Nell Duke, now a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan, likes to tell a story about using cooperative learning as a young teacher. She had read a lot about cooperative learning and was excited to try it in her elementary class. However, not long after she started, her principal came to her class and asked her to step into the hall. “Miss Duke,” he said, “what in blazes are you doing in there?”
Nell told her principal all about cooperative learning, and how strongly the research supported it, and how her students were so excited to work in groups and help each other learn.
“Cooperative learning?” said her principal. “Well, I suppose that’s all right. But from now on could you do it quietly?”
Nell Duke’s story exemplifies one of the most important problems in research-based reform in education. Should research-based reform focus on teachers or on schools? Nell was following the evidence, and her students were enjoying the new method and seemed to be learning better because of it. Yet in her school, she was the only teacher using cooperative learning. As a result, she did not have the support or understanding of her principal, or even of her fellow teachers. Her principal had rules about keeping noise levels down, and he was not about to make an exception for one teacher.
However, the problem of evidence-based reform for teachers as opposed to schools goes far beyond the problems of one noisy classroom. The problem is that it is difficult to do reform one teacher at a time. In fact, it is very difficult to even do high-quality program evaluations at the teacher level, and as a result, most programs listed as effective in the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA are designed for use at least in whole grade levels, and often in whole schools. One reason for this is that it is more cost-effective to provide coaching to whole schools or grade levels. Most successful programs provide initial professional development to many teachers and then follow up with coaching visits to teachers using new methods, to give them feedback and encouragement. It is too expensive for most schools to provide extensive coaching to just one or a small number of teachers. Further, multiple teachers working together can support each other, ask each other questions, and visit each other’s classes. Principals and other administrative staff can support the whole school in using proven programs, but a principal responsible for many teachers is not likely to spend a lot of time learning about a method used by just one or two teachers.
When we were disseminating cooperative learning programs in the 1980s, we started off providing large workshops for anyone who wanted to attend. These were very popular and teachers loved them, but when we checked in a year later, many teachers were not using the methods they’d learned. Why? The answer was most often that teachers had difficulty sustaining a new program without much support from their leadership or colleagues. We’d found that on-site coaching was essential for quality implementation, but we could not provide coaching to widely dispersed schools. Instead, we began to focus on school-wide implementations of cooperative learning. This soon led to our development and successful evaluations of Success for All, as we learned that working with whole schools made it possible not only to ensure high-quality implementations of cooperative learning, but also to add in grouping strategies, tutoring for struggling readers, parent involvement approaches, and other elements that would have been impossible to do in a teacher-by teacher approach to change.
In comparison with our experience with cooperative learning focused on individual teachers, Success for All has both been more effective and longer-lasting. The median Success for All school has used the program for 11 years, for example.
Of course, it is still important to have research-based strategies that teachers can use on their own. Cooperative learning itself can be used this way, as can proven strategies for classroom management, instruction, assessment, feedback, and much more. Yet it is often the case that practices suggested to individual teachers were in fact evaluated in whole school or grade levels. It is probably better for teachers to use programs proven effective in school-level research than to use unevaluated approaches, but teachers using such programs on their own should be aware that teachers in school-level evaluations probably received a lot of professional development and in-class coaching. To get the same results, individual teachers might visit others using the programs successfully, or at a minimum participate in social media conversations with other teachers using the same approaches.
Individual teachers interested in using proven programs and practices might do best to make common cause with colleagues and approach the principal about trying the new method in their grade level or in the school as a whole. This way, it is possible to obtain the benefits of school-wide implementation while playing an active role in the process of innovation.
There are never guarantees in any form of innovation, but teachers who are eager to improve their teaching and their students’ learning can work with receptive principals to systematically try out and informally evaluate promising approaches. Perhaps nothing would have changed the mind of Nell Duke’s principal, but most principals value initiative on the part of their teachers to try out likely solutions to improve students’ learning.
The numbers of children who need proven programs to reach their full potential is vast. Whenever possible, shouldn’t we try to reach larger numbers of students with well-conceived and well-supported implementations of proven teaching methods?
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.