Fostering collaboration among teachers

Engaging in broader policy work and influence within educational systems

Fostering collaboration among teachers

Associate professor Rebecca Woodland advances computer science education by advocating for teacher collaboration.

Rebecca Woodland - UMass Amherst College of Education

Before she earned her doctorate and joined the UMass educational leadership faculty, Rebecca Woodland was a middle and high school teacher, both in the public schools and in an education program for homeless and abused kids. She loved her work, but often felt like she was on her own when it came to her ongoing professional education.

Woodland and her colleagues—teachers in history, art, special ed, science, and English—decided to address the need by reading and discussing educational theory together. They convinced their principal to buy them the books (and snacks) and created a weekly study group, beginning with William Glasser’s Control Theory in the Classroom. “It was the best professional learning experience of my life,” Woodland recalls. “And all of us thought, ‘Why isn’t this just a regular part of our work day? That really sparked me.”

Eager to engage in broader policy work and influence educational systems, Woodland went on to get her Ph.D. Once she was working in higher education, she was struck by the privilege university faculty members have, able to take time to learn and collaborate with colleagues, unlike elementary and secondary school teachers who work in such constrained environments. Inspired to advocate for teachers, she focused her scholarly work on the development and impact of professional learning communities among educators.

I am very invested in looking at the conditions that exist in schools for teachers to be able to engage in disciplined inquiry with one another. To what extent and in what ways leaders create conditions for teachers to be able to collaborate and work with one another to improve their instruction and the student learning experience.

Rebecca Woodland
Rebecca Woodland - UMass Amherst College of Education

According to Woodland, the most important factor in the quality of teaching is other teachers—peer-to-peer advice, support, and influence. “I am very invested in looking at the conditions that exist in schools for teachers to be able to engage in disciplined inquiry with one another,” she explains. “To what extent and in what ways leaders create conditions for teachers to be able to collaborate and work with one another to improve their instruction and the student learning experience.”

In particular, Woodland uses methods of social network analysis to study how the connections between teachers in advice seeking and instructional support may enable or impede advances in their teaching. She has developed the widely-used “Teacher Collaboration Assessment Rubric” to measure, observe, document, and improve teacher collaborations.

Woodland has been working Becky Mazur from the College of Education, as well as Rick Adrion from Computer and Information Science, Enobong Anna Branch of the Sociology Department and Nilanjana Dasgupta of the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department under a three-year $300K NSF Computer Science for All (CSForAll) grant. The project is part of an effort to lay the groundwork for digital literacy and computer science (DLCS) curricula in the Springfield and Holyoke public schools and to significantly expand the access that girls and student of color have to computer science education.

I feel very proud to be working on a project that is literally called a ‘research-practitioner partnership’ grant.

In the initial stages of this work, Woodland and Mazur studied the extent to which the school instructional support network enabled or constrained teachers ability to implement DLCS instructional practices throughout the K-12 curriculum. They surveyed teachers in the district to find out who they talked to about instruction, who they went to for advice, and more specifically, who they talked to about digital literacy and computer science. They concluded that digital literacy/computer science support networks among teachers are very fragile—teachers don’t have awareness of or access to other educators with knowledge and expertise in computer science and digital literacy. They also found little overlap between DLCS networks and primary instructional networks. In their report of the study, “A Fringe Topic in a Fragile Network: How Digital Literacy and Computer Science Instruction Is Supported (or Not) by Teacher Ties,” they asserted that the schools need to examine and strengthen teacher networks of instructional support to allow for the diffusion of the DLCS curricula.

This summer, the team won a second, much larger CSforAll grant of $1.998 million over 4 years. Under this grant, Woodland and Mazur are again working with Adrion and Branch, as well as Florence Sullivan of the College of Education, Springfield faculty and staff, researchers from the Five College Consortium, and MIT, as well as evaluators from SageFox Consulting Group.

At this stage, Woodland is responsible for the part of the grant that studies how innovations in DLCS can flow and spread throughout a school system—how teachers work with other teachers, and how school leaders create conditions for teachers to learn about the innovations, to create and implement strong and equitable curricula and instruction around the innovations, to make improvements and modifications.

In response to Woodland’s initial research, the Springfield schools reorganized the teachers at the elementary school level, grouping those who will develop DLCS lessons together, implement them, and share what they’ve learned. As they collaborate, Woodland, Mazur, and graduate assistant Itza Martinez will be in the schools with the teams, observing how they’re working: “Who’s on the team? What are they talking about? How are they talking about it? How are they ensuring excellence and equity in their lesson planning and in their curriculum design around computer science and digital literacy? How does that flow into the classroom? How does it flow to other teachers? What conditions are being created for them to have effective collaboration? What things are getting in the way of it?”

Woodland is particularly excited about this opportunity to not simply study the work of these teachers, but to be in the schools, working by their side, and advancing the College of Education’s mission to enhance its relationships with teachers and administrators in the region’s schools. “These National Science Foundation grants have been all about building partnerships between the school districts and the university where researchers and practitioners are working together to move computing education forward in the school,” Woodland explains. “I feel very proud to be working on a project that is literally called a ‘research-practitioner partnership’ grant.”