Opportunities for Professional Learning in Mathematics Teacher Workgroup Conversations: Relationships to Instructional Expertise

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Increasingly, instructional improvement efforts include teacher communities as part of their overall strategy, yet the relationship between teachers’ talk and professional learning remains underspecified. Using a discourse perspective on learning, this article compares opportunities to learn (OTLs) in the collaborative conversations of 3 mathematics teacher workgroups. We examined the differences in OTLs in 17 hr of videotaped meetings from 3 groups at different levels of instructional accomplishment in secondary mathematics. Using mixed methods, we uncovered differences in the groups’ interactions and found that OTLs were not equally distributed. Instead, teacher groups whose active participants demonstrated the greatest facility with ambitious instruction also had the richest conversational OTLs. We interpret this as an accumulated advantage developmental story: Because collaborative work in teaching involves problem posing and the articulation of practice, teachers’ conceptions get built into the framing and discussion of pedagogical problems. Accomplished teachers are thus positioned to learn more from talking with colleagues. This analysis contributes to understanding of how OTLs are constituted in teacher workgroups, with implications for making better use of teacher collaboration for professional learning.

For several decades, sociologists of education have observed a consistent relationship between schools with strong teacher communities and higher than expected student achievement (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton,2010Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B.,Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., &Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago, IL:University of Chicago Press.; Louis & Marks, 1998Louis, K. S., & Marks, H. M. (1998).Does professional community affect the classroom? Teachers’ work and student experiences in restructuring schools. American Journal of Education, 106, 532–575.; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E.(2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.). The correlative relationships are compelling and signal possible influences on teacher learning. For instance, teachers with strong communities are more likely to engage in ongoing improvement (Louis, Marks, & Kruse, 1996Louis, K. S., Marks, H. M., & Kruse,S. (1996). Teachers’ professional community in restructuring schools. American Educational Research Journal, 33, 757–798.), have access to expertise in teaching (Frank, Zhao, & Borman, 2004Frank, K. A., Zhao, Y., & Borman, K.(2004). Social capital and the diffusion of innovations within organizations: The case of computer technology in schools.Sociology of Education, 77(2),148–171.), and develop student-centered practices (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2007McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E.(2007). Building professional communities in high schools: Challenges and promising practices. In L. Stoll & K. S. Louis(Eds.), Professional learning communities: Divergence, depth, and dilemmas (pp. 151–165). Berkshire, England: Open University Press.). Together, these may contribute to more effective instruction.

As investigators probe these findings, explanations emerge for this improvement orientation. Strong professional communities foster trust that supports teachers in the risk taking necessary for developing new practices (Bryk & Schneider, 2002Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. L.(2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.; Bryk et al., 2010Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B.,Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., &Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago, IL:University of Chicago Press.). Collegial conversations can create forums for teachers to share expertise and resources (Lampert, Boerst, & Graziani, 2011Lampert, M., Boerst, T., & Graziani,F. (2011). Organizational resources in the service of school-wide ambitious teaching practice.Teachers College Record, 113,1361–1400.; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E.(2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.). School-based teacher communities often enhance professional development (Wilson & Berne,1999Wilson, S. M., & Berne, J. (1999).Teacher learning and the acquisition of professional knowledge: An examination of research on contemporary professional development. Review of research in education, 24,173–209.). Likewise, teachers’ conversations about instruction support sense making around the meanings of new practices (Coburn, 2001Coburn, C. E. (2001). Collective sensemaking about reading: How teachers mediate reading policy in their professional communities.Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(2), 145–170.), allowing for site-specific interpretations of general ideas. Also, the interactional routines in collegial discussions orient teachers toward problems of practice, potentially creating opportunities for learning (Horn & Little, 2010Horn, I. S., & Little, J. W. (2010).Attending to problems of practice: Routines and resources for professional learning in teachers’ workplace interactions. American Educational Research Journal, 47(1),181–217.).

