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Many schools, including the one where I teach, provide a “common planning time” for teachers to work together.  Most schools don’t provide enough – for example, we just have one hour each week.

What are the most effective ways to use that limited time?

Four researchers – Ilana Seidel Horn, Brette Garner, Britnie Delinger Kane, and Jason Brasel – spent considerable time observing and videotaping these teacher meetings and wrote an insightful analysis that I think many schools will find useful. Coincidentally, I interviewed Ilana this year about her new book on student motivation and math for Education Week (see Author Interview: ‘Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In’). Even more coincidentally, one of the other authors – Jason Brasel – taught at our school years ago here in Sacramento and was a valued colleague!

The study is not behind a paywall. You can read it at A Taxonomy of Instructional Learning Opportunities in Teachers’ Workgroup Conversations (thanks to Cara Jackson for sharing it on Twitter).

As I said, the study is interesting. They found that these teacher meetings generally fell into a few categories: pacing, logistics, “tips and tricks” and collective interpretation.

“Collective interpretation” was the least observed category, but the researchers felt that it was, in fact, the most beneficial for teacher and student learning.

Here’s what they say about collective interpretation:

In 35% of our coded meetings, teachers’ conversations focused on collective interpretation of teaching—the format that most supported pedagogical concept development, what we came to refer to as high-depth meetings. These meetings are marked by dialogic discourse, exchanges among multiple participants that put formal and lived concepts in contact with each other. Typically, these richer conversations occurred as teachers investigated problems of practice: interpreting student work, debriefing a disappointing lesson, or trouble shooting challenges with struggling students. In most cases, workgroups linked the concepts developed through their discussions to their future plans…

My suspicion is that many teachers will agree with their conclusion that many of our meetings don’t fit into that criteria of collective interpretation.

I would also suggest that many would like to spend more time in meetings that do….

Unfortunately, the paper itself doesn’t provide a lot of specific ideas on how to get from here to there.

Fortunately, the authors did some follow-up unpublished writing that does.  Ilana shared it with me, and gave permission for me to publish excerpts that I thought would be particularly helpful to educators who want to consider practical ways to move our time together to more collective interpretation.

I’m going to share it three parts:

  • Questions to ask when doing planning in PLCs
  • Questions to ask when considering student data & student work
  • Guidelines for facilitators of these meetings, as well as questions facilitators should consider asking

Though the research focused on math education,  I think it would be pretty easy to apply most of these ideas across the board.

I’m also just copying and pasting what the authors wrote in these three areas.  I’m still ruminating about what aspects could apply to my school (for example, some might be more appropriate for “Department” meetings, while others for Small Learning Community sessions (see The Best Resources For Learning About Small Learning Communities), and I’d encourage others to do the same when thinking about your situation.   The facilitator guidelines and their suggested questions might be the most useful.

I’d also welcome comments.


Questions to ask when doing planning in PLCs:

  • What is the key idea being developed in this lesson?  How does it connect to what students already know? How does it connect with the goals of the unit?
  • What do you want to accomplish in introducing the task (e.g., focus student on a particular idea, draw out a set of common misconceptions)? How do choices in language, questions, and representations help you accomplish these learning goals for all students?
  • What are different ways students might solve this task?  What kinds of understandings do they represent? How does your instruction (planned or in the past) connect to or influence that?
  • What do you want to look for as students work on the task? How might you press on their responses in order to push students’ learning?
  • What do you want to accomplish at the end of the lesson (e.g., draw out differences in students’ responses, link ideas across different representations)? How do these goals connect to your instructional choices?

Other Planning Questions: How does this activity help students develop their understanding of a key mathematical idea? What is that key math idea? What do you know about students that will help you anticipate their way of thinking and solving and how can you adjust your lesson to address take those ideas into account?


Questions to ask when considering student data and student work:

What trends do we notice? What are students thinking about the math to have answered in this way?  How might our instruction have led them to think this way? How can we address what we discovered when we teach it next time?


Guidelines for facilitators of these meetings, as well as questions facilitators should consider asking:

In summary, good facilitators:

  • Get teachers on the same page about some important questions in teaching.
  • Press teachers to explain their pedagogical decisions.
  • Support individual teacher engagement and development.
  • Develop norms for honest but respectful conversations
  • Link instructional issues to clear statements that connect teaching, students, and mathematics.


Suggestions of ways for facilitators to press on teacher learning:

  • What do you think students will need to understand in order to do this task?
  • How does ___ (this activity) help students develop their understanding of ___(a key mathematical idea)?
  • What do you hope students will learn by ____ (doing this activity/worksheet)?
  • What happened in your classroom when you tried to do ___ (a new teaching technique, for instance)?
  • What did students say in response?
  • What were students’ misconceptions?
  • Why do you think students had that misconception?
  • What lead to students’ misconceptions? (Help teachers to focus on things over which they have control)
  • How can we address that misconception in our class next time? (“Re-teach it” is not a clear enough response—it doesn’t help teachers think about what they did last time or what they need to do differently next time.)


Let me know what you think!

I’m adding this post to The Best Resources On Professional Development For Teachers — Help Me Find More


Depressing Addendum: After I posted this, Ilana Horn sent me an email saying “We purposely OVERsampled for well functioning teacher group, so that 32% stat shows that the rich discourse is rare even in well functioning groups!”