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Collaborative Learning

By Frederick Brown | May 2024

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When I was an elementary school principal, I developed a strong working relationship with my building school counselor. I learned from her that school counselors, like all educators, want and need numerous opportunities to strengthen their practice and hone their skills. They yearn to learn from colleagues, share best practices, discuss common issues they are facing in schools and implement new strategies to support students’ needs. I continue to depend on that background in my role at Learning Forward, which focuses on educator professional development.

In April 2022, Learning Forward released revised Standards for Professional Learning to equip educators to design, implement and sustain high-quality professional learning. All 11 standards are interconnected, but here I focus on Culture of Collaborative Inquiry.

Culture of Collaborative Inquiry

Professional learning results in equitable and excellent outcomes for all students when educators engage in continuous improvement, build collaboration skills and capacity, and share responsibility for improving learning for all students.

First, it’s important that educators engage in continuous improvement, in which they develop shared goals and then document, collaboratively analyze and improve their practices, reflecting along the way. Learning from each continuous improvement cycle informs the next, and over time, learning teams have a much deeper understanding of their students, themselves and their learning systems.

One improvement cycle model is “Becoming a Learning Team.” It involves analyzing data; setting goals for students and adults; learning individually and collaboratively; implementing new learning; and monitoring, assessing and adjusting practice as needed. What’s key is the learning. Without it, teams are simply going through the motions.

Second, building collaboration skills and capacity is essential for educators. Collaboration doesn’t simply mean working together, but involves skills such as listening actively, ensuring parity among speakers, respecting diversity of opinion and sharing decision making. It also involves trust among peers and among educators with different levels of authority and supervisory responsibilities. 

Finally, educators must share responsibility for improving learning for all students. This means educators hold themselves and their colleagues responsible for progress toward goals, rather than placing responsibility on the students, their families or other external factors. Mutual accountability includes looking closely at whether colleagues provide opportunities to learn for every student and developing strategies to address any inequities.


Build a Learning Community

The Culture of Collaborative Inquiry standard argues for the opportunity for a district’s school counselors to become their own learning community, assuming collective responsibility for their students and problem-solving on their behalf. Why should school counselors work in isolation to strengthen skills? 

Imagine the potential power of a team of school counselors engaging in an inquiry cycle aligned to this ASCA standard: B-SS 6Collaborate with families, teachers, administrators, other school staff and education stakeholders for student achievement and success. Imagine a “learning team” of school counselors bringing to the community a collective set of data outlining the successes and challenges they faced gathering information on student needs from various groups. Consider how powerful it would be for this team of school counselors to set individual and collective learning goals for themselves as they explore research- and evidence-based strategies designed to solve the issues they faced. Finally, imagine how comforting it would be for individual school counselors to know they are no longer working alone as they face the many challenges their work presents.

School counselors can also play a major role on the teams of other educators seeking to improve results for students, such as grade-level teams at elementary or middle school levels or subject-area teams at the high school level. The type of data school counselors can provide could aid teams of teachers in meeting students’ learning and well-being needs. However, since everyone’s time is precious, it’s important that school counselors are only invited to join meetings when it supports for collective work.

Create Conditions for Learning

Is collaborative learning central to your school or district’s professional learning? The full set of Standards for Professional Learning makes clear how districts and schools can create the conditions for effective team learning, but here are a few insights. 

First, district leadership must recognize the power of collaboration and collective learning. Leaders help establish the climate and create the necessary cultural and structural conditions for collaborative learning among school counselors and building-based teams. This might look like giving school counselors space and grace to routinely gather within the district or across districts. It could mean reducing student caseloads, allowing school counselors time to better engage with each student, and with colleagues and teams.

Second, not everyone automatically knows how to collaborate and engage in cycles of continuous improvement. Educators need to become familiar with the chosen learning or improvement model. They also benefit from protocols to follow early on and opportunities to practice the model’s steps. 

Finally, equity needs to be a driving force in collaborative teams’ work throughout the district. Learning Forward defines equity as the outcome of educator practices that respect and nurture all aspects of student identity rather than treat them as barriers to learning. In addition to supporting students,  educators need access to high-quality professional learning so they can cultivate student strengths and address their needs. District leadership is crucial in establishing expectations for equity-driven discussions and creating structural conditions that enable learning among all educators, school counselors included.

When I was a high school student, I shared my hopes, dreams and fears with my school counselor. Given the strong advice and support I received, I am confident my school counselor benefited from the expertise of peers and worked with teachers to support our learning and well-being. What I experienced many years ago is what I wish for each student today, and collaboration can make that a reality. 

Frederick Brown is the president and CEO of Learning Forward, the Professional Learning Association. A version of this article original appeared in ASCA School Counselor magazine