Thursday, January 09, 2020

Fostering Collective Teacher Efficacy through Collaborative Inquiry

I am continually inspired by teachers. Again and again, I sit beside teachers who come together to grapple with the hard questions of teaching and learning. Sure, experts have answers, but these teachers dive into the messy and complex work of situating these answers within the walls of their classroom and in response to the students in front of them. These are teachers who believe that by grappling together around these challenges they can help all students learn and thrive. We call this shared belief collective teacher efficacy, and it has the greatest effect on student achievement. To foster this belief, we must give teachers the green light to pursue their questions through collaborative inquiry.

Here’s what I love about each part of this equation:
  • Action Research – Our students and classrooms are often our best teachers. 
  • PLCs – The smartest person in the room is the room. 
  • Backwards Design – Start with the end in mind. 

When you put these three things together, you have a powerful process and an empowering journey for professional learning. What I love most about collaborative inquiry is it puts teachers in the driver’s seat of their learning, or more so, a team of drivers gets together to choose how to navigate this arduous journey together. 

Below are key components of the collaborative inquiry process. With each, I’ve described what makes it especially powerful and how I’ve seen it with BPS teachers:

Framing the problem – During this initial phase, teachers dig into the gap between desired reality and current reality. They look for possible reasons this gap might exist, examine the possibilities within their control, and determine which to address for greatest impact. What I love is the grace of this process – hypothesizing which problem to address and how to address it. This requires us to closely examine what’s within our control and have the courage to try tackling it. 

A group of middle school ELA teachers began talking about students’ use of comprehension strategies. The more they dug into this, they realized the gap: Currently, students use comprehension strategies effectively in the ELA classroom, but they weren’t transferring these strategies to other classes. One option was to support other content teachers to use these strategies in their own classes to reinforce connections, but the more they talked, the more they realized this wasn’t the best possibility. They determined that the real question was how their instruction could foster ownership and transfer of these strategies.

Collecting and Analyzing Evidence – As with backwards design, this process gets teachers talking about what success would look like and what evidence will help us know we’re making headway. Too often, collecting evidence is viewed as a cumbersome process that turns students into numbers when really it should be an opportunity to more deeply understand our students and learn from them - their strengths and needs. The beauty is in the diversity of student work.

Another PLC was examining how to help students get better at determining key details and main idea. Each teacher was going to ask students the same question that week: What is the main idea? They each looked at their week ahead and planned for when they would use this question – with a documentary, class notes, a primary source, a political cartoon. They then planned how to ask it: a ticket out, at the end of class notes, think-pair-share, a quiz question. When they reconvened a week later, they were able to talk about the strengths, needs, and next steps of their students. And because this autonomy existed, they were able to learn from each other and muddle their way to clarity on what they really meant by “determining main idea”. 

Documenting, Celebrating, and Share – Ultimately, this process is about learning from our students and our classroom. Did my students improve? Do I know why they improved? This second question is the question that we often don’t spend enough time on. If we know why students improved, not only can we replicate this in the future, but we can also share our learning with our colleagues. 

Last year, a World Language PLC dug into improving students’ ability to infer at word, sentence, and passage level. They felt strongly that they first needed to address students’ willingness to take risks with the new language. If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you know exactly how right their hypothesis was! As they started their work together this year, they were able to quickly recall the most impactful strategies from last year in increasing risk-taking: increase collaboration, provide sentence frames and word walls, model risk-taking, lessen the consequences for risk-taking, and foster a classroom climate that celebrates risk-taking. 

The beauty of this collaborative inquiry process is how it invokes both vulnerability and empowerment. It fosters a culture of vulnerability and growth mindset, and it empowers teachers to be problem solvers of their own classrooms. The journey may be arduous, but this shared belief, this collective efficacy, makes it beautiful and worthwhile. 

Twitter Chat questions:

  1. Describe where you’ve seen or experienced collective efficacy (CE), the shared belief that together we can cause great things for all.
  2. Collaborative inquiry (CI) combines Action Research, PLC, and Backwards Design. Which of these components is hardest to engage in, and why?
  3. Which of these components most invigorates you, and why?
  4. What’s the professional question that’s been keeping you up at night? And who can you pursue it with?

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