Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Teachers Need Time To Collaborate, Messily

May 31, 2012

We all know the image of the "worksheet teacher". The class that walks in, grabs a paper from the teacher’s desk and sits filling in blanks, bubbles and squares until the bell rings. It’s a stereotype of bad pedagogy that populates movies and myths.

As teachers, we recognize this as the lowest form of thinking, and yet, in many schools, it is what has happened to time set aside for teachers to reflect and plan collaboratively. These meetings, which are intended to foster critical thinking about practice and refinement of instruction have become scripted and structured to the point that real collaboration and real thinking is no longer on the agenda.

Collaboration is vital to the improvement of education because it is the key to becoming a better teacher and a more thoughtful practitioner. Through collaboration, a teacher can reflect on practice, understand the value of qualitative and quantitative data, and design lessons that engage all students.

The value of this type of planning has been studied and proven by a multitude of researchers, but it’s been notoriously difficult for schools to capitalize on, in part because it is difficult to organize, maintain, and control.

Our aim should be to teach our students how to think...not what to think or what facts to memorize.

As a teacher, the collaborative meetings I’ve experienced can be categorized in two ways: those in which the locus of control rests with my colleagues and myself, and those in which a structure (and often, a worksheet) is imposed by well-meaning administration looking for accountability.

In the first scenario, I gravitate towards teachers who think critically about their teaching, are creative about their instructional methods and put their students’ learning above all else. In the second scenario, I complete a worksheet with my colleagues, filling in the blanks and providing surface answers to complex questions that don’t get to the heart of improving teaching.

Collaboration is a messy process that requires time, resources, and trust. While principals and district administration can do quite a bit about the first two elements, the conversation about data-driven decision-making and evaluations based on test scores have shredded the last. And trust is essential to productive collaboration, because it requires reflection.

As a teacher, I have to be willing to admit what went wrong and to be honest about my mistakes. I must be open to others' solutions. This can be a frightening prospect as the increasingly punitive nature of evaluation attempts to punish bad teachers instead of making teachers better. Without trust, a teacher would be likely to think, "what will happen if I admit that I made a mistake?" because the answer they received might not be a helpful one, indeed it might include a reprimand.

I think we all set out to accomplish the same thing: to improve our students' ability to think critically. Regardless of our discipline or grade level, our aim should be the same: to teach our students how to think about our discipline, not what to think about it, or what facts to memorize in it.

Before our meetings were overtaken by scripted agendas and worksheets, I often asked my English colleagues, “What matters more, what a student reads or how they think about what they read?”

The answer is clear, which means the goal of collaboration should be clear as well. How do we teach students how to think?  And, the sad answer is, due to the nature of testing, we are so busy trying to figure out how to ensure our student's success on finite measures, that we lose site of the truly significant skill of critical thinking. Because of this, collaboration has taken on the patina of a test-centered environment. The goal becomes about what we can show quantitatively on a worksheet instead of what should be achieved qualitatively in pedagogical practice in the classroom.

As a system, we have forgotten that not all data is numerical; not all data consists of test scores. Our collaborative efforts have been twisted to chase higher numbers on tests that don’t add value to our educational system. We have created a new level of the "worksheet lesson plan", one in which the teachers fill out the worksheet too. 

In our collaboration and therefore in our classroom, we are settling for that which is easy, not that which serves us as a school, a society, or a nation. 

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