Collaborative teacher learning: Findings from two professional development projects

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  • Teaching and Teacher Education 21

    Collaborative teacher leatwo professional dev

    the project and decide on its direction, and (c) a structure that allows teachers and teacher educators to meet regularly in

    of discussion in the teacher education literature forwell over the past 10 years (Bickel & Hattrup,


    fax: +1604 822 8234.

    E-mail addresses: (G. Erickson), (G. Minnes Brandes),

    1995; Clark, Herter, & Moss, 1998; Cole &Knowles, 1993; Erickson, 1991; John-Steiner,

    0742-051X/$ - see front matter r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

    doi:10.1016/j.tate.2005.05.018 (I. Mitchell), (J. Mitchell).an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding.

    r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Collaboration; Practical knowledge; Professional development communities; School-University partnerships; Teacher

    learning; Teacher inquiry

    1. Introduction

    The theme of collaboration between school anduniversity educators has been a prevalent subject

    Corresponding author. Tel.: +1604 822 2867;aUniversity of British Columbia, CanadabMonash University, Victoria, AustraliacBrentwood College, Victoria, Australia


    This article discusses two projects that were aimed at enhancing the opportunities for professional development of the

    participants through collaboration between classroom teachers and teacher educators. The two projects, the Australian

    Project for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL) and the Canadian Learning Strategies Group (LSG), focused on the

    teaching and learning practices in secondary school classrooms. We examine those features that we contend have

    resulted in long-term sustainability and the success of these partnerships. An analysis of our own experiences and other

    empirical data from both projects illustrate our claims that these small-scale projects have: improved the learning

    environment in classrooms for students and teachers; created models of professional development for school and

    teacher educators; and provided valid knowledge about learning and teaching issues in classroom settings. The potential

    of such projects to achieve these aims depends upon: (a) a mutually held understanding of what types of classroom

    practices nurture good teaching and learning, (b) a setting where teachers have a strong commitment and control overGaalen Ericksona,, Gabriella Minnes Brandesa, Ian Mitchellb, Judie Mitchellc(2005) 787798

    rning: Findings fromelopment projects

  • provide further insight into the creation and


    TeachWeber, & Minnis, 1998; Hoban, 2002; McCotter,2001; Seixas & Brandes, 1997). The contexts andthe accompanying rationale for the establishmentof these collaborative partnerships have variedsignicantly from the formation of new institu-tional structures such as the creation of Profes-sional Development Schools (Darling-Hammond,1994) or other large-scale consortia (Fullan, 1995;Sirotnik & Goodlad, 1988; Watson & Fullan,1992; Yeatman & Sachs, 1995) to much moreinformal partnerships and local initiatives occur-ring between groups of teachers and universitypersonnel (Crockett, 2002; Hoban, Hastings,Luccarda, & Lloyd, 1997; Hollingsworth &Gallego, 1996; Jenlink & Kinnucan-Welsch,2001; Olson & Craig, 2001). More recently, thenature of collaborative relationships has beenexamined as an important factor in contexts andprograms specically focused on teacher develop-ment and teacher learning. Thus, in reviewing anumber of teacher development projects, Putnamand Borko (2000) argue that bringing togetherteachers and university-based educators couldcreate new forms of discourse about teachingand learning. These discourse communities arepowerful contexts for improving the practices ofall of the participants. However, Putnam andBorko (2000) caution us that these types ofdiscourse communities:

    y also may introduce new tensions into theprofessional development experience. For ex-ample, the university teams in all three projectsstruggled with the question of how muchguidance and structure to bring to the con-versations, seeking an appropriate balancebetween presenting information and facilitatingteachers construction of new practices. Inconsidering these issues of balance, we arereminded of what Richardson (1992) labeledthe agenda-setting dilemma: The staff developerwants to see teachers practice change inparticular directions while empowering theteachers themselves to be meaningfully involvedin determining the changes (p. 9).

