In Tennessee, Collaboration Goes Global

Monday, February 23, 2015 at 12:00am
By: Linda Jacobson

An 8th grade math teacher in Philadelphia, Tennessee, Patrick Bethel has had plenty of experiences collaborating with other teachers. Those past meetings with colleagues, however, never led to meaningful changes that the teachers knew would improve their students’ performance, he says.

But now, as part of the implementation of a peer observation and support model borrowed from Shanghai, Bethel is experiencing what it means for collaboration to become part of a school’s culture.

“We’re actually building lessons together,” says Bethel, who works at Philadelphia Elementary School in Loudon County Schools, near Knoxville. Bethel traveled with other educators to Shanghai last year to learn about the Shanghai Teaching Study Group Model. Teachers in these small groups follow an ongoing cycle of observing each other’s practice and improving lessons over time.

In the past, Bethel says, he and his colleagues might have swapped instructional ideas, but everyone still planned their lessons independently. Now, when a newly created collaborative group at his school meets, each member has already researched effective strategies and brings an activity to the table that will be incorporated into a joint lesson.

For example, while developing a recent lesson on the interior angles of polygons, one teacher contributed a construction paper activity and another showed how students could use a geoboard to create their own shapes.

“This is very concrete,” Bethel says. “When I walk out of there, I’ve got all the things I need to make this lesson work.”

Tennessee’s TPEG Model

The Loudon district is one of six participating in an effort based at Vanderbilt University to adapt the Chinese model for Tennessee, where it has been renamed the Teacher Peer Excellence Group (TPEG) Learning Cycle.

Since the 2013-14 school year, 18 schools from the Tennessee districts have implemented TPEG, which many sites have now taken school-wide. The groups typically have three to five members, ideally from the same grade level or content area. Because Chinese schools are generally larger than many of their U.S. counterparts, the model is being adjusted to work for Tennessee teachers. Bethel, for example, is part of a vertical team that includes a 6th and 7th grade teacher—a configuration that is creating greater alignment in how the students are taught from one grade to the next.

“We’re saving time when those kids transition from 6th to 7th or 7th or 8th,” he says. “We’ve streamlined the whole process.”

Keys to Collaboration

The TPEG model is based on three “non-negotiable” components, according to Xiu Cravens, the associate dean for international affairs in the Peabody College of Human Development at Vanderbilt. The first is what is described as “de-privatizing” a teacher’s practice—opening up the lesson planning and teaching process for others to observe.

“The foundation of being able to collaborate is being able to see each other’s work,” Cravens says.

When he visited China last fall, Bethel immediately noticed aspects of the Shanghai schools that make such open collaboration possible, such as observation rooms and two-way mirrors to allow for training opportunities. Instead of having desks in their classrooms, Shanghai teachers have desks in a shared office space with other teachers in their content area. And instead of students changing classes, the teachers tend to move around to other classrooms, creating less of an environment for a teacher to be isolated.

“We tend to stay in our rooms,” Bethel says about U.S. teachers. “If we have something that works, it’s like a secret trick we don’t want to share.” Finding time to visit each other’s classrooms is still a challenge, so the teachers’ lessons are being captured on video and watched during the TPEG meetings.

The second essential element is that all of a teacher’s work is collected, shared with others, and becomes part of a growing knowledge base for teachers. In Shanghai, for example, some schools have sets of lessons that have been refined over a 10-year period or longer, Cravens says, adding how beneficial such a resource is for new teachers.

Finally, the third key piece of TPEG work is that teachers identify evidence of improvement. The Vanderbilt research team is using a variety of measures to determine whether bringing TPEGs to Tennessee is having a positive effect. First, using the state’s own teacher evaluation rubric, the researchers are looking at whether there is growth in the teachers’ scores. They have also conducted surveys with teachers to gather feedback on whether the TPEG teachers are growing comfortable with de-privatizing their practice, how their collaboration compares to teachers not in the groups, and how they see their practice improving.

Preliminary results of the research are being collected, but Bethel says he already knows he’s becoming more effective in the classroom and that the TPEG model is benefitting both teachers and students.

“Collectively, we created a great lesson,” he says, adding that the next steps are to watch the lesson, critique the impact it had on students’ learning of the geometry concepts, and then share it with other teachers in the county. “We hope to get continued feedback as they teach and improve a very strong, rigorous lesson for next year.”