unit of instruction begins. Here are some critical questions your collaborative team should discuss and reach agreement on before each unit of instruction begins:
During the Unit
During the unit of instruction, we need to work collaboratively to implement our unit plans, monitor student learning, and make needed adjustments to our planned instructional tasks and activities to support the learning of each and every student. Here are some critical questions your collaborative
team should discuss and reach agreement on during the unit:
After the Unit
For effective collaborative teams the work doesn't end when the unit ends. Both student and teacher learning should continue. Here are some critical questions your collaborative team should discuss and take action on after a unit of instruction ends:
Participation in a collaborative team provides an effective structure to relentlessly and deliberately study, reflect on, and improve one's practice. The questions and actions recommended here can support your collaborative team not only to focus on continual improvement of instructional practice but also
help ensure that you respond to each and every student's instructional needs in real-time, lesson-by-lesson, and unit-by-unit.
As you work collaboratively in your teams, I encourage you to take advantage of the new NCTM grade-band series Taking Action: Implementing Effective Teaching Practices. The Taking Action series provides case studies that your
collaborative team can discuss to deepen your understanding of effective instructional practices. The series also connects the instructional practices in Principles to Actions to
equity-based instructional practices to advance the learning of each and every student.
If you are not currently working in subject-based or grade-level collaborative teams, I challenge you to start doing so this next year. If you are already working in collaborative teams, great! Then I challenge you and your colleagues to ask yourselves the questions outlined here to ensure that your
collaborative team focuses on continual instructional improvement, supports each and every student in learning more mathematics, and encourages the development of a positive mathematics identity and high sense of agency in each and every student.
A great "article" to jumpstart next school year. Thank you for the clarity.
Nicely said! Love it! Working towards it and enjoying the journey!