When it comes to professional development, how can school leaders build meaningful and impactful collaboration? TDT Expert Advisor, Concettina Johnson offers some questions for reflection, examples and tips.

Teachers deserve more. More access, more time, more development to be able to securely analyse and meet the
needs of their pupils in all contexts. Students equally deserve to be taught in a way that continually and effectively meets
their needs.

Over the past two years, schools across the country have faced ever-changing challenges and complexities that have
meant rapidly adapting their approaches to teaching, learning and professional development. These new challenges have
required schools to reshape their day-to-day activities for remote settings that do not naturally complement collaborative working. So, what do leaders need to consider to get collaboration right?

Collaboration and student attainment

The ability to work together in more meaningful ways through robust and trusted support and collaboration is paramount to a school’s ability to adapt and thrive.

Drawing on collective expertise is a simple yet compelling idea which enables all teachers to draw on the profession as a whole – rather than just the ideas from their own experiences or the policies present in their school.

The Teacher Development Trust’s working paper A culture of improvement (Weston et al, 2021) reviewed research papers on teacher working conditions and school leadership in order to explore the impact on student attainment.

The evidence suggests that collaboration is one of the five key aspects of a teacher’s working conditions that appear most closely associated with increased student attainment.

Creating opportunities for effective teacher collaboration to explore student data, plan and review lessons and curricula, and plan and moderate assessments is deemed to have a positive impact on students’ attainment.

Kraft and Papay (2014) highlight that “teachers working in more supportive professional environments improve their effectiveness more over time than teachers working in less supportive contexts”.

Nurture a culture of collaboration

As a leader, think about the opportunities for staff to work together in your school and reflect on the following questions:

  • Are staff supported to work in groups, engaging in on-going cycles of questions and inquiry that promote team learning?
  • Do they have time to meet during the working day throughout the year?
  • Do teams focus on critical questions related to learning and strategies for improving results?
  • How comfortable are staff with critically challenging their colleagues or providing developmental feedback?

Fostering a professional community for collaboration is a fundamental building block of a wider network to improve pupil outcomes, as recently evidenced by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)…

Mechanisms and building blocks

The EEF’s recent guidance report on effective professional development (Collin & Smith, 2021) draws our attention to “mechanisms” when designing and selecting effective professional development.

It emphasises that “mechanisms are the core building blocks of professional development”. It continues: “They are observable, can be replicated, and could not be removed without making professional development less effective.”

Significantly, these are supported by evidence from research on human behaviour and have proved to change practice in contexts outside of the teaching world. Supportive environments and working together features strongly in this guidance.

An example of effectively implementing collaboration in your school, taking into account mechanisms, would be to first decide which form this will take.

For example, establishing a collaborative enquiry model supports groups of teachers to come together and discuss and analyse their practice through the lens of specific pupils. To ensure this is successfully implemented, various mechanisms must be considered:

  • Organisational support: Repurposing time and having adequate resources for meaningful joint planning and development.
  • Goal-setting: Teachers working as critical friends to agree on a goal/enquiry question.
  • Feedback: Providing developmental feedback to practitioners.
  • Action-planning: To ensure focus and change in individual practice and improve impact.

Tips for maximum impact

Some of the most successful schools that we have worked with at the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) offer the following advice for establishing meaningful and impactful collaboration:

Encourage and support: Providing good role models from the leadership team, coaching and flexibility are all significant in ensuring that collaboration is successful. This works alongside leaders supporting staff to collaborate around a focus they feel is strongly relevant to their classrooms. Pedagogical or instructional coaching is successfully supporting this in many schools.

Be time-efficient: Using video to record and observe, creating clear rules and practices for collaborative meetings, and observing snippets of lessons rather than the whole thing allows for a sharper focus, and more time efficient collaboration.

Work with other schools and subject/specialist groups: Organise in person or remote school visits to observe, discuss and share ideas around designing curriculum, for example. Successful schools also tend to promote access to subject associations.

Draw on local expertise and experiences: Drawing on TDT’s research-base and experience of working with schools across England and Wales through the national network, CPD leaders have the opportunity to connect and collaborate through TDT Regional Hubs. With the support of the TDT, regional hub leaders use evidence-based approaches and guidance to support local schools to build context-aligned, evidence-informed professional learning provisions.

Collaboration works

Teachers learning together through meaningful collaboration is not only linked to better working conditions, but also to improved attainment for pupils. But as with every form of professional development, for collaboration to be effective, it needs to take into account the culture and structures surrounding it.

This is echoed in the EEF guidance already cited, which emphasises that leaders must ensure that it “effectively builds knowledge, motivates staff, develops teaching techniques, and embeds practice”. All of these things that enable collaboration to be more successful in schools flourish in environments built on trust and respect, sustained by a focus on strong critical relationships.

Concettina Johnson is a former primary and secondary school leader. She is currently expert advisor to the TDT Network and was involved in delivering the DfE-funded CPD Excellence Hub Programme

First published in SecEd, 22nd February 2022