There’s a good case to be made that better teaching and learning is best achieved by departments.  Some things can only be solved at a whole-school level, such as behaviour; others, like lesson planning, can perhaps best be addressed by individual teachers.  But it is the department which influences teaching and learning most (Aubrey-Hopkins and James, 2002); it is departments which become the focus for improvement as a school improves (Chapman, 2004).  Teachers of different subjects think and interact in different ways (Grossman, Wineburg and Woolworth, 2001; Spillane, 2005): the shared practice of their discipline makes departments distinct “communities of practice (Harris, 2001; Wenger, 2000, p.229).”  Professional learning communities, collegial bodies improving teaching and learning, are usually found in departments (McLaughlin and Talbert, 2001).  So how can departments go about improving teaching and learning?

How: the department as professional learning community

Collective responses to the fundamental challenges facing teachers – What to teach?  How best to teach it? – are more powerful.  It is in the department where the requisite expertise can be shared (Aubrey-Hopkins and James, 2002):

First, it is assumed that knowledge is situated in the day-to-day lived experiences of teachers and best understood through critical reflection with others who share the same experience (Buysse, Sparkman, & Wesley, 2003). Second, it is assumed that actively engaging teachers in [professional learning communities] will increase their professional knowledge and enhance student learning (Vescio, Ross and Adams, 2007).”

Departments in which students learn more tend to collegiality, relational trust, teacher learning, shared decision making and a culture of collaboration in which practice is ‘deprivatised’ (Bubb and Earley, 2004; Bryk and Schneider, 2002; Vescio, Ross and Adams, 2007).  Perhaps it is unsurprising therefore that:

The use of professional learning communities as a means to improve teaching practice and student achievement is a move that educators support and value, as indicated by teachers’ perceptions of impact (Vescio, Ross and Adams, 2007).”

Harnessing teachers’ collective knowledge and experience should improve student learning in the present and help teachers improve in the longer-term: but what is the focus for this collegiality to be?

Professional learning towards what?

Collegial communities are only useful if we know what we want (Wiliam, 2007).  Departments can work for and against change (Brown et al, 2000; McLaughlin and Talbert, 2001), thus while a head of department may need to develop collegiality (Harris, 2004), they also need to focus on core goals (Spillane, 2005) and maintain coherence (Sergiovanni, 2005).  Dylan Wiliam has argued that:

“Leaders who are serious about improving the outcomes for students in their schools have to develop the use of formative assessment, both retrospectively, as a way of ensuring that students do not fall behind, and also prospectively, as a way of increasing the pedagogical skills of teachers in the school (2016: p.126).”

A review of effective professional learning communities found one feature stood out:

A persistent focus on student learning and achievement by the teachers in the learning communities.  All eight studies documented that the collaborative efforts of teachers were focused on meeting the learning needs of their students (Vescio, Ross and Adams, 2007).”


In the communities where teachers worked together but did not engage in structured work that was highly focused around student learning, similar gains were not evident (Vescio, Ross and Adams, 2007).”

A study of one such professional learning community found that its power lay in the use of assessment to connect “the instructional choices that teachers make and the learning outcomes of students.”  This “helped teachers reflect on their instructional approaches and gain insight into the levels of understanding of their students”, and led to changes in their teaching – as identified by external observers – and small, but statistically significant, improvements in student learning (Supovitz, 2013).  Another study contrasted teachers meeting to discuss teaching and meeting to discuss student work: teachers discussed teaching at length, but this left little chance for critical discussion or insight; when discussing student work, teachers:

Were constantly monitoring the extent to which there were connections between students’ overarching, long-term learning goals, the materials used to assess these goals, and students’ related performance (Popp and Goldman, 2016).”

Putting this into practice

How best to achieve this depends on a department’s staff, its existing resources (particularly curriculum) and the time available.  Three approaches stand out:

Collaborating over what to teach

Fundamental questions can be addressed more productively by subject teams.  Individual teachers have a range of subject knowledge for teaching and of experiences; the challenge is in creating a structure in which to share this productively.  A department can be asked to create a collective resource for a unit by debating and agreeing:
• The critical knowledge to learn
• Common student misconceptions
• Useful images, sources and representations to convey key points
• Links to be made to other topics (revision and foreshadowing future learning)
• Effective ways to sequence learning
This allows every teacher to share their knowledge and experience, but avoids creating a straitjacket, since teachers can use the resulting resource flexibly, to suit them and their classes.  (For more on these ideas as a basis for unit planning, and for a template, visit this post).

Collaborating over how to improve teaching

The aim is not to force teachers to teach identically, but to catalyse reflection by individual teachers and the sharing of effective approaches.  There are two stages:

  1. Creating a common measure
    Collective reflection requires something in common, which every teacher can reflect upon.  The obvious answer would seem to be exam reviews, but for the reasons advanced by Daisy Christodoulou (2017), this is unlikely to be particularly helpful, because a summative assessment (or a mock) tells you very little about where the gaps in students’ knowledge actually lie: a student may struggle with a specific question for a dozen reasons.  Instead I’d suggest exit tickets and multiple-choice questions (more below).
  2. Collective reflection
    With these shared tools we can examine the variation in student responses and try to explain how it has come about:  How did each teacher explain the topic?  How did they allocate time differently?  What metaphors did they use when students became stuck?  By beginning with a question: why did some students answer this question well, others poorly? teachers can “move beyond merely sharing what happened in lessons to critical reflection on the teaching-learning process (Popp and Goldman, 2016).”  Teachers’ ability to contrast their approaches with those of their colleagues should allow them to reflect more carefully and more productively, leaving them open to adopt productive ideas willingly.

