By Joe Dostilio

IFL mathematics fellow

There is no shortage of professional development (PD) available to teachers, but PD alone is rarely enough to result in a change of practice. When PD is paired with improvement science processes, teachers are afforded the time and support to test and refine instructional practices learned in PD in their own classroom.

In partnership with the Institute for Learning (IFL) this year, the teachers from Chartiers Valley Middle School engaged in a combination of PD and improvement science work with the goals of increasing student engagement and providing more opportunities for student-to-student interactions that are academically productive. Specifically, the teachers wanted students to take greater control of their own learning, collaborate more productively with their peers, and be willing to challenge each other’s ideas.

The teachers recognized that to achieve their goals, they themselves would need to learn more. They asked the IFL for a PD session focused on cooperative learning and strategies for getting students to productively interact with one another. Based on the learning that came out of the session, teachers decided they wanted to establish roles and responsibilities for students working in small groups: Story Teller, Manipulative/Diagram Manager, Discussion Director, and Checker.

Because the PD session also included improvement science approaches, before leaving the session, the teachers identified a small change to try in their classroom to get students engaging more productively while working in small groups. The teachers agreed that they would collect evidence of student talk during small groups and code the talk to determine if the small change was effective. This work kicked off their first improvement science cycle, which was followed by additional cycles as teachers adapted their small tests of change based on evidence.

The diagram shows not only the first cycle, but the subsequent cycles as well, and captures the progression of the small changes tested by teachers across the three cycles.

With each test, teachers gathered evidence of student talk in small groups and coded it for types of questions asked and challenges posed. They collaboratively studied this evidence to determine the effectiveness of the small change and to monitor student progress. Then based on the evidence, teachers adapted the small test for the next cycle.

Important to note across the cycles is the progression of small changes being made, specifically the ways teachers “took up” more complex practices over the course of three cycles. This is the art of implementing change through improvement science. The changes are intentionally small, and therefore doable, and are designed to be built on and refined over time.

In reflecting across the tests of change, teachers identified the following insights:

• PD was needed to first learn about collaborative learning strategies, but it was not enough. Collaboration with one another and seeking more information from the IFL fellow was necessary to keep the work going.

• It took a series of small tests of change to figure out the types of experiences that were most effective for students to truly understand and adopt their roles and responsibilities in small groups.

• The third small test of change was effective because students were provided opportunities to think about the roles they were to play in their small groups and given questions specific to their role to scaffold their engagement.

Through the use of improvement science, the math teachers at the middle school gained insight into effective ways of engaging students in cooperative learning and identified ways of monitoring student engagement.