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Four Ways to Improve Team Learning

Establishing more time for collaborative professional learning is only a first step. Using the time effectively and efficiently is also essential. Four simple processes can focus the interactions that occur in teams and connect what team members learn with student learning.

Establish a clear purpose for each meeting. At the beginning of each session or at the end of the previous session, team members commit to a clear purpose for the meeting that specifies the learning goals for educators and the outcomes they expect for students when their learning goals are implemented. Establishing a purpose also means being clear about what the non-purpose of the session will be. This trick of non-purpose is a powerful tool for maintaining a laser-like focus on the identified purpose and gaining maximum benefit. Too often team members think everyone on the team is on the same page, and too often the opposite is true.

Inform to reform. Teams come together to plan, assess, design, analyze, reflect, and engage. Yet if team members are not expanding what they know, believe, can do, are willing to do, and do when they are together, all their work will be modifications of what they have already done. Informing their thinking and decision making with new ideas, provocative text, examination of their own beliefs, and transparency about successes and challenges will result in authentic co-construction instead of slight modifications of existing practices.

Celebrate the unknown. Educators work from a platform of certainty. They want to feel competent. They worry that their experimentation will diminish results for students. Yet new standards require students to experiment, explore, inquire, hypothesize, predict, generalize, and synthesize. When educators engage in this level of learning as a part of their own practice, they will simultaneously learn how to facilitate this type of learning for their own students. With the rapid pace of information generation and access, educators can no longer be satisfied with what they know. They must learn to be comfortable with what is unknown and seek to generate knowledge rather than affirm it.

Test and retest. Each collaborative learning session ends with a hypothesis to test through application of new, refined, or expanded learning. Team members can create individual or collective hypotheses related to the team's learning, design the experiment to test the hypothesis, and return to the next meeting with data and a tentative conclusion in hand to share with others. Through this testing and retesting process, team members develop a deep, authentic understanding of their learning and appreciate the nuances of its application in different contexts with different students.

Learning Forward, with support from MetLife, Sandler, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, developed four professional learning units designed for teacher leaders and school and district administrators to implement, refine, and support collaborative professional learning to increase student achievement. Explore the units here.

Joellen Killion
Senior Advisor, Learning Forward

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