To be sure, it is now a well-circulated assumption that teacher communities can enhance professional development. The National Staff Development Council (2011National Staff Development Council. (2011). Collaboration skills. Retrieved from the Learning Forward website:http://www.learningforward.org/standards/collaborationskills.cfm), the largest nonprofit professional association for staff developers in the United States, recently included learning communities as one of their 12 professional standards for quality staff development. The Canadian province of Alberta passed legislation to mandate professional learning communities in schools (Hargreaves, 2007Hargreaves, A. (2007). Sustainable professional learning communities. In S. Stoll & K. S.Louis (Eds.), Professional learning communities: Divergence, depth, and dilemmas (pp. 181–196). Berkshire, England: Open University Press.), as has the New York City Public School system. Indisputably, professional community has become part of the current educational zeitgeist.

However, not all workgroups—our term for gatherings of teachers charged with collaborative work, whether or not they consider themselves a community—are equally generative for teacher learning. Just as pushing student desks together does not in itself make for effective cooperative classroom learning, neither does granting teachers shared planning time necessarily make for effective workplace learning. These efforts to influence the quality of teachers’ interactions by merely making space for them to occur reflect what Little (2003Little, J. W. (2003). Inside teacher community: Representations of classroom practice. Teachers College Record, 105, 913–945., p. 914) called the “optimistic premise of teacher community.”

In fact, the capacity for deep collaboration among teachers remains questionable. A survey conducted by Public Agenda (2002Public Agenda. (2002). Sizing things up: What parents, teachers and students think about large and small high schools. Retrieved fromhttp://www.publicagenda.org/files/sizing_things_up.pdf) found that only 20% of high school teachers reported that they “regularly meet to share ideas about lesson plans and methods of instruction” (p. 23). Given the paucity of mere idea sharing among teachers in the recent past—an activity that does not approach the complexity of collaborative pedagogical problem solving (Horn,2010Horn, I. S. (2010). Teaching replays, teaching rehearsals, and re-visions of practice: Learning from colleagues in a mathematics teacher community. Teachers College Record, 112, 225–259.)—typical school cultures may not yet be ripe for the kind of collaboration that supports transformative learning. Cultural change is slow, and the norms of privacy that have prevailed for decades are still likely to shape teachers’ workplace culture (Little, 1990Little, J. W. (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers’ professional relations.Teachers College Record, 91,509–536.).

Professional culture is of course not the only impediment to meaningful collaboration. Structural obstacles are nontrivial: Overfull schedules force school leaders and teachers to contend with competing demands on their time. Secondary teachers typically have upward of 150 daily student contacts with a 50-min preparation period, which is already taxed by the demands of planning, grading, and parent communication. In many improvement-oriented schools, additional meetings outside the contracted workday strain teachers’ capacity (Bartlett, 2004Bartlett, L. (2004). Expanding teacher work roles: A resource for retention or a recipe for overwork?Journal of Education Policy, 19,565–582.). These organizational conditions work against the investment of time, intellect, and emotion that collaborative work requires.

Given these reasons for both optimism and caution about teacher workgroups as a support for teacher learning, research and practice would benefit from a clearer account of how conversations contribute to professional learning. Pragmatically, such analysis stands to bolster in-school teacher workgroups and enhance professional development efforts. Theoretically, understanding this complex phenomenon contributes to studies of workplace learning. To this end, we present a comparison of three teacher workgroups participating in a professional development project designed to improve high school mathematics instruction.

Our study design reduced the organizational and cultural conditions that might differentially support effective workgroup collaboration, allowing us to hone our analytic lens on the interactional processes of learning as they relate to varying levels of teacher accomplishment. Organizationally, all three workgroups were given an extra daily planning period for their collaborative work so as not to impinge on other demands on their time. To support positive collaborative cultures, the groups were composed of volunteer teachers who were financially compensated for their participation in intensive, high-quality professional development. To provide in situ expertise, a knowledgeable instructional coach regularly facilitated each group. At the same time, the teachers’ varying levels of accomplishment in ambitious mathematics instruction proved important for understanding how their current understandings shaped the opportunities for learning in their collaborative conversations.

This article contributes a discourse analysis of teacher workgroup learning. Our theoretical framework synthesizes insights from prior work on teachers’ workplace learning, with a focus on discourse features that contribute to that learning. In addition, we introduce new data analysis methods to provide an in-depth qualitative and quantitative comparative analysis of our cases.