October 19, 2017

Cooperative Learning and a New Coaching Model

I believe in better. There’s always something new to learn or some way to improve. When it comes to teaching, coaching is essential to supporting teachers in improving their practice. Just as athletes have coaches to observe their performance and give detailed feedback for growth and improvement, we in Maine Township High School District 207 believe that teachers deserve this same level of support. That’s why we’ve implemented a coaching structure to provide all of our teachers with regular coaching.

Cooperative Learning Training

In 2003, we began training with Roger and David Johnson of the University of Minnesota Cooperative Learning Center. By 2006, we had more than 300 staff members trained in cooperative learning.

One of our district’s favorite aspects of the Johnsons’ cooperative learning model is the “Teacher Trainer lane.” Roger and David tell us that we have more Teacher Trainers than any organization in the world. As a district, we’ve put great emphasis on growing our own teacher leaders because, if the “expert” is in the room next door, we have more ability to access this resource than we would with an external expert. I believe that growing our own leaders is the most respectful way to honor the teaching profession.

Additionally, neuroscience tells us that learners who lead their own learning are using their brains in deeper, better ways, and growing more dendrites (branched projections of neurons). Psychiatrist William Glasser said that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, but 90% of what we teach others. In the early days of our cooperative learning program, we discovered that, even though our training was modeled on cooperative learning, not many of our teachers regularly practiced it, and even fewer practiced it well. When we discovered that our Teacher Trainers were the ones using it most regularly and expertly, that discovery informed our journey.

The Addition of Coaching
In 2007, we introduced coaching to our program. Teachers worked with expert cooperative learning coaches for their year of training. Our results improved immediately. Having teachers train in cooperative learning while getting a coach’s specific feedback on their implementation made a huge difference in both the percentage of teachers implementing and the quality of those implementations. The efficacy of coaching in professional development programs has been demonstrated by research from Joyce and Showers, as well as Jim Knight (who helped train our coaches) and Cornett, so our experience matched expectations suggested by the research.

Half Coach, Half Teacher
In 2009, inspired by these results, we added two instructional coaches in each of our three high schools. We still use—and recommend—this model today: All of our instructional coaches teach half-time and coach half-time.

In 2013 we added two more instructional coaches to each building while developing a model that included instructional coaching for all teachers, every year. We reached an agreement with our union based on trust and a guarantee that instructional coaching would be completely separate from teacher evaluations.

Previously, teachers had an annual Professional Development Plan (PDP) which they developed with their evaluators. Both our teachers and administrators felt that the PDPs were a lot of work with no real benefit—teachers wrote them, administrators approved them, but no one actually did anything with them. We agreed to eliminate them in 2013 if the union would help us pilot and develop instructional coaching plans for all teachers in the 2014-2015 school year. Our seniors this year will be the first full class in our district—and perhaps in America—to go through a school in which every teacher had an instructional coaching plan to help them improve student learning every year.

Our coaching model has four paths:

1. One-to-one coaching (required every other year); 
2. Peer-to-peer coaching; 
3. Instructional rounds; 
4. Action research. 

In the future, we hope to have half of our teachers coaching the other half one year and the reverse the next year, or perhaps evolve into a continuous peer-to-peer model.

We’re also developing a fifth coaching path that would allow teachers to coach instead of being coached. At the Chicago Coaching Center, we offer our teachers training to become coaches and leaders themselves. We also hope to contribute thought leadership and practical, scalable models to guide other districts in incorporating instructional coaching.

Successful adult learning programs require good learning strategies, just as successful student learning requires strategies that allow student agency. Going back to Glasser, we’re focused on an adult learning program that offers every teacher leadership opportunities so that all can lead their own learning. It’s not just a better model—it’s neuroscience.


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