Five Collaborative Professional Learning Activities

By Ron Williamson and Barbara R. Blackburn
October 2013, Volume 37, Issue 2

The most vibrant and successful schools are those in which everyone recognizes the need to continue to refine practice. Successful professional learning also includes collaborative activities where educators can examine their work and improve practice.

These five strategies—book studies, looking at student work, learning walks, lesson studies, and developing consistent expectations—offer new ways for staff members to work collaboratively and gain the knowledge and skills necessary to positively impact student learning.

Book Study

One way to engage staff in their own professional growth is to organize a book study group. At some schools, every teacher is asked to read the same book and discuss it in groups. At other schools, teachers may choose from several books and join colleagues who selected the same book for their discussion. Use these guidelines to conduct a book study.

Book Study Guidelines

• Membership should be voluntary but inclusive.

• Decide a meeting schedule, meeting place, the length of book to be read, and what will happen after the book is read.

• Meetings should last no more than one hour and be held at a consistent time and place.

• Select a responsible facilitator to keep the group on task and help manage the meetings.

• Select a book with a clear objective in mind. For example, you might use Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word with teachers to launch a conversation about rigor.

• Talk about how the ideas can be applied directly in the classroom. Members of the group should share insights, ask questions about the text, and learn from others.

• Encourage staff members to journal about the reading and how it might be used.

Looking at Student Work

A powerful way to improve your school’s instructional program is to look at authentic student work. In many schools, teams of teachers examine student work as a way to clarify their own standards for that work, to strengthen common expectations for students, or to align curriculum.

Because looking at student work can be threatening to some teachers, create a climate where faculty members are comfortable sharing their work and revealing artifacts about their classroom practice. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform suggests several preliminary steps, such as talking about the process and assuring teachers it is not evaluative, selecting guidelines for the conversation, agreeing on a method for selecting samples, and establishing a system for constructive feedback. Teachers may be more comfortable as they see samples of others’ work. One excellent resource for samples is the site Looking at Student Work.

Learning Walk

Learning walks are not evaluative, nor are they designed for individual feedback. Instead, they help participants to learn about instruction. They provide a snapshot of a school’s instructional program. Only look for positive examples during your first learning walks. This gives teachers a sense of confidence and a willingness to continue.

Here is a simple, eight-step process for learning walks.

Learning Walk Protocol

  1. Work with staff to identify the purpose of the learning walk.
  2. Determine the process, including length of classroom visits as well as what will occur during the visits.
  3. Develop and use a consistent tool for participants to use to record their observations and collect data.
  4. Inform staff when the learning walks will occur.
  5. Conduct a pre-walk orientation for those participating.
  6. Conduct the learning walk and spend no more than five minutes in each classroom. Depending on the lesson, talk with the teacher and students, look at student work, and examine the organization of the classroom.
  7. After the walk, ask participants to discuss the information they gathered and how to share it with the faculty.
  8. Develop a plan for sharing the information and for using it to guide your continued school improvement work.

Lesson Studies

Lesson studies emphasize working in small groups to plan, teach, observe and critique a lesson. Typically, principals invite all teachers to participate. But, do not force the issue. Instead, work with those who volunteer to create a strong base.

While working on the study lesson, teachers come together and create a detailed lesson plan. One member of the group then teaches the lesson in his or her classroom while other group members observe. Together, the group discusses and revises the lesson. This collaborative process can continue multiple times until the teachers believe they have completed the process. This is an excellent way to incorporate key areas of the Common Core State Standards, such as the concept of close reading. Teacher’s College at Columbia University provides resources for organizing a lesson study.

Develop Consistent Expectations

An alternative to the lesson study is a group discussion of expectations. Through this process, teachers and leaders look at samples of common assessments or assignments and evaluate the work to determine if teachers’ expectations are equivalent. This is particularly important across grade levels and/or subject areas.

Process for a Conversation About Expectations

Step 1:

Gather copies of a standard assignment, such as a short essay, completed by students. Be sure to have copies from several teachers.

Step 2:

Step 3:

Step 4:

Share copies of the assignment with the group and ask everyone to assess it.

Meet to discuss the results. Use prompts to guide the discussion. For example:

  • “How do you determine quality?”;
  • “What do you consider in a quality assignment?”; or
  • “What do you expect students to know in order to complete this assignment?”

You may want to extend the conversation to other grade levels. Discussion prompts might include:

  • “What are some areas that students struggle with?”; or
  • “What do you expect students to know before they come into your class?”

Professional learning communities and collaborative structures like these provide a mechanism for teachers, principals, and other staff to make the improvement of student learning a priority. Each of these five activities—book studies, looking at student work, learning walks, lesson studies, and developing consistent expectations—has advantages and disadvantages. Select a strategy that allows you to maintain momentum on achieving your vision, and one that matches the available resources at your school.

Ron Williamson is professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University.

Barbara R. Blackburn is author of over a dozen books on instruction, motivation, and instructional rigor.

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