Written by Kevin Perks, Bob Rosenfeld, and Joseph Sassone of WestEd’s Quality Schools and Districts team, this article first appeared in the LEAF Subscription for Professional Learning and is posted here with permission. LEAF serves as the professional development arm of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. 

Although many factors influence student learning and achievement, effective teaching arguably matters more than any other variable (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Teachers Matter, 2012). In fact, student learning and achievement at the school level can, in large part, be understood as the result of the teaching that students receive. Therefore, district and school leaders who strive for significant and sustained improvements in student learning must develop systems of professional learning that enhance teaching practices throughout the school.

Given the complex nature of effective teaching, there are no quick fixes to improving teaching at a schoolwide level. Instead, one of the most effective approaches is to provide routine opportunities for teachers to engage in collaborative inquiry that fosters thoughtful and rigorous analyses of their instructional practices, helping teachers identify what is working and what should be improved (Hattie, 2015b).

Two Models of Instructional Inquiry

There are multiple models of instructional inquiry that are currently used to improve teaching. Two models with demonstrated success are microteaching and lesson study. Microteaching is a collaborative approach to teacher development that is often used in pre-service teacher programs (Kourieos, 2016). In this model, small groups of educators first collaboratively design a single lesson. Next, one of the teachers teaches the lesson as the rest of the group observes. In some cases, the lesson is captured on video and reviewed later. The process ends with the group analyzing the lesson. The analysis is often led by a professor or teacher leader. After the process is completed, it is repeated for a new lesson.

Lesson study provides a similar approach to collaborative inquiry into instruction, an approach that is more structured than microteaching (see, e.g., Rock & Wilson, 2005). Rooted in Japan, lesson study engages small groups of teachers in extended study and analysis of a single lesson, known as a “research lesson.” This process typically involves goal setting, planning, implementing, observing, analyzing, and revising (Lewis, 2002; Doig & Groves, 2011). Like micro-teaching, lesson study work is often led by what is referred to as a “knowledgeable other” who facilitates and guides each phase of the collaborative work (Takahashi, 2014). In many cases, groups that engage in lesson study continue to focus on and refine the same lesson over and over.

Such models of instructional inquiry have proven to be very successful at enhancing collaborative teacher practices (see, e.g., Chong & Kong, 2012). In one of the largest studies into factors related to student achievement, Hattie (2012) found that collaborative models such as microteaching and lesson study were among the most effective school-level approaches to increasing student learning. However, many schools struggle to implement these models. For example, microteaching requires longer blocks of time than schools typically have. Similarly, lesson study requires an extended collaborative commitment to focus on a single lesson. In our experience, many teachers struggle to see the benefits of working on a single lesson for an extended period. Because of challenges like these, school leaders often turn to other (typically unsuccessful) approaches to improve teaching and learning (Hattie, 2015a) rather than developing a model of collaborative inquiry that will work at a schoolwide level. The following section describes a process that school leaders can implement schoolwide and that draws on the work and research around microteaching and lesson study.

A Process for Fostering Instructional Inquiry Schoolwide

The Cycle of Collaborative Instructional Inquiry (CCII) is a process that school leaders can use to transform teaching and learning schoolwide. This pro- cess is grounded in the models of microteaching and lesson study, but there are some key differences. First, the CCII is driven by teachers’ deep understanding of standards. Second, it is designed to be integrated into pre- existing systems of collaborative work, such as common planning time (CPT) or professional learning communities (PLCs). Third, the CCII emphasizes sustained collaborative engagement around specific areas of teacher prac- tice, not single lessons, so that specific teaching practices can improve over the course of a school year to promote targeted gains for students.

The CCII has five phases. In all phases, teachers from throughout a school work collaboratively in small teams to engage in conversations that have the potential to transform their teaching. Typically, multiple meetings are needed to work through a phase.

It is ideal if meetings occur frequently enough so that teachers do not need to expend a great deal of time catching up on what they learned or discussed during the previous conversation.

The five phases are as follows:

  1. Data-Driven Goal Setting
  2. Analyzing Standards
  3. Lesson Planning
  4. Implementing and Observing Instruction
  5. Analyzing Teaching and Learning

Phase 1 — Data-Driven Goal Setting

The CCII begins with a collaborative analysis of student data. During data-driven goal setting, teacher teams use structured protocols to analyze student achievement data to determine areas of achievement or learning where students are struggling. The data used for analysis can come from standardized assessments, common formative assessments, other locally used measures, and/or student work. Based on its analyses of the data, each teacher team identifies key areas for improvement in student learning and creates specific student achievement goals. Depending upon the extent of needs indicated by the data, some schools also designate student achievement goals for the entire school. For example, one middle school that we work with has identified writing as a schoolwide need. Another school that we work with is focusing on increasing listening comprehension in grades 1–3.