    Other commentators have put forward similarclaims about the importance of establishing strong

    G. Erickson et al. / Teaching and788collaborative relationships between university andmaintenance of the structural features of twosmall-scale professional development commu-nities and how they functioned to promotelearning on the part of all of the participants.Our approach, then, has been to initiate smallerscale, local projects (typically at the school or evenclassroom level) for the purpose of determiningthose intra- and inter-institutional arrangementsthat appear to be most fruitful. While the smallerscale does not eliminate all of the problems (suchas some value conicts between school anduniversity-based educators), we think that theunderlying structures and the professional normsfor discourse that we have established in thesegroups result in more effective strategies formanaging these dilemmas (in the sense of Cubans(1992) discussion about the importance of mana-ging dilemmas).The projects that we describe, then, entail the

    creation of professional development communitiesof teachers and university-based educators. Theseschool-based educators but have pointed out howlittle systematic research has been conducted inthis area. For instance, Little (2002), claimed thatresearch spanning more than two decades pointsto the benets of vigorous collegial communities,yet relatively little research examines specicallyhow professional communities supply intellectual,social and material resources for teacher learningand innovations in practice. (p. 917). And along asimilar vein Crockett (2002), in discussing herwork with a teacher inquiry group, commentedthat recommendations for professional develop-ment call for an alternative structure known asteacher inquiry groups. However, little is knownabout the contents of these structures. Many ofthe collaborative projects documented in theliterature have been of the large-scale, inter-institutional type that we think leads to some ofthe problems and dilemmas identied by Richard-son (1992) and Putnam and Borko (2000).

    2. Problem area

    One of the aims of the present article is to

    er Education 21 (2005) 787798communities of learners have variously been

  • thisbee



    it. (p. 197).


    Teachdescribed as an approach to teachers professionaldevelopment that is grounded in teachers experi-ences and includes activities at the school site,whereby teachers learning is intertwined withtheir ongoing practice, making it likely that whatthey learn will indeed inuence and support theirteaching practice in meaningful ways (Putnam &Borko, 2000, p, 2). Our collaborative work withteacher groups could also be characterized in termsof our efforts to create:

    (1) a classroom learning environment that is bothfruitful and enjoyable for all of the partici-pants;

    (2) a functional and cost-effective model ofprofessional development with a focus onlearning for all of the participants involved(i.e. teachers, students, and teacher educatorsalike);

    (3) a professional development setting that yieldsfunctional and purposeful knowledge for all ofthe participants.

    While the rst two of these aims are importantoutcomes of our work, our focus in this article isprimarily on the third aim. In doing so, we discusstwo collaborative projects that we believe havebeen very successful in meeting the above aims.Our purpose then, is to draw upon our collectivepropersexpore specically, our approach to meaningfulfessional development highlights a situativepective of teacher learning and could besimtains to student learning in classroom settings.ereas Olson and Craig (2001) and Putnam andko (2000) have drawn upon a similar concep-of learning to interpret the ndings from

    cher development projectsa purpose that isilar to our own.malperconception of learning in a community haven explored extensively by Bereiter and Scarda-ia (1993) and their colleagues, particularly as itdescribed as: a knowledge community (Bereiter,2002; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993; Craig, 1995;Olson & Craig, 2001); a professional learningcommunity (Jenlink, Kinnucan-Welsch, & Odell,1996; Little, 2002); or a discourse community(Putnam & Borko, 2000). The general features of

