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Leverage the Power of Collaborative Expertise

Stephanie Hirsh image
Stephanie Hirsh

I was excited to read two recent reports from researcher John Hattie: What Doesn't Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction and What Works Best in Education: The Politics of Collaborative Expertise. Hattie, whose seminal research is on the educational practices most likely to lead to student gains, examines those findings to determine how we increase those practices within schools. It is no surprise to many of us that he has landed on the power of collaborative learning.

Hattie contends that the answer to student learning challenges lies in implementing policies that promote systems that value and develop teachers and school leaders. His decades of research have convinced him that the greatest influence on student learning is having "expert, inspired, and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximize the effect of their teaching on all students in their care." At the heart of his answer is the notion of collaborative expertise in which all parts of the education system -- teachers, parents, students, and policymakers -- work together to use their collective expertise to support successful learning. 

Based on his research, Hattie contends that policymakers and educational leaders are too focused on differences between schools when the greatest differences are within the individual school. Research shows that one of the greatest variances within a school is the effectiveness of its teachers. A key task, Hattie says, is to move the narrative away from a focus on "fixing the teacher," which puts too much responsibility on the individual teacher, and instead toward a focus on the opportunities created through mining the wealth of collaborative expertise. Hattie proposes that schools need to scale up teacher expertise by bringing teachers together in collaborative practice. The goal is to bring the effect of all teachers on student learning to a very high level.

In the U.S. and beyond, schools and systems are committed to collaborative learning teams, which ideally would be structures that encourage the development of the collaborative expertise that Hattie describes in his work -- and which Learning Forward advocates through its Standards for Professional Learning. In Learning Forward's Learning Communities standard, effective professional learning leads to improved student learning when all educators learn collaboratively as they commit to collective responsibility and continuous improvement.

However, Hattie cautions that just bringing teachers together will not lead to good practice. The focus of collaboration, he emphasizes, needs to be on "the evidence of impact, common understandings of what impact means, the evidence and ways to know about the magnitude of this impact, and how the impact is shared across many groups of students." Time and structures for learning are not enough, as the standards outline. How that collaborative time is used, how skillful educators are in using that time, and the support that school and system leaders provide to lead and sustain collaborative learning are critical to its success.

Hattie sees key tasks for school leaders in harnessing and spreading expertise within their schools by creating environments more focused on trust than accountability, promoting cultures that value evidence, and working with staff to evaluate the impact of their practice on learning.  

As I consider how school and system leaders can develop collaborative expertise in their schools, I offer as useful tools not only the Standards for Professional Learning but also Learning Forward's Innovation Configuration (IC) maps. Each IC map helps educators in a particular role identify the actions they can take to implement the standards at a high level of fidelity. You can see a sample IC map here.

I know many of you work in schools and systems implementing learning communities focused on enhancing teachers' skills and impacting student learning. What have been your successes? What barriers to implementation have you found? I would love to hear from you about the actions you've taken to develop collaborative expertise.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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