Collaborative learning – it’s not just for students

Collaborative learning can be an effective classroom tool, but it can also have a powerful impact in the staffroom. Teachers at Craigslea State High School in Brisbane are using Peer Learning Groups (PLGs) to improve their own practice and student outcomes.

Principal Mark Farwell explains this collegial approach sees staff working in small teams on particular aspects of their practice using an action research framework. ‘We started trialing the process in 2013,’ he tells Teacher. ‘It initially came about from our own internal research around professional development of teachers and the [traditional models] of workshops and seminars … that don’t really get any traction. It really does now form the core of our approach to professional development.’

Farwell says it’s not about adding new initiatives but reorienting the approach to PD in relation to the school’s pedagogical framework. ‘So, for example, if we have got a school focus on cooperative learning for example or higher order thinking – the peer learning groups are about digging deeper into the existing school priorities.’

The early trials during 2013 were facilitated by two members of staff. The following year the school was allocated a Master Teacher (Dr Patsy Norton) under a Queensland education department initiative. Farwell says the work of Master Teachers varies from school to school. Craigslea decided to make facilitation of PLGs a key part of that role.

Matt Moorcroft –Year 8 Coordinator at the school teaching Year 7 to 9 maths and Year 7 science and technology – says the collaborative model helped staff develop strong ties with each other. ‘I led a PLG with myself and three others in the maths department. We were a group of junior secondary maths teachers (Year 7 to 9) and we saw a need for the development of some fundamental maths skills in our classes.

‘The thing that I think appealed to us most about the peer learning group process was that we could decide what we wanted to develop and Patsy then provided the structure and the action research approach to give that a bit more integrity.’ Moorcroft adds Norton made it clear for all teachers: ‘What are we investigating and how are we going to collect data and measure our progress?’

His PLG developed a series of five minute maths warm ups and recall tasks to be used at the start of the lesson. He says the five minute element was in response to teachers feeling time poor. ‘Since then we’ve continued to use those but we’ve shifted our focus this year now to problem solving maths. We’re using a very similar process to try and develop that approach.

‘From that process though, we’ve improved our ability and willingness to share resources in the maths department. The main thing is the collegiality being developed. There were probably two novice teachers and two experienced teachers in our group and it’s created some really great ties between us and those have continued to flourish since [we formed] our peer learning group.’

The process includes classroom implementation, peer observation and feedback and discussion. Although the overall PD goal has remained the same, there have been several ‘changes of tack’ in the last four years. These include introducing a reflective statement by each teacher, the deliberate adoption of an action research approach, and increasing teacher agency by giving them freedom of choice in terms of strategy and group composition to align with their own needs and interests while still maintaining a primary focus on the school’s strategic priorities.

Moorcroft and Norton presented details of the school’s approach at the 2017 Excellence in Professional Practice Conference today. A recent evaluative research study into the Craigslea approach found that sharing the work of the PLGs, through published papers and conferences, has improved the ‘feel good factor’ among teachers.

‘That point is interesting,’ Farwell reflects, ‘because one of the main objectives of peer learning groups is for teachers to measure the impact of what they’re doing on student learning. That’s not always quantifiable, particularly when you’ve got shorter cycles on the action research. But, for me, the bigger picture in terms of impact is the culture of professional learning at the school – it’s about the increased agency teachers have around their professional learning.’

Stay tuned: We’ll be taking a closer look at the collaborative action research process developed at Craigslea State High School in a forthcoming article.

Have you conducted an action research project at your school? What was the impact on student learning outcomes? How did you document and track the progress that was made?

As a school leader, do you ensure staff professional learning is linked to strategic priorities? Does it address real problems of practice? Are staff working collaboratively to tackle these problems?