by Leanne Miller, OCT

Program consultant Marian O'Connor with members of Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic DSB's secondary school professional learning community.
Standing, from left: Rob Todd, Cristina Pacheco, Anne Marie Dickens, Mike Petrella, Lindsay Craig, Tim Aquin;
seated, from left: Mark Flanagan, Caroline Freibauer, Marian O'Connor.

What Students Need To Succeed

  • Our department head wants us to do more co-operative learning.
  • Our division wants to use more high-yield, problem-solving math strategies.
  • Our principal wants us to read the latest OASCD journal, Changing Perspectives, and decide what we are going to do this year.

These are just a few of the many ways teachers will decide how to focus their professional learning community (PLC) activities this year. All are valid and will no doubt yield some useful outcomes for teachers and students alike.

But to get the most out of a PLC, Steven Katz calls for two significant additions. Katz is a director with the educational research and evaluation firm Aporia Consulting and a permanent faculty member at OISE/UT.

First, he asserts, teachers and schools must not "do" PLCs. They must not become what he calls "activity traps" or "doings" that, while well-intentioned, are not needs-based and often divert human and material resources away from a true school-improvement focus.

"Too often, the activities become ends themselves, rather than tools in the service of inquiry-driven professional learning," he says.

Second and perhaps more important, Katz argues that true PLCs - schools or cross-school groups with a high-leverage professional learning focus - must follow an ongoing, collaborative, inquiry-based cycle of professional learning driven by and focused on student need.

The focus comes from answering a key question: What knowledge and skills do our data indicate our students need to succeed? The answer to that question must direct the work of professional learning. The next question is: What knowledge and skills therefore do we as teachers need? The inquiry cycle continues as teachers work collaboratively to deepen professional knowledge and engage students in new learning experiences and then monitor the impacts of their changed actions.

Katz's research indicates that the majority of teacher learning communities are not impactful. By this he means resulting in sustainable changes in professional understanding, classroom practice and student achievement.

So how do we get impactful sustainable change when many teachers can barely find time to meet PLC colleagues a couple of times a month? Through supported professional learning.

In the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic DSB, the support comes in the form of Marian O'Connor, OCT, the board's Secondary Program Consultant. She describes her job as "facilitating focused professional learning that results in deep understanding and conceptual change."

O'Connor acknowledges the significant changes around PD that she has seen in her 23-year career. "Today, many teachers want to embed impactful strategies into their practices, and my role is to help create capacity for continuous professional improvement. It's no longer about sit-and-get workshops and teachers making isolated attempts to try something new in their classrooms."

O'Connor is a strong advocate of what researchers Joyce and Showers first called instructional coaching. It's a model that requires a structured approach to impacting practice through a combination of theory, modelling and practice that's guided by professional support. Their still-relevant 1987 research showed that just five per cent of learners will transfer a new skill into practice as a result of learning a theory alone, while 90 per cent will transfer a new skill as a result of theory, demonstration, practice and corrective feedback during training that is followed up with job-embedded coaching.


Lindsay Craig observes the Grade 11 French class of Mark Flanagan at Holy Trinity Catholic HS in Simcoe.

One of O'Connor's projects this year is facilitating a board-wide, cross-subject secondary PLC around co-operative learning (CL). A group has come together with the object of learning to use CL to improve student learning and achievement.

O'Connor and the group of eight teachers have met approximately once every six weeks for the past three years, reading about and discussing various CL models and trying them out in their classrooms. They have benefited from occasional teacher coverage that has allowed them to meet and work during the regular school day.

They spent much of their first year together defining their approach to CL, which O'Connor says is built on a blend of the practitioners they have read, including Spencer Kagan, Johnson and Johnson, and Barrie Bennett.

Co-operative learning

According to Kagan, co-operative learning has two aims. The first is to foster positive, co-operative relationships among learners studying any subject in a class. The second is high academic achievement for all learners in a class. Teachers can use CL to teach any subject matter at all grade levels.

Unlike group work where teachers randomly group their students to work on a task, co-operative learning is a type of structured peer interaction emphasizing positive human relationships, collaboration among peers, active learning and academic achievement. Kagan calls the necessary elements PIES for positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation of all group members and simultaneous interaction. Kagan's approach uses co-operative structures that provide a blueprint for classroom activities that enable students to collaborate with each other in supportive and egalitarian ways using content provided by the teacher or the students themselves.

O'Connor and her team's research and discussion led to their own version of an innovation configuration map. She describes it as road map to guide their innovation. The teachers use it as they plan their own lessons and to observe each other in their classrooms using the various CL structures with their students.

Teachers observing teachers

In the spring of 2010, the participants in O'Connor's group decided to start observing each other's classes to see how their efforts were impacting their students. They reflect on how far they have come in their time together.

Mark Flanagan, OCT, teaches French at Holy Trinity Catholic HS in Simcoe. He remembers it took a while for group members to feel comfortable going into each other's classrooms to observe. "Today," he reflects, "I am far less reluctant to try new things. Watching my colleagues reminds me of good practice and gives me collegial support to try new things with my students."

Cristina Pacheco, OCT, teaches religion at Assumption College School in Brantford. "Sure I read Kagan's book," she says. "But with our PLC and going into each other's classrooms, I can see the theory in action and get feedback on what I'm doing. This approach is far more valuable and helpful in impacting my professional practice."

Tim Aquin, OCT, teaches religion at St. John's College, also in Brantford. All agree with his observation that CL strengthens student engagement and makes classroom management much easier for the teacher. In addition, he says, "the professional dialogue and shared observations improve our practice and help all of our students succeed."

