One of the nice things about being on research leave is that you get time to read. I have been looking at some more of Cynthia Coburn’s research on teacher networks – a paper about a two year project to develop progressive mathematics teaching amongst primary teachers, based around a teacher learning communities model (see below). This paper seems especially relevant to current debates in Scotland about the development of TLCs or Learning Rounds, as Coburn identifies several features that help sustain the innovation as the funding falls away for the network in question. These are expertise within the network, strong ties and high depth of interaction. It is worth saying a little more about each of these.

  • Expertise within the network. In Coburn’s research, this expertise was initially provided in most cases by ‘coaches’ – expert teachers brought into to raise capacity within each network. At the end of the two years, this resource disappeared; TLCs that continued to be successful were those that had built their own expertise within the network. Such expertise is based on pedagogical and subject knowledge, as well as expertise about processes (professional enquiry, for example). This research suggests strongly that such expertise is most useful in sustaining innovation when it resides within close knit groups of peers – so the external impetus is useful to get things moving, but networks must develop their own expertise if they are to function effectively.
  • Strong ties. This relates to things like frequency of interaction. Coburn considered a group to have strong ties if it met very frequently – presumably such interactions can be virtual as well as physical, and can be facilitated by social networking applications such as Twitter and blogs. The key to developing and sustaining strong ties thus lies in group members making an effort to interact on a regular basis. This raises the questions of whether many Scottish TLCs are in fact communities – this is debatable if they only meet a couple of times per year.
  • Depth of interaction. Groups can meet regularly but fail to sustain innovation. Depth of interaction refers to whether the interactions are substantive or superficial. Low depth occurs when discussions focus on ‘surface structures or procedures, such as sharing materials, classroom organisation, pacing or how to use the curriculum’ (Coburn et al., p19). Deep interaction occurs when discussions address underlying pedagogical principles. This finding relates well to recent discussion on Pedagoo about the role of this new network (see http://www.pedagoo.org/2012/05/whats-the-purpose-what-are-our-values). It suggests that deeper interactions are essential for deep engagement with educational practice.

The research suggests that all three dimensions are needed in order to sustain innovation, especially when funding dries up – as it so often does. I conclude with a further quotation from the paper:

“The bottom line is that schools never stand still. Thus, sustaining new instructional approaches is not simply about continuing to do the same thing. It requires that teachers and others make continual adjustments to new conditions and needs at the same time that they maintain the underlying pedagogical approach.” (Coburn et al., p43)

Teacher learning communities play an important role in enabling this to happen – but Coburn’s research tells us that we need to pay attention to process and substance.

[Coburn, C., et al. (under review – American Journal of Education) Supporting sustainability: Teachers’ advice networks and ambitious instructional reform. http://www.lrdc.pitt.edu/BOV/documents/Russell_Supporting Sustainability_033012.pdf]

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