Teaching can be a very isolated and isolating enterprise. Many of the teaching frames, images and design principles on which our modern-day schools are based are, themselves, rooted in the early one- and two-room schoolhouses that dotted the rural landscape of 19th and early 20th century Canada. The teacher-learner ratio has almost always been one-to-many and this organizational principle, coupled with the closely monitored grade level expectations that have become part of the way that curriculum is developed and implemented has, until now, remained unchallenged in any notable way.
Lately, there has been a great deal of energy in Ontario around an approach to professional learning that seeks to extend images of teacher collaboration beyond gathering together to plan lessons and assess student work with a grade level partner to an understanding of the classroom as a type of public space where teacher learning, collaborative inquiry and professional conversations can take place.
While currently, the co-planning/co-teaching model is being used to build more powerful practice in the area of mathematics instruction, it is a model that shows a great deal of potential for transforming school cultures, open some doors, and energize conversations between teachers across many domains and curriculum areas.
In the co-planning/co-teaching approach educators from across the same school, across the street, or across the district gather together to plan a particular lesson. In the planning process, learning expectations are selected and clustered around the big ideas that teachers wish to explore. Teachers discuss the subtleties and nuances of how the lesson might best be taught, select a problem on which students will work and actually do the task themselves in order to better appreciate what they are asking students to do. This allows teachers to anticipate and discuss the types of difficulties, misunderstandings and misconceptions that might arise during the lesson.
If the collaborative process were to end there, and individual teachers were sent back to their classrooms to implement the lesson, one might well marvel at the power of the experience.
But that’s not what happens. Instead of the planning team disbanding and going their separate ways until their next meeting, they proceed immediately to one of the team’s classrooms and teach the lesson with a group of students. Actually, two of the team members are responsible for “teaching the lesson” while the remaining participants attach themselves to a group of two or three students and act as unobtrusive observes watching, but not intervening, while the assigned tasks is completed.
The conversation that takes place among the team after the co-teaching session allows them to reflect on how the students reacted to the experience and the specific work in which they learners were engaged. They are able to use the student work collected from the lesson as a type of assessment for learning, make decisions on how to proceed with specific groups of students and plan for the next stages of the lesson.
It’s interesting to note that the co-plannng/co-teaching approach is not about visiting someone else’s class to watch them teach. Instead, its a commitment to gather around a particular curriculum idea, an understanding that the shared expertise in the group will help to create a powerful learning experience and the confidence to engage in shared, embedded, professional practice.
Teachers don’t enter the profession to be isolated and shut off from their colleagues. Yet, many of the visible and invisible structures define schools–even in this 21st century–do just that. Co-planning/co-teaching seeks to alter this relationship by deepening what we mean by collaborative inquiry and student-focused teaching. It’s a model that is just starting to seep into the cracks that separate teachers in our own district, but it is showing a great deal of promise and meeting with tremendous support from teachers, administrators and the support staff that are working in consultative roles throughout the province.
A fairly extensive set of videos explaining the approach can be found at http://resources.curriculum.org/secretariat/coplanning/ and, although the main focus for the strategy in Ontario is mathematics, readers may be able to imagine how the co-planning/co-teaching dynamic might find a home in other curriculum areas.
I would love to hear about your experience with this particular approach, or with another model for collaboration that has been powerful for you and your colleagues.