It helps us identify the impact of what we are trying to do to improve student learning.

Mike Petrella, OCT, teaches math at Assumption and along with Rob Todd, OCT, is a board-wide secondary math coach. "I have more freedom with these CL structures," says Petrella. "I don't waste valuable class time having kids copy notes. Through problem solving or CL, my students are spending class time engaged in the more valuable higher-level skills of application and analysis. They go far beyond simple knowledge and factual recall, thanks to CL."

This late-December day, PLC members have gathered to watch Petrella teach a Grade 9 applied math class. His social goal for the lesson is for students to listen attentively to their group members. The learning goal is for students to solve interesting math problems that involve right-angle triangles. Petrella describes the class.

"I used a round-robin Kagan structure as an introductory exercise. First the students wrote down everything they were looking forward to about the holidays. After about a minute, they took turns sharing what they had written. In sharing as a class, students had to give an answer provided by one of their group mates. Then I used the same structure to get students to share everything they learned this semester about triangles. We discussed and debriefed as before.

"Using a sage-and-scribe structure, the students took turns solving for the unknown side in a right-angle triangle. Then I used a create-pass-check activity where students created their own problems to solve for the unknown side.

"Finally, using a think-pair-share activity, students solved several higher-order thinking or problem-based questions."

The observing teachers focused on how students demonstrated the more-difficult-to-measure social goal rather than the academic one. As well, they used their innovation configuration map to give Petrella structured feedback on how students were demonstrating the various aspects of PIES - the necessary elements of CL.


Teachers Caroline Freibauer (standing, left) and (foreground, left to right) Lindsay Craig, Tim Aquin and Cristina Pacheco observe as students work through exercises set by math coach Rob Todd (standing, rear) at Assumption College School in Brantford.

O'Connor explains that using the map during observation helps teachers find evidence of what they are teaching and what students are learning.

"It's not about being critical or evaluative of what the teacher is doing," she emphasizes. "It helps us identify the impact of what we are trying to do to improve student learning."

St. John's College, teachers Caroline Freibauer, OCT, and Anne Marie Dickens, OCT, describe what they were looking for as they observed Petrella's class.

"We watched for how students demonstrated the five elements of effective co-operative work, and we were looking to see if they met Mike's social and learning goals for the lesson. Ultimately, we were interested in whether and how the students in this Grade 9 applied-level math class interacted with each other."

Fostering life skills

Lindsay Craig, OCT, who teaches at Holy Trinity Catholic HS, adds that through CL students not only learn and build on the curriculum, they also foster the life skills of demonstrating respect and communicating effectively with others.

Several members of the group attended the GLACIE (Great Lakes Chapter of the International Association for the Study of Cooperation in Education) conference in Toronto at the end of May.

"It was inspirational," says O'Connor. "The conference was helpful in that participants engaged in the actual CL structures to complete a variety of tasks."

"GLACIE was the first place my eyes were opened to the instructional power of co-operative learning," adds Aquin. "The power of increasing classroom engagement, creating a safe and effective learning environment, increasing academic performance and closing the achievement gap, and introducing fun into the classroom. Because of co-operative learning practices, my students are better learners."

Todd says his big take-away from the conference was about the brain. "How the brain works, how it learns and how these relate to teaching." He cites examples that made a lasting impact on his professional practice:

Why so much interest in an old chestnut like co-operative learning? John Myers co-founded GLACIE in 1985 and served as its first chair. Today, he is a curriculum instructor at OISE/UT, where his Models of Teaching course introduces many pre-service students to aspects of instructional intelligence by helping them develop an artful blend of teaching strategies, including co-operative learning.

He says that the need for teachers to prepare their students to work in diverse communities, develop social and emotional learning to support academic achievement, develop life skills and use purposeful talk in assessment as and for learning has brought co-operative learning back into focus as an important teaching and learning approach.

"Playing a team sport and learning to work with others to create the next-generation computer both require working in teams," says Myers. "Co-operative learning, with its stress on purposeful task-related talk and individual accountability, works in the classroom as well as in the playground and the workplace. As my engineer daughter says, 'The problems we face are just too complex for one person to solve on their own. So students learning to work in teams can only be for the good.'


Effective Group Work

Here are points from Johnson and Johnson's five components of effective group work.

Face-to-face interaction: The teacher sets up the environment to ensure groups of two to four. Students automatically face each other to promote positive interaction and dialogue with one another (shoulder to shoulder or face to face).

Individual accountability: Students are responsible for their learning and willing to support the learning of the group. Students are all contributing. For some activities, roles are assigned by the teacher.

Positive interdependence: In order to achieve the shared social and academic goals, the teacher purposefully employs a variety of components of positive interdependence. Students understand the goals and work as an effective team - goals are achieved together.

Collaborative skills: Students use a variety of social, communication and critical-thinking skills appropriate to complete the task. They realize the value of working collaboratively and incorporating all three skills.

Processing the group's academic and social efforts: Students continuously reflect on and adjust their contributions to the group's academic and social efforts during and after the activity. Students feel comfortable giving and receiving constructive criticism as a means to improve the group's academic and social efforts.

Supported Professional Learning

TLLP supports teacher learning

The Ministry of Education, under the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP), provides funding and release time for teachers to research fields impacting their practice and student learning. Pam McCallum, OCT, and Sue McCullough, OCT, of Madawaska Valley District High School list some of their findings.

Find out more

Professional learning communities and co-operative learning are the subjects of extensive studies and resources.