The Gonski report Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools proposes a ‘set of impactful and practical reforms that build on existing improvement efforts’. It notes that many school leaders and educators are already focusing on these areas and using evidence-informed strategies.
Over the last 12 weeks, Teacher has been taking a closer look at some of the Gonski recommendations and highlighting existing work happening in Australian schools illustrating what they might look like in practice. Today’s article focuses on professional collaboration.
As highlighted in part five of this series, the Gonski review panel recommends a focus on maximising each student’s learning growth, rather than ensuring a minimum proficiency at each year level.
With this in mind, Chapter three of the report discusses the value of excellent teachers, the importance of upgrading their professional practice, and the need for expert educators ‘who foster the learning growth of their students through collaboration, mentoring and continuous learning’. Explaining what this means, the Gonski panel quote Emeritus Professor Dylan Wiliam: ‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’
The report says ‘embedding professional collaboration as a necessity in everyday teaching practice’ is one of three key actions needed to support a focus on individual student learning growth. Ensuring teachers have the time to work with and learn from each other will be one challenge for schools. Citing TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) data, the report points out Australian teachers spend less time, on average, on professional learning and collaboration than their OECD counterparts (OECD, 2013).
Benefits of collaboration
The Gonski panel highlight three benefits: collaborative structures are more efficient and flexible; collaboration can lead to more authentic engagement of teachers, a greater sense of belonging among staff, and a way of working where teachers feel able to challenge each other to keep improving their professional practice; and a collaborative approach means teachers can get differentiated support specific to their individual needs.
Citing a report from the Grattan Institute, they add some forms of collaboration are more effective than others. ‘Active collaboration—such as peer observation and feedback, coaching, mentoring, team teaching and joint research projects—allows teachers to learn from each other and typically has a positive impact on students. In contrast, collaboration that concentrates on simply sharing resources, planning activities or administrative issues has little or no positive effect on student achievement (Jensen, 2014).
The Gonski report says Professional Learning Teams and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) illustrate the power of collaboration. It shares a case study from Bray Park State High School in Queensland, where PLCs meet fortnightly to talk about student achievement and strategies to support learning. Another group meets to identify relevant professional learning opportunities for staff. Teachers also take part in regular informal and formal classroom observations and feedback sessions and a leadership coach works with senior staff members.
Effective Professional Learning Communities
Dr Lawrence Ingvarson is a Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) who has developed ACER’s Professional Learning Community Framework.
Discussing the key characteristics of effective PLCs, he says a group of teachers become a strong professional community when they ‘work together in ways that will review and improve each other’s’ teaching practices’. In this Teacher podcast, he explains PLCs also need to be a way of life, a habit – not just an add-on program. ‘A professional community is an accountable community, but it’s an accountability to each other. [At the heart of that] is putting the interests of the clients first – how well are we serving the interests of our kids? But also hard questions like: Are you keeping up with research in your teaching area? What can we do here to encourage more leadership amongst ourselves? What can we do to encourage connections to best practice elsewhere?’.
There’s also need to look beyond your own PLC, developing links to other networks and associations from which you can learn. Schools may decide to have one PLC, or there may be several groups focusing on different subject areas or improvement goals, for example. But when it comes to what defines a professional community, Ingvarson says the bottom line is a shared commitment to work together to create an effective learning environment for students and for teachers.
The Gonski review panel’s findings and recommendations on professional collaboration, mentoring, observation and feedback, and references to supporting research, can be found in Chapter Three (3.1) of the report. A copy of the full report is available to download by clicking on the link.