Great Collaboration Ideas

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 collaborative team.

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 is done.

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:

  • Do we have agreement on the essential learning standards of the unit? Do we have agreement on pacing for the unit? This is related to research-informed instructional practice establish mathematics goals to focus learning from Principles to Actions.
  • Do we have agreement on the mathematical tasks we will use in this unit, including the level of cognitive demand? This is related to research-informed instructional practice implement tasks that promote reasoning and sense making from Principles to Actions.
  • Have we developed and agreed to use common formative assessments to determine student learning in the unit? This is related to the assessment principle from Principles to Actions.
  • Do we agree on how we will score the common assessments? This is related to the assessment principle from Principles to Actions.
  • Do we agree on how we will handle homework? This is related to research-informed instruction practice elicit and use evidence of student thinking from Principles to Actions.

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:

  • As a collaborative team, are we deeply planning one lesson, or a short series of lessons on a concept, for this unit? This is related to the professionalism and teaching and learning principles from Principles to Actions. You likely don’t have time to engage in this level of planning for every lesson, but your goal should be to do this for a critical lesson or concept in each unit.
  • Are we effectively implementing the tasks we agreed on before the unit at the intended level of cognitive demand? This is related to research-informed instructional strategy support productive struggle in learning mathematics from Principles to Actions.
  • Are we using in-class formative assessment processes to monitor student understanding and guide our instruction? This is related to the research-informed instructional strategy elicit and use evidence of student thinking from Principles to Actions.
  • Are we monitoring our classroom environment? Are we cultivating on the strengths of students? Are we cultivating positive student mathematics identities for each and every student? This is related to the access and equity principle from Principles to Actions.

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:

  • How did our students do on the common formative assessment? How are we supporting students in using feedback from the assessment to continue their learning and deepen their understanding? Who needs an additional opportunity to learn and demonstrate their learning?
  • How effective were our instructional plans, activities, and assessments for the unit? What adjustments do we need to make in advance of the next unit? What adjustments do we need to make before teaching this unit again next year?

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.

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