    G. Erickson et al. / Teaching anderience to examine and analyse the structural3. Two collaborative projects

    The rst of these projects was initiated inMelbourne, Australia in 1985 and involved acollaborative partnership between a group ofteachers in a state secondary school and severalteacher educators from the education faculties oftwo Melbourne universities. This project is calledthe Project For Enhancing Effective Learning(PEEL project). The second project began inVancouver, Canada in 1991 and similarly involveda group of secondary school teachers and teachereducators. This latter project is called the LearningStrategies Group (LSG). Ian and Judie Mitchellwere involved in the process of establishing bothgroups. Gaalen Erickson and Gabriella MinnesBrandes participated in establishing the lattergroup. Both of these projects were non-fundedand non-systemic; both were long termone wentfor 5 years and the other is still continuing after 20years during which time it has spread to manyother schools in several countries. Both projectsand functional features of these two projects,which we judge to be very successful. As such thisis not a direct reporting of empirical data from acarefully designed study, rather it is type ofreexive and analytical reporting of our work overa number of years in these two projects. However,we do refer to the results of a number of smallerscale studies related to these projects to arrive atsome of the conjectures and conclusions that wemake in this piece. We think that this kind ofarticle, which examines some of the specics ofestablishing and sustaining these kinds of colla-borative partnerships in teacher education, isimportant in view of the claim by Wilson andBerne (1999) who reviewed the literature onteacher learning and professional development.They argue that little is known about the specicsentailed in systematically constructing such op-portunities to learn, and so researchers interestedin studying teacher learning within these newenvironments nd themselves researching a phe-nomenon while they (or others) are trying to build

    er Education 21 (2005) 787798 789have been characterized by teachers volunteering


    Teachto give up time, take risks and develop and sharenew approaches in their teaching. Each of themcontinued for many years because of the enthu-siasm of the participants for the process ofcollaborative inquiry. Our discussion of theseprojects will be organized around those featuresthat we conjecture to be critical for the establish-ment and sustainability of these types of colla-borative projects.

    3.1. Establishing purposes

    Cuban (1992) pointed out that schools anduniversities value different forms of knowledge.We would add that, even when the two groups dovalue the same form of knowledge (class roomtested wisdom about how to achieve aim 1 forexample), the university-based participants arelikely to place a much higher value on the needto document and share the new wisdom outsidethe group. For the teachers, the main benets fromsuch endeavours lie in their own classrooms andunderstandings of their classrooms. These differ-ences are a potential source of conict and tensionover the purpose of a collaborative project. Is itprimarily (or solely) to provide support andprofessional development for the teachers as wellas to generate practical knowledge for the parti-cipants, or does the purpose include generatingboth formal and practical forms of knowledge fora wider audience? It is to be expected that differentmembers will begin with different agendas hereand we suggest that this difference be openlyacknowledged and regarded as reasonable. On-going viability requires the group to successfullymanage and, over time, eliminate the tensionbetween these two purposes. The two projectshad rather different histories on this issue.During the initial weeks, the purpose and focus

    of the original PEEL group seemed relativelystraightforward compared with that of the LSG atthe same stage. With hindsight, the role of IanMitchell was probably crucial in minimizingteacher distrust about the purpose and focus ofPEEL. He taught half time in the school and halftime at the university. This dual appointmentallowed PEEL to begin with an overt focus on

    G. Erickson et al. / Teaching and790conducting classroom-based research. The tea-chers perceived him as a colleague and there wasno detectable perception of a university-imposedagenda. The LSG began with the purpose ofimproving teaching and learning within the school,focusing on aspects of the schools missionstatement. Using this as a starting point, theteacher educators had worked hard to try toground the project in the teachers concerns.However, individual members still had their ownperceptions about how the group would functionaccording to their own reasons for joining.In hindsight, the issue of discordant agendas

    was more complex in the LSG because it built on 5years of PEEL. When PEEL began, the university-based participants were driven largely by concernsof how to put some theory into practice. Theyrecognized the need for knowledge that onlyteachers could develop. It was only after a numberof months that all participants in the grouprealized how much they were learning aboutteacher learning and development. When theLSG began, the four authors of this paper retainedan interest in extending their understandings abouthow to achieve aim1. However, unlike the situa-tion with PEEL, we knew that progress was likelyin this area and we were interested to see whether aPEEL type collaborative group could work in aCanadian context as well as wanting to gainfurther insights into the process of collaborativeprofessional development. We were also interestedin forging links between the school and theuniversity and to gain closer contact with practi-cing teachers, to participate in the daily discourseof teachers, and to gain insight into the currentproblems faced by teachers and their way ofaddressing these problems. This, we felt wouldimprove our own practice as teacher educators.While these purposes appeared to be mutually

    benecial, there were two conicts that occurredfrom a lack of shared understandings of the purposeand focus of the group....


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