Two techniques lend themselves to this in particular:

Collective review of an agreed piece of student work.

Teachers can design half a dozen common exit tickets for a unit, then compare what students learned (or, if not exit tickets, any agreed piece of student work).  Collective analysis of exit tickets should lead to fruitful discussions, focusing on what each teacher did differently the effect this had on student learning.  Question prompts might include:

  • Where did most students struggle?
  • What did most students manage well?
  • How do student answers differ between classes?

This helps teachers  focus upon “the substance represented by the data” and hence “reflect on… instructional approaches and gain insight into the levels of understanding of their students” rather than diverting them “to acquire new analytic skills to make sense of the data (Supovitz, 2013).”

Create, use and analyse multiple-choice questions

Collectively developed multiple-choice questions have a range of functions.  Designing good multiple-choice questions is time-consuming and relies on good knowledge of student misconceptions and how students might interpret the questions. Collectively designing half a dozen multiple-choice questions spreads the work involved and allows teachers to share their knowledge of misconceptions.  These questions can be used as hinge questions within the lesson, or as exit tickets, or at any other stage in the learning process (Millar and Hames, 2003 show a range of ways teachers have used multiple-choice questions effectively).  Reflection afterwards could lead to similar discussions to those conducted with exit tickets, and could also allow the revision and extension of the questions, creating a growing collection.

Making it work

This approach to improving teaching and learning in departments fulfils many of the requirements proposed by the literature on effective professional development (for example: Cordingley et al., 2015; Desimone, 2009; Timperley, 2008), including active learning, a collegial approach and a focus on subject knowledge.  The remaining proposed requirements include ensuring that the approach is:
• Sustained
• Surfaces existing beliefs
• Has (and keeps) leadership support.

If you’re doing something like this now, I’d be fascinated to read or hear more.

What to read next?


Aubrey-Hopkins, Judith and James, Chris (2002) ‘Improving Practice in Subject Departments: the experience of secondary school subject leaders in Wales’, School Leadership & Management, 22: 3, 305 — 320

Brown, Marie , Rutherford, Desmond and Boyle, Bill(2000) ‘Leadership for School Improvement: The Role of the Head of Department in UK Secondary Schools’, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 11: 2, 237 —258

Bryk, A. and Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bubb, S. and Earley, P. (2004), ‘Why is managing change not easy?’ Managing Teacher Workload: Workload and Wellbeing, London: PCP/Sage

Chapman, Christopher (2004) ‘Leadership for Improvement in Urban and Challenging Contexts’, London Review of Education, 2: 2, 95 — 108

Christodoulou, D. (2017) Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford, OUP.

Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., Coe, R. (2015) Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust.

Desimone, L. (2009) Improving Impact Studies of Teachers’ Professional Development: Toward better Conceptualizations and Measures. Education Researcher 38(3) 181-199

Grossman, P., Wineburg, S., & Woolworth, S. (2001). Toward a Theory of Teacher Community. The Teachers College Record, 103, 942-1012.

Harris, Alma (2001) ‘Department Improvement and School Improvement: A missing link?’, British Educational Research Journal, 27: 4, 477 — 486

Harris, Alma (2004) ‘Distributed Leadership and School Improvement : Leading or Misleading?’ Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 32: 11-26

Popp, J. and Goldman, S. (2016). Knowledge building in teacher professional learning communities: Focus of meeting matters. Teaching and Teacher Education, 59, pp.347-359.

McLaughlin, M. and Talbert, J. (2001). Professional communities and the work of high school teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Millar, R., Hames, V. (2003) Using Diagnostic Assessment to Enhance Teaching and Learning: A Study of the Impact of Research-informed Teaching Materials on Science Teachers’ Practices. Evidence-based Practice in Science Education (EPSE) Research Network.

Sergiovanni, Thomas (2003), ‘A Cognitive Approach to Leadership’, in Brent Davies and John West-Burnham (ed.), Handbook of Educational Leadership and Management, Pearson: London, Ch. 2

Spillane, J. P. (2005) Primary school leadership practice: how the subject matters, School Leadership & Management, 25: 4, 383-397

Supovitz, J. (2013) The Linking Study: An Experiment to Strengthen Teachers’ Engagement With Data on Teaching and Learning. CPRE Working Papers.

Timperley, H. (2008). Teacher professional learning and development. Educational Practices (18). International Academy of Education.

Vescio, V., Ross, D., Adams, A. (2007) A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education 24. 80–91.

Wenger, Etienne (2000), ‘Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems’, Organization, 7: 225-247

Wiliam, D. (2007) Content then process: teacher learning communities in the service of formative assessment. In D. B. Reeves (Ed.), Ahead of the curve: the power of assessment to transform teaching and learning (pp. 183-204). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wiliam, D. (2016) Leadership for Teacher Learning: Creating a Culture Where All Teachers Improve So That All Students Succeed. Learning Sciences International.