No man is an island, and teachers are no exception. Teachers today are expected to be highly effective collaborators who have their hearts centred on their students and student learning. Teacher collaboration involves more than just working as a team. What can teachers do to deepen their understanding of being collaborative professionals to improve student learning outcomes?
For the past year Associate Professor Angelia Poon, who is with the English Language and Literature Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), and Dr Tay May Yin, Principal Master Teacher/English Language with the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS), have been supporting a team of secondary school English Language (EL) teachers and their Heads of Department (HOD) to enhance classroom practices.
Engaging in Self-Reflection and Dialogue
Each week during the school term, Angelia and May Yin held one-hour Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings with five Secondary Two EL teachers and their HODs. During these meetings, the teachers would reflect on their EL classroom practices.
The teachers kept journals in which they penned their self-reflections according to a questioning protocol. The first question focused on what they had done well in their EL lessons the previous week and the justifications for their thoughts.
“The second question that we asked was, ‘How did you know learning had taken place?’ to prompt them to provide us with the evidence,” Angelia says. “Introducing the idea of evidence-based learning forces teachers to take notice and be aware of their students’ responses and questions.”
Additionally, teachers also reviewed the challenges they faced, which provided opportunities for their colleagues to give feedback or help find possible solutions to any problems faced. “These three questions, when discussed during the weekly meetings, serve to enhance teacher collaboration through deep and meaningful dialogue,” she explains.
Peer Feedback and Identification of Areas for Growth
Soon, however, Angelia and May Yin observed that the quality of discussions during these meetings began to plateau.
“We wanted to move on to a higher level and decided to have the team of teachers engage in video-based critical inquiry. This involved teachers video-recording their lessons and choosing a snippet for critical reflection with their peers,” Angelia shares. Such an approach allowed the teachers opportunities to provide candid and constructive feedback while also empowering them since they could choose which aspect of their lesson they wanted help with.
To elicit more detailed responses and deepen the conversation, Angelia and May Yin provided a questioning framework for the teachers to do self-inquiry into their classroom practice.
“Teachers had to describe their current practices based on the video-recordings, analyse what they did, and why they did what they did; probe into their practice by questioning the assumptions, values and beliefs underlying their practice; and reconstruct their assumptions, values and beliefs by taking an active reflective stance and making decisions for next steps in their practice,” Angelia explains.
Both Angelia and May Yin found this approach to be useful in enabling teachers to take ownership of their learning as they became empowered to be more critical and self-reflective of their teaching.
The next step in May Yin’s view is diagnosis. “Being able to recognize one’s areas for growth is an important aspect of teacher learning,” May Yin adds. Two key areas of teaching competencies for teachers to focus on are Subject Content Knowledge (SCK) and Knowledge of Pedagogy (PK).
“Teachers tend to prioritize PK in their decision-making but in classroom enactment PK has to interact with SCK. This interplay between SCK and PK is referred to as Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK). PCK is the manner in which teachers use SCK to consider different ways to represent it (i.e., PK) and make it accessible to students,” May Yin explains.
Through the video-sharing sessions, teachers reported that they were able to think more critically about their lessons as well as the knowledge bases they possessed. The discussions also had, to some extent, encouraged teachers to pay more attention to student learning rather than simply focus on examination preparation and results.
“Teachers had to describe their current practices based on the video-recordings, analyse what they did, and why they did what they did; probe into their practice by questioning the assumptions, values and beliefs underlying their practice; and reconstruct their assumptions, values and beliefs by taking an active reflective stance and making decisions for next steps in their practice.”
– Angelia describes the steps teachers take in the process of self-inquiry
The Way Ahead
Moving forward, May Yin and Angelia are keen to study the impact of collaborative teacher learning on student outcomes. “This is a question for the long-term which we have not been able to measure or sense yet, but we do believe that there can be positive outcomes for students,” Angelia shares.
For now, May Yin and Angelia are working on bringing about sustainable change in the department. They believe that focusing on shifting teachers’ beliefs, dispositions and attitudes is key to shifting classroom practices to impact student outcomes. “This remains a work-in-progress as we found the focus on examinations to be quite strong but we hope over time to shift the emphasis to a focus on students as learners,” Angelia says.
May Yin and Angelia are also working on building a viable model of teacher collaboration that would ensure teachers continue to develop professionally and eventually mentor other colleagues.
“There is a need to review our conventional approaches to teacher learning. We want teachers to co-construct their lessons and co-teach,” May Yin says. Both Angelia and May Yin stress the importance of rigorously planning the appropriate structures and learning experiences for teachers to develop the necessary competencies. Teacher professional learning, they add, is best situated in classroom and school contexts.
May Yin concludes that collaborating professionally is more than just putting people together. “It is about taking into account the myriad of factors that will contribute to the most conducive ecosystem for teacher and student learning,” she says.