Few educators doubt the value of teacher collaboration. But what kind actually improves classroom instruction? What should principals look for?

We’ve conducted research on this issue and worked with school districts in the United States for more than a decade. Based on those experiences, we would like to offer secondary school principals specific guidelines to identify productive teacher collaborations and integrate teaching and learning. Teachers can help each other solve problems by adopting this integrated approach.

Example 1: Trigonometry, Video, and iPads 

Midway through the school year, a group of geometry teachers was working to help students understand and utilize trigonometric functions in real-life situations to solve for unknown sides of right triangles. Evidence from classroom assessments had consistently showed this standard to be an area of need. The teachers developed and tested an instructional plan that would require student teams to create and illustrate (with drawings, video, or PowerPoint) an original, real-world, right-triangle problem and solution. 

The school had also recently tasked teachers with incorporating newly distributed iPads into daily instruction. The geometry teachers developed an example of a right-triangle problem for students in the context of a basketball court, using an iPad to create a video-based illustration. Working through the entire student assignment themselves, the instructors anticipated the details needed to mathematically model the problem and create an iPad trigonometry presentation. Teachers then videotaped their work so that students could review and study it as an example; they also created a detailed checklist to accompany the assignment and video. 

As teachers analyzed results from student presentations, they found that 89 percent of students used the correct trigonometry function, 67 percent set up the problem correctly, and 78 percent solved for the unknown correctly—all significant improvements. They attributed these results to a thoughtfully combined sequence of lesson elements, including the real-world problem they developed and videotaped with carefully diagrammed trigonometric explanations.  

“The video demonstrated how to set up the triangle with labeling, prompted the students to consider which trig function was needed, and gave a clear example of what was expected of students,” one teacher commented. “It all meshed together—teaching, project explanation, video, and checklist. We put ourselves into the role of the students. … Our teacher group functioned as a team, much like the students were expected to do.”

Example 2: Writing, Ranking, and Clarity 

Drawing on recent classroom assessments, a group of English teachers chose to give less attention to the mechanics of students’ compositions in revisions, instead placing greater emphasis on improving the clarity of written arguments. The team developed several instructional approaches to tackle this challenge, including a sequence of exercises where students were asked to study, rank, and justify the effectiveness of potential revisions to a writing sample. Teachers would then discuss potential revisions with the class, noting particularly strong student justifications and modeling—as needed—their own thinking and justifications for specific revisions.

Initially there was skepticism among the teachers about the capacity of students to improve. However, evidence gathered from student work and classroom observations over the course of a semester showed positive results. Students improved in strengthening connections between ideas, supporting main ideas with relevant details, and explaining the textual quotes they incorporated as evidence. 

After careful reflection on the lessons and student work, teachers attributed these results to the ranking exercises they had created and incorporated into their lessons. The teachers realized they had been telling students to focus on the clarity and effectiveness of their arguments but were not explicitly teaching students how to do that. “I was surprised by how engaged they were in the ranking task,” one teacher noted. “I didn’t know they were capable of that focus because they are everywhere. … We touched on something that they understand, and that was exciting for me because I knew it was what we were teaching.”

Integrating assessments, instructional strategies, and technology into the teaching cycle, rather than treating them as separate inputs, drives teaching and learning. Discussions about assessments that ignore teaching are not necessarily bad; neither are workshops that introduce new inputs (such as promising instructional practices or emerging educational technologies)—but they are insufficient for facilitating improvement. Standards, assessments, technology, and other inputs are best leveraged as integrated contributors to continuous inquiry and improvement of both teaching and learning.

These examples also illustrate a general strategy for planning and monitoring of professional development activities dependent on teacher collaboration and inquiry. Leaders should continually check for evidence of integration. Wise leaders listen for teachers talking about pivotal nuances in their instruction and the effects on student learning. They also listen to discern whether student performances cause teachers to reflect on and adjust their teaching. They listen for evidence of teachers talking about teaching and learning. 

Sidebar: Making It Work

Principals can encourage an integrated approach to teaching and learning by adopting these processes: 

  1. Set up a robust system of settings and assistance. Establish nonnegotiable times and places for teacher learning and continuous improvement collaborations. Make sure you provide ongoing support for these settings to each level of leadership so administrators and teachers can jointly focus on identified learning goals until they begin to see tangible results.
  2. Establish appropriate times and opportunities for studying and understanding new inputs, including standards, curriculum, and technology. Even the best resources are not specific enough to use “as is.” Teachers need significant time to convert them into concrete and effective units and lessons. The time this takes is almost always underestimated and is often the reason that even the most promising reforms and innovations fall short of expectations.
  3. Develop fully specified protocols for collaborative instructional inquiry. These protocols should be adaptable for local contexts and curriculum; should incorporate the use of standards, assessments, technology, and promising instructional practices; and, most importantly, should facilitate systematic planning and reflection on teaching and learning. Keep in mind, however, they should not be inflexible and prescriptive, otherwise they defeat the power of concentrated inquiry to identify instruction that produces desired student learning.
  4. Make a clear-cut commitment to learning over time. There is no predetermined length of time or set number of strate­gies that enable a team or individual to solve a particular learn­ing problem. The key is persisting until there is progress on key indicators and identification of the specific instructional choices that led to improved student results. A certain relentlessness is a necessary component of instructional improvement.

Bradley Ermeling, EdD, is principal research scientist at Pearson Research and Innovation Network and a member of research teams from UCLA and Stanford University. Ronald Gallimore, PhD, is distinguished professor emeritus at UCLA. William Saunders, PhD, is associate research psychologist at UCLA.