Offline or on, effective collaboration shares some common traits. Cat Scutt explores the evidence about making the most of bringing people together

Research suggests that opportunities for teacher collaboration are a key feature of school environments where teachers have higher job satisfaction and continue to develop their effectiveness over time. Not only that, but Matthew Ronfeldt and colleagues found that the quality of collaboration around instruction reported by teachers was linked to pupil attainment – at teacher and school level.

‘Collaboration’ is a slightly nebulous concept, however, and can be used to describe anything from teachers simply doing the same thing at the same time through to co-planning, co-teaching, peer coaching, professional learning communities and more. There are also a range of reasons that collaboration may be powerful – sharing knowledge and expertise, being exposed to challenge and alternative perspectives, encouraging reflection and commitment to taking action, and a sense of being part of a whole and building collective teacher efficacy.

Looking at collaboration around instruction specifically (rather than broader notions of collaborative professional learning), Ronfeldt and colleagues’ research suggests that it is high-quality collaboration around assessment in particular – including both external assessment results and formative assessment – that most often predicts pupil attainment gains. An analysis of PISA data from Germany similarly found that pupil achievement only seems correlated with teachers discussing aspects that actually specifically relate to pupil achievement, for example, performance.

Vangrieken and colleagues’ systematic review of research around teacher collaboration identified a number of preconditions for effective collaboration to take place, and categorised these into three types of characteristic: personal, structural and group.

Personal characteristics include an individual’s willingness to collaborate and belief in the value of doing so. Spillane and colleagues’ research into how teachers seek advice and information from colleagues had a fascinating and somewhat unexpected outcome; as they put it succinctly, “Higher performing teachers are not more likely to be sought out for advice; instead, higher performing teachers are more likely to seek advice.” It seems that a desire and willingness to learn from others is a powerful driver in improving one’s own effectiveness through collaboration.

Structural characteristics, meanwhile, include having the time, space and opportunity to engage in collaboration (often a challenge in schools!). Spillane and Shirrell found that school layout can also influence how and with whom teachers collaborate – unsurprisingly, teachers tended to engage more in informal collaboration through “chance encounters” with those who had classrooms nearby or who they regularly crossed paths with during the school day.

Finally, group characteristics include the group size and the blend of skills and knowledge within the group, and the relationships and culture within the group. Goddard and colleagues also note that the instructional leadership of the headteacher/principal was strongly predictive of how much teachers collaborate to improve instruction.

There is no doubt that fostering effective teacher collaboration may be more challenging in the context of a pandemic; social distancing and bubbles are not particularly conducive to enabling either formal or informal collaboration opportunities, and one of the biggest challenges we are hearing about from trainee teachers in particular is the inability to go and watch different expert colleagues teaching.

Jackson and Bruegmann found that teachers become more effective themselves when they work alongside highly effective colleagues, and that this is particularly true for teachers at the start of their careers – so this sense of isolation is a real risk. That’s why the Chartered College of Teaching has published a series of videos of classroom footage for early career teachers.

There is no easy fix, but in one crucial way virtual collaboration is no different to any other: it requires careful planning of structures to encourage and nurture it. The new online format of our Chartered Teacher, leadership and evidence-informed practice programmes, for example, still builds in opportunity for high-quality interaction with colleagues across the country.

More broadly, we’ve also seen social media and online events for teachers really come into their own – providing informal and formal collaboration and learning opportunities on a national and international scale.

If we continue to foster the right culture, to signpost opportunities and to provide encouragement, our teachers can continue to benefit from collaboration – even in the virtual world.