By Amy Colton and Georgea Langer
Imagine your students leaving your class at the end of the school year telling their friends what Nika told this:
You are going to want to take a class from Mrs. Baker. She is awesome. I really felt like I belonged in her class. I thought I was going to flunk out of her class in the fall. I was getting failing grades on most of my tests and papers. I think she really cared about me and wanted me to be successful. And I was. I passed the class with a really good grade (Colton, Langer and Goff, 2015, p. 1).
We attribute Nika’s success to Sue Baker’s year-long participation with her colleagues in the Collaborative Analysis of Student Learning (CASL). When teachers engage in such collaborative inquiry, they not only add new practices to their repertoire, they also examine and change the beliefs and values they hold about their students that drive their practice. Such transformative learning is particularly critical in contexts in which students’ cultural backgrounds are notably different than that of the teachers.
The CASL approach is in marked contrast to traditional Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that have brought teachers together to study curriculum, assessment, and/or instructional strategies. In such groups, teachers can too easily avoid difficult challenges such as how their own beliefs and practices impact specific students’ learning.
Here we are talking about a very different kind of PLC—one that transforms teachers’ capacities and commitment to relentlessly pursue and use culturally responsive approaches to promote students’ learning excellence.
Our two decades of experience and research indicate that seven features are absolutely essential to facilitate transformative learning that results in culturally responsive practices, and student learning excellence.
Feature #1: A Conceptual Framework
The CASL professional learning design is grounded in the “Framework: Teacher as Collaborative Inquirer” (ref). The framework is a synthesis of the literature on the dispositions, professional knowledge, and thinking of a teacher who is aware of her own culture and the impact it has on her students; values the diversity of her students; and is committed to continuous learning. The framework guides decisions about how to implement and adapt CASL to meet the learning needs of both the teachers and students.
Feature #2: Structured inquiry
CASL PLCs engage teachers in five phases to discover how best to personalize their students’ learning. In the first two phases, teachers administer and analyze a classroom assessment of learning outcomes in need of improvement. They use these results to establish a professional learning goal for culturally responsive teaching. Then they select a focus student to study whose background and learning challenges align with this goal and who represent other students with similar struggles.
(See “A New Look at Assessment” Part 1 and Part 2 for examples of the Student Performance Grid that teachers use to find patterns in their classroom assessment results and to select their focus student)
Because self-awareness is a key aspect of transformative learning, teachers continuously document and reflect on how their own cultural backgrounds influence their values, beliefs, interpretations, and behavior. This information prompts teachers to consider all aspects of the student’s culture and ways of learning when choosing responsive approaches.
In Phase III, The PLC spends 3–5 months studying each focus student’s work samples to discover possible explanations for the observed performance. In this analysis, teachers consider both the student’s strengths and needs, and the teacher’s own beliefs and actions. Teachers’ use these understandings to design the responsive approaches they will use before bringing the next work sample to the group for analysis.
Teachers complete the last two CASL phases in the spring or at the end of the semester. They assess and analyze their whole class’s learning progress and make a plan for students not reaching proficiency. Finally, they clarify what they have learned about themselves and their teaching and set professional learning goals.
Throughout the phases of inquiry teachers reflect on their own learning and on the quality of the group’s collaboration. At times they also find more information, and seek further professional learning as necessary.
Feature #3: A focus on standards of excellence
Teachers study their own students’ learning of specific outcomes in need of improvement throughout the CASL phases. As a result they come to believe that each and every student is capable of reaching high and rigorous standards, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, cultural background, learning style, disability, or life experiences.
Feature #4: Case study for equitable responsiveness
Teachers usually connect their instructional insights to specific cases of student learning rather than to uniform best practices. For these reasons, each teacher in a CASL PLC selects a focus student from their class who represents a cluster of students who exhibit similar learning challenges and whose cultural backgrounds are different (and perhaps not well understood) by their teachers. What teachers discover about facilitating the learning of the focus student will help them personalize instruction for others in the cluster and future similar students.
Feature #5: Inquiry over time
Collaborative inquiry is most powerful when teachers look at an individual student’s work over time. Deep learning of complex outcomes rarely results from a single learning experience. Through longitudinal studies of students’ evolving understandings, teachers can test out various theories and strategies and examine the results. Through this long-term experimentation and reflection, teachers discover gaps in their knowledge and skills, and any beliefs that may be hindering their students’ learning. Over time, they either improve in these areas or seek out specific professional learning opportunities.
Feature #6: Productive and Intentional Collaboration
For transformative teacher learning to happen, teachers need to feel comfortable both sharing and hearing new perspectives. But collaboration does not happen without effort. The members of the PLCs need to develop, practice, and reinforce working agreements and communication skills. Such skills allow fellow group members to bring a struggling student’s work to the group without fear of being judged or criticized. Further, these skills help teachers move beyond “polite conversation” to invite multiple interpretations, examine limiting assumptions, and unleashe teachers’ creativity and expertise.
Feature #7: Skilled facilitation and organizational support
Few innovations are sustained without skilled facilitation and organizational support. The CASL facilitator guides teachers in the development of the kinds of thinking, problem posing, and analysis necessary for transformative learning. A skilled facilitator can ensure that everyone develops the necessary communication and analytical skills, and that teachers stay focused on student learning. The facilitator also helps teachers reflect on their beliefs and assumptions, identify their own learning needs, and seek additional support when necessary. Support from school administrators includes: modeling a commitment to collaborative inquiry; establishing collaborative teams; providing time to meet, resources, and incentives; and celebrating victories.
Together these seven features facilitate transformative learning among the members of the PLC. This collaborative inquiry leads to increased cultural proficiency, teaching effectiveness, and results for all students.
Future blogs will elaborate on each of these essential Features.