Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

A Taxonomy of Instructional Learning Opportunities in Teachers' Workgroup Conversations

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

A Taxonomy of Instructional Learning Opportunities in Teachers' Workgroup Conversations

Article excerpt

Teacher collaboration is at the center of many school-improvement efforts. Because of the frequently observed concurrence of higher than expected student outcomes and strong teacher communities (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; Langer, 2000; Lee & Smith, 1996), designs to improve instruction often include provisions for teachers to work together. In addition, research on professional development points to evidence that site-based teacher teams bolster teachers' engagement with new instructional practices (Caret, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001; S. M. Wilson & Berne, 1999). With both teacher communities and professional development, the underlying assumption is that teacher collaboration enhances teachers' professional learning.

At the same time, we know that not all collaboration is equally effective at meeting this goal (Hargreaves, 1994), so understanding the underlying learning processes in teacher workgroups stands to strengthen these efforts. In literature that identifies the potential benefits of teacher collaboration, the details of learning often remain opaque. For this reason, we seek to uncover how different kinds of collegial conversations shape teachers' professional learning opportunities. Building off of earlier studies of teachers' learning in collegial conversations, we developed a taxonomy to describe how conversational processes differentially support teachers' professional learning opportunities; we then used the taxonomy to code a corpus of more than 100 hr of teacher workgroup meetings. This taxonomy accounts for key facets of learning opportunities--namely, how much teachers define, represent, explore, and work on instructional issues and engage in conversations that guide their future work--and can support others seeking to use teacher collaboration as a part of instructional improvement initiatives.

The Optimistic Premise of Teacher Community

In what Little (2003) called the "optimistic premise" of teacher community, teacher collaboration is widely presumed to contribute to instructional improvement and professional learning (DuFour & Fullan, 2012; Hord, 2004; Lieberman & Miller, 2008). To that end, teacher collaboration is a cornerstone of many instructional improvement projects; for example, the National Staff Development Council (n.d.), the largest nonprofit professional association for staff developers in the United States, included "learning communities" as one of their 12 professional standards for quality staff development. Numerous school systems--including those in New York City and Alberta, Canada--have mandated professional learning communities for teachers. Indeed, a recent report found that nearly all U.S. teachers reported collaboration as a regular part of their work: Teachers spend an average 2.7 hr a week working with colleagues (MetLife Foundation, 2009).

The optimism around teacher collaboration has its roots in research, which has repeatedly found correlations between schools with strong teacher communities and higher than expected student achievement (Goddard, Goddard. & Tschannen-Moran, 2007; Louis & Marks, 1998; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; Ronfeldt, Farmer, McQueen, & Grissom. 2015). Analysts trace this relationship to many possible sources. Strong professional communities foster trust and support teachers' risk taking as they develop new instructional practices (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010), provide forums for teachers to share expertise and resources (Lampert, Boerst, & Graziani, 2011; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001), enhance professional development (Garet et al., 2001; S. M. Wilson & Berne, 1999), and support teachers' sensemaking around policy mandates (Coburn, 2001; Horn, Kane, & Wilson, 2015). Despite the consensus around positive outcomes from teacher collaboration, a critical gap remains in the literature. In a review of research on professional learning communities, Vescio, Ross, and Adams (2008) found positive effects on student achievement when teacher collaboration was accompanied by "structured work that was highly focused on student learning" (p. …

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