Once student learning and achievement goals are set, teacher teams also work collaboratively to set their own personal learning goals to improve their teaching. These learning goals for teachers should focus on instructional practices that, if improved, are most likely to have a positive impact on the student achievement goals. In the middle school example, all teacher teams are focusing on improving instructional strategies for integrating writing support across the content areas. In the grades 1–3 example, many teacher teams are focusing on improving instruction that supports oral comprehension.

Phase 2 — Analyzing Standards

Once student and teacher goals have been set, the teacher teams identify academic standards related to the student achievement goals. The teams then use structured processes to collaboratively analyze and develop a deep understanding of the standards (Perks, Morrow, & Early-Hersey, 2017). The purpose of these processes is to identify all the academic demands in the standards related to the student achievement goals. Teacher teams in schools serving students who are English learners also analyze the language demands within the standards. Based on these analyses, the teams begin to identify effective teaching practices that can help students to meet these demands. If necessary, they also conduct research into teaching practices that they may be unfamiliar with. During this phase, the teacher teams keep a record of their work and use it to support the remaining phases of the CCII.

The school focused on listening comprehension in grades 1–3, mentioned in the Phase 1 description, also provides an example of Phase 2. Once the school had identified listening comprehension as a goal, grade-level teacher teams identified standards that required listening comprehension skills. They quickly realized that most of the reading standards require students to have effective listening comprehension skills. This realization prompted questions about how to teach listening comprehension to emergent readers. After a bit of research, the teachers learned about the importance of teaching students how to construct robust mental images as the students listen to texts read by others. The teachers also learned about simple yet effective teaching strategies to support image-building skills, which are a core component of comprehension. These instructional strategies were not being implemented schoolwide. Once teachers became aware of these strategies, they made a commitment to integrate the strategies into daily instruction.

Phase 3 — Lesson Planning

During the third phase of the CCII, teachers work collaboratively to select and/or create lessons that target key knowledge and skills in the academic standards related to the student achievement goals set during Phase 1. There are a couple of different approaches that teachers might use. One is for teachers to work collaboratively to design lessons from scratch that teach the knowledge and skills in the standards that they have identified. Or teachers might work individually to select or design their own lessons and then work collaboratively within the teacher teams to get peer feedback in order to tune (i.e., adjust and improve) the lessons. During conversations with peers, teachers can identify the most effective and efficient teaching practices and strategies that will support student learning. They also can make sure that the instructional activities and sequences fully align with the academic and language demands in the standards being taught. In the case of the grades 1–3 example described in the previous phases, once teachers learned about strategies for teaching how to construct mental images of text, they worked in their teacher teams to design and tune lessons that effectively integrated these strategies into daily instruction.

Phase 4 — Implementing and Observing Instruction

After each teacher team has designed and/or tuned a lesson, the lesson is implemented while fellow group members observe. Observations can occur in a variety of ways. Team members may observe a lesson as it is being taught. Or, a lesson can be captured by video for observation later. The focus of observations is to identify areas of effective teaching practice, pose questions about teaching practice, and determine where teaching can be improved. Although observing classroom instruction can be valuable for its own sake, it is important for teacher teams to also discuss and analyze what they observe. Teams should schedule time for such discussion and analysis, which takes place during Phase 5, rather than assume that this collaborative processing will simply happen by chance.

Phase 5 — Analyzing Teaching and Learning

Finally, after a lesson has been taught and observed, the teacher team engages in structured conversations to analyze the teaching and learning from the observed lesson. The team analyzes the teaching practices and strategies that occurred during the lesson to determine how the teaching can be improved. Every team’s conversations are essential to the effectiveness of this schoolwide approach to collaborative inquiry. If structured and facilitated appropriately, the conversations foster opportunities for teachers to receive feedback that will improve their teaching. Having teachers from across the school receive feedback around similar areas of instruction and student needs can improve teaching throughout the school and improve student achievement related to the goals set during Phase 1.

