We cannot expect that students will engage in challenging work and discourse unless our teachers experience that kind of learning environment for themselves. We know that teacher teams engaged in inquiry around student learning are a key lever for creating meaningful changes in classrooms and schools (i,ii). While it is true that some individual schools have created this culture on their own, the ability to do this in all schools requires us to think differently about what makes this work across a district.
When we worked at the New York City Department of Education from 2004 to 2015, we embraced the idea of encouraging teachers to engage in collaborative inquiry cycles and saw many successes and struggles. We’ve continued to think about the power of teacher teams in our current work at Bank Street College of Education. As we looked across the country at struggling districts, we found a connection between learning at the district, principal and teacher level — what we call the “through line of learning” — was incoherent and there was often a lack of real inquiry into the issues that matter most. When teachers, school leaders and central office staff are all pulling in the same direction and are tackling tough questions about teaching and learning head on, the experiences within teacher teams become the foundation for both adult and student learning throughout the district.
With this in mind, we recently launched the New York Network of four urban school districts in New York State committed to supporting teachers to implement shifts in instructional practice that align with New York’s challenging standards and are responsive to student needs.
An elementary school in Utica City School District provides an example of a school we have supported that meets these two criteria. Teachers identified a problem of practice around improving writing instruction — while their students could learn and practice discrete writing skills, these skills weren’t translating into improved overall writing. To investigate this issue, the principal formed a multi-grade team of teachers. The teachers explored the specific tasks they gave students, and grounded the conversation in the resulting student work. Previously, teachers might have shared writing prompts across the grade, but now they were asking each other specific questions about pedagogy and curriculum. The team went through two cycles of inquiry: giving students more choice of topics and giving them more time for writing within the day. They also taught their students new strategies for planning out their writing. With each new approach, the team collected their tasks and student writing for further investigation.
While the results are still in process, there are early indicators of success in a district where only 20% of students are at proficiency. Some students who previously had not written anything on their paper now had attempted some writing. Others said that writing was more enjoyable. Importantly, teachers began feeling they had more control in what was happening with their students. As one teacher said, “This team has made me focus on the process of writing and problem solving rather than just jumping into action.”
Whether called professional learning communities, teacher teams or inquiry teams, who teachers talk with in a school, how they talk, what they talk about and what they do with the collective knowledge they generate are all essential ingredients to creating productive adult learning environments. And, as other research indicates, the quality of those conversations — the depth of the questions and the connection to instruction — underscores the strength of the learning community (iii,iv).
But this culture doesn’t happen on its own. School and district leaders have a clear and critical role that has been the focus of our work in districts across the country. School leaders must actively build the “optimal conditions for developing innovative solutions to complex problems of teaching and learning to go beyond the status quo”(v) by setting a vision for high-quality classrooms grounded in instruction — and then creating the necessary PD supports and resources to allow teachers to collectively move toward that vision.
In Yonkers Public Schools, through the New York Network, district leaders have embraced this notion and realized that they need to learn how to support principals in creating these conditions. Accordingly, they are creating their own version of collaborative inquiry teams at the school-leader and district levels. “Creating PLCs at every layer of the system allows us to ‘walk the walk’ and model the expectations of learning we want to see in classrooms. I see that as the work,” Dr. Andrea Coddett, deputy superintendent in the Division of Teaching and Learning said. This kind of coherence-building work through the layers of the system, focused on strong student and adult learning, is what we mean by a system’s “through line of learning.”
For districts to be able to lead this work, district leaders need to know what it feels like. Once they do, they can then thoughtfully plan supports for teacher leaders that make sure establishing inquiry teams leads to meaningful changes in classrooms. At the same time, they need to ensure that broader instructional improvement initiatives align with and do not disrupt the work of teacher teams in schools.
Josh Thomases is the dean of innovation, policy and research at Bank Street College of Education. Tracy Fray-Oliver is the deputy executive director of programs and implementation at the Bank Street Education Center.
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- i.) McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J.E. (2001). Professional Communities and the Work of High School Teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- ii.) Talbert, J.E. (2010) Professional Learning Communities at the Crossroads: How Systems Hinder or Engender Change. In: Hargreaves A., Lieberman A., Fullan M., Hopkins D. (eds) Second International Handbook of Educational Change. Springer International Handbooks of Education, vol 23. Springer, Dordrecht.
- iii.) Horn, I. & Little, J.W. (2010). Attending to Problems of Practice: Routines and Resources for Professional Learning in Teachers’ Workplace Interactions. American Educational Research Journal, 47(1),181-217.
- iv.) Henry, S. (2012). Instructional Conversations: A Qualitative Exploration of Differences in Elementary Teachers’ Team Discussions (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ERIC (ED550456).
- v.) Forman, M., Stosich, E., & Bocala, C. (2017). The Internal Coherence Framework: Creating the Conditions for Continuous Improvement in Schools. pp. 51. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press.