Research School Network: Collaboration in Professional Development: Does Team Work really make the Dream Work? By Tom Salomonson, Assistant Head, Dulwich Hamlet Junior School

Collaboration in Professional Development: Does Team Work really make the Dream Work?

By Tom Salomonson, Assistant Head, Dulwich Hamlet Junior School

We can probably all agree that’s a pretty cringe-worthy title, but unfortunately there is less agreement in the research literature about how crucial collaboration is to your professional learning journey. This blog looks at the extent to which you should prioritise collaboration when designing professional development.

What does the evidence say?

Whilst there is some good evidence that collaboration works for children, the ever-growing literature on what makes effective teacher professional development seems to be nuanced and detailed.

There have certainly been some pretty strong arguments for including collaborative element in PD programmes and sessions. As recently as 2016 the DfE’s Standard for Professional Development document stated:

Professional development should include collaboration…. Professional development that aims to change teachers’ practice is most effective when it includes collaborative activities’

Preceding this, the Teacher Development Trust’s report Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development’ was influential in encouraging designers of PD to include collaboration and peer learning,’ which takes a central role in this document as an effective element of high-quality PD.

In 2017, the Darling-Hammond review found High-quality PD creates space for teachers to share ideas and collaborate in their learning, often in job-embedded contexts’. This was a methodical review of 35 high quality studies.

However, the authors also recognised the limitations of their approach. Because studies of professional development typically examine comprehensive models that incorporate many elements, this paper does not seek to draw conclusions about the efficacy of individual program components.’ In other words: collaboration is a common feature of much effective PD, but it cannot be shown to be a cause.

And it was this focus on causal features or mechanisms that led to the recent and wide-ranging, systematic meta-analysis on effective teacher development for the EEF. In this review, and the resulting EEF guidance,
Mechanism 7: Arranging practical social support suggests that PD that arranges social support is… more likely to improve pupil outcomes’. However, the report authors are less emphatic about the inclusion of collaboration.

Therefore, the picture has become less clear: collaboration is certainly a common feature of much effective PD, but is it a critical ingredient? Is it, in the toothpaste analogy, the fluoride that cleans our teeth, or just the mint which makes daily scrubbing palatable?

Evaluate your impact

Perhaps, it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps a more important question is: How will you know if your PD is effective? Guskey (2015) presents us with five critical levels of professional development:

- Participant’s reactions – did your teachers enjoy their session/​programme?

– Participant’s learning – did they acquire the correct knowledge and skills following the session/​programme?

– Organisational Support and Change – are they supported in their efforts by their organisation?

- Participant’s use of new knowledge and skills – are they able to apply skills you have taught?

– Student learning outcomes – are the pupils learning and retaining more knowledge?

As you read these levels ask: How might collaboration support each level?

In this model of evaluation, we must see level 5 as the starting point of evaluation because if student learning outcomes are not impacted then what really is the point? I think it is easy to see how collaboration could be a key feature of levels 1 to 3, but that for the crucial levels 4 and 5 it may be more difficult.

Look outward

Difficult but perhaps not impossible. I know from personal experience that collaborative approaches have had a direct impact on the student learning outcomes in my class. The key to reach levels 4 and 5 might then be the quality of collaboration – that your network comprises the requisite amount of knowledgeable, experienced practitioners.

Since 2015, the NCETM (National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths) has been working collaboratively to improve the teaching of maths’ through their workgroups and maths hubs partly following the Shanghai model of collaborative teacher research groups which use large networks of expert, specialist maths teachers working together to reflect on and improve their practice.

Other opportunities for inter-school collaboration include Primary Science Quality Mark Hubs, Behaviour Hubs (‘hub’ has become somewhat of a buzzword) and Challenge Partners. And, if none of the above feel relevant a good place to search is the professional organisation which represents your subject or area of interest. Or indeed your local research school.


Does collaboration make the professional development dream work? Well the dream might well work without collaboration but, if carefully thought out and well implemented, we should continue to see peer support as an element of PD moving forward and I for one will be glad of it.

Further Reading and Links

Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development’‑2/ – 2016.pdf

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