Leading Learning

David Brazer's blog discusses practical issues in education leadership while linking to theory and research

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The Challenge of Teacher Learning That Impacts Student Learning

Algebra 1 teachers gathered in the pre-dawn chill of a portable classroom. Their collaborative team meeting began with three present and three more trickling in hunched around their paper cups of hot coffee. The chair, operating from her written agenda and district protocols, directed discussion to student achievement data. Focused first on areas of persistent student failure, the debate quickly shifted from evidence of learning to airing opinions on the value of having students re-taking tests when their grades fall below a certain level. Bringing the group back to the agenda with about 20 minutes left in the 45-minute period allotted for collaborative team work, the chair energetically presented a new way of factoring polynomials. All were silent until she finished, with the exception of the chair’s special education co-teacher who expressed eagerness to try the method in her self-contained classroom. As the warning bell for first period rang, teachers gathered up papers, books, and coffee and bustled out of the room.

This kind of meeting, tucked away in the far corners of a jam-packed workday, seems typical of attempts to have teachers collaborate in a manner that improves teaching and learning. The meeting was largely focused on achievement, deficiencies were noted, and a solution was presented. I was present as non-participant observer conducting research on the operation and output of teacher collaborative teams. As I left the meeting and walked to my car, I wondered: Did learning happen? How would I know? How does it affect students? Principals and other leaders may want to ask and answer these questions to understand what teacher collaboration means in their schools. Creating a supportive context for teacher learning and connecting what is learned to classroom practices presents a vital challenge to instructional leadership.

Organizational design, deliberate or accidental, greatly influences whether or not teacher learning takes place. The high school in which I observed this collaborative team meeting was, in my view, better designed than most to support teacher learning, though it had some serious weaknesses. The design was deliberate and took place through specific management initiatives over time.

Research colleagues of mine and I use four critical areas of organizational design to analyze the potential for teacher learning: scope, formal structure, decision making process, and support (Bauer, 1998; Bauer, Brazer, Van Lare, & Smith, 2013; Shedd, 1987; Shedd & Bacharach, 1991). For this particular school, scope was clear. Collaborative teams were to focus on issues of student achievement, rather than departmental business. Formal structure was also obvious: teachers knew they were on the Algebra 1 team, meeting for 45 minutes every two weeks. The role of chair was never in doubt. Decision making protocols, in contrast, were not evident. Typical of other teams we observed, ideas such as the new factoring method were presented, but it was never clear if anyone was expected to use them or what would happen based on results. If the factoring method seemed to work well, would all teachers adopt it? No one knew. Most remarkable in this high school was the level of support. The long-serving principal adopted a collaborative team model several years before it was mandated by the district. Having developed a school-based data warehouse and analysis mechanism, the principal used his staffing formula to provide the faculty with a data expert and a pedagogical expert—one to help teachers with analysis and the other to assist with responding to what they learned. Time was a critical support factor that appeared to be in short supply.

What was the result in this apparently well-supported system of teacher collaboration? I caution the reader that what I am about to say is based on very few observations of the people on this particular team, but it is similar to what our research team found in nine other schools in this district. I received permission to observe the two teachers who said they would try the new factoring method in their classes and attended the entire class period on the days they scheduled it into their lesson. The special education teacher ran out of time in her self-contained classroom. The collaborative team chair who initiated the idea taught the new method to her students in the last ten minutes of the class period I observed. I was unable to determine if she returned to it in subsequent lessons, though she seemed motivated to do so.

Did teacher learning happen in the collaborative team? A little. Teachers discussed typical learning problems in Algebra 1 that often lead to a D and F rate among students of at least 30%. Learning was enhanced by the chair’s presentation of a new factoring method she had never tried but wanted to. She explained how the method works and how she envisioned introducing and working with it in her classroom. Horn (2010) calls presentation of learning problems (factoring, in this case) with examples replays and the articulation of possible teaching responses to the problem rehearsals. These are building blocks of teacher learning as they work in teams. (For more detail, see Van Lare & Brazer, 2013; Van Lare, Brazer, Bauer, & Smith, 2013.)

How does such teacher learning affect students in classrooms? In this case, marginally at best, and perhaps not at all. Only two teachers of the six present expressed any intent to try the new factoring method; only one of these two actually did so on the timeline projected to me. I was unable to learn the effects of these trials because the next two bi-weekly collaborative team meetings were cancelled for various reasons. When I finally returned to a second meeting, the focus of discussion was far away from factoring as new imperatives of the waning school year took precedence.

Managing a large school with dozens of collaborative teams is challenging for even the most gifted leaders. Merely setting up teams and hoping they will be productive rarely leads to meaningful change. The challenge for leaders is creating a climate of inquiry that supports and encourages all teachers to engage in learning that is action focused so that classroom improvements are more likely to be attempted and evaluated. Principals and their leadership teams must ensure that the designs of their schools motivate, enhance, and perhaps demand both inquiry and action. Risks of failure are substantial, but improvement is unlikely if action does not follow from inquiry.


Bauer, S.C. (1998). Designing site-based systems, deriving a theory of practice. International Journal of Educational Reform, 7(2), 108 – 21.

Bauer, S.C., Brazer, S.D., Van Lare, M.D., & Smith, R. (2013). Organizational design in support of professional learning communities in one district. In S. Conley & B. Cooper (Eds.), Moving from teacher isolation to collaboration (pp. 49 – 80). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shedd, J. (1987). Involving teachers in school and district decision making. Ithaca, NY: Organizational Analysis and Practice.

Shedd, J., & Bacharach, S. (1991). Tangled hierarchies: Teachers as professionals and the management of schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Van Lare, M.D., & Brazer, S.D. (2013). Analyzing learning in professional learning communities: A conceptual framework. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 12(4), 374 – 396.

Van Lare, M.D., Brazer, S.D., Bauer, S.C., & Smith, R. (2013). Professional learning communities using evidence. In S. Conley & B. Cooper (Eds.), Moving from teacher isolation to collaboration (pp. 157 – 181). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.