In addition to conducting collaborative analyses of teaching, teams can engage in analyses of the work that students produced during the observed lessons. By analyzing student work together, the members of a teacher team identify what the students learned successfully and what the students struggled with. Teachers can use this information to refine teaching practices and identify areas for developing new lessons to reteach knowledge, and skills that were challenging for students. Discussions about student work also can help transform instruction at a schoolwide level to the extent that these conversations help teachers collectively identify strategies for classroom instruction and for interventions. One excellent resource for these conversations is Making Sense of Student Work: A Protocol for Teacher Collaboration (Daehler & Folsom, 2014), which provides tools to help teachers analyze student work.

Once teacher teams have completed Phase 5, they repeat Phases 3 through 5 until they meet the student achievement goals established during Phase 1. When the goals have been achieved, the teachers repeat the cycle and identify new targets for student and teacher learning.

Steps That School Leaders Can Take

School leaders play an essential role in building, supporting, and sustaining a system of instructional inquiry that can transform teaching and learning schoolwide and improve student achievement on a large scale. In our work supporting school leaders in implementing such systems of professional learning, we have found that there are critical steps that school leaders need to take for the systems to have the desired impact. The steps are essential because they help ensure that teachers have routine opportunities to collectively engage in collaborative conversations that are rigorous enough to transform their teaching and impact student learning schoolwide.

Step 1 — Establish and Preserve a Schedule of Routine Times to Meet Collaboratively

Just as students need routine opportunities to practice when learning complex skills and processes, teachers also need consistent opportunities to design, implement, analyze, and refine their teaching. Such opportunities can only happen when the school schedule prioritizes time for collaborative work. However, it is not enough to create time for teachers to work together; school leaders must also ensure that this time is not infiltrated with competing tasks, ones that are not part of the CCII process and do not improve teaching and learning. Therefore, school leaders should help to create schedules for when teacher teams meet and should ensure that the schedules indicate the areas of focus for each meeting. Meeting schedules should also be updated frequently.

Step 2 — Clearly Communicate Vision, Expectations, and Guidelines

In order to participate effectively in collaborative cycles of instructional inquiry, teachers must understand that the processes they are engaging in are dedicated to improving student learning by enhancing teaching practice. In our experience, the CCII works best only when teachers embrace a willingness to participate in collaborative conversations, to share instructional practices, to invite colleagues into their classrooms to observe their teaching, and to give feedback to their peers in effective and kind ways.

There are multiple actions that school leaders can take to communicate the nature of the CCII process clearly. One is to work with staff to define the vision, mission, and purpose of the collaborative work. Another is to publish written guidelines that clearly define the goals and expectations of the collaborative work that teacher teams will be engaging in. A third action is to make sure that the schedules for the teacher teams are up-to- date and stay focused on instructional inquiry. Lastly, school leaders can create a school instructional council that includes key members from the teacher teams and works to address any problems that could potentially undermine the collaborative work.

Step 3 — Support the Professional Development of Facilitators

A key element of any model of instructional inquiry is having a “knowledgeable other” on every teacher team. These knowledgeable others are teacher leaders who have a strong understanding of effective teaching. Thus, it is essential for school leaders to identify teacher leaders who have this capacity and to provide the teacher leaders with ongoing training and support so that they can facilitate the use of protocols and lead the conversations during each phase of the CCII. Such support can come in the form of providing the teacher leaders with time to meet and problem-solve challenges that they are experiencing. It can also include providing these teacher leaders with additional training around effective teaching practices that they then share in their teacher teams.

Step 4 — Participate, Observe, and Provide Feedback

Finally, school leaders must stay actively present and involved during all phases of the CCII process. This involvement includes frequently participating as a member of the conversations that are facilitated by teachers and take place during each phase of the CCII. In addition, school leaders should frequently observe and give feedback to teacher teams as the teams engage in their collaborative work. This feedback helps the teachers enhance the collaborative practices that are needed to effectively and professionally work with their colleagues.

Increasing student achievement and transforming instructional practices at a schoolwide level do not happen easily or quickly. Such big changes are more likely to happen only when school leaders deliberately build a system of instructional inquiry that fosters a culture in which teachers routinely analyze their instructional practices to identify areas where they can improve.

Kevin PerksKevin Perks is the Director of School and District Services for WestEd’s Quality Schools and Districts team.



Bob RosenfeldRobert Rosenfeld is a Senior Engagement Manager with WestEd’s Quality Schools and Districts team. 



Joseph SassoneJoseph Sassone is the School and District Improvement Senior Facilitator for WestEd’s Quality Schools and Districts team.




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