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by Nathan Driskell

This past week, a team from CIEB traveled to Shanghai to talk with students, educators and policymakers and observe teachers’ classrooms. Our experiences—from the stellar opera performance given by a young student in a desperately poor school to inspiring conversations with 40-year veterans of Shanghai education policy atop the tallest building in China—opened our eyes once again to an ever changing, constantly improving Shanghai education system. But what was most thought provoking was the opportunity to see firsthand how teachers have the time, space, and flexibility to collaborate with one another and improve as they collectively refine their work.

The interview with Professor Sato in this month’s Global Perspectives gives an overview of the policy structures, including Teaching and Research Groups and career ladders, that enable teachers in Shanghai to collaborate, share expertise, and gain more responsibility for mentoring their peers. In our own conversations with policymakers and observations of schools this past week, we gained further insights into the objectives of two kinds of collaborative groups. Each facilitates learning in different ways:ShanghaiClassroom

  1. Subject groups, comprised of all the subject teachers in a given school, who meet once per week to share how their classes are going, describe the teaching strategies they are trying and their priorities for the coming weeks, and share any new initiatives or big innovations they plan to try.
  2. Grade-level subgroups, made up of the teachers in a specific grade and subject level in one school, who meet regularly, both formally and informally, to observe and debrief each others’ lessons and try out new research strategies.

We were lucky enough to see each of these groups in action, and ask questions of the participating teachers. In our conversations, we were often impressed by the teachers’ deep commitment to their students, the spirit of camaraderie and support that characterized the groups, and the drive these professionals had to better themselves however they could.

Math Subject Groups at ShiXi High School: Sharing Strategies and Celebrating Success

ShiXi High School is one of the highest-performing schools in Shanghai. On this beautiful campus in the heart of the city, students have the opportunity to debate one another and their teachers in special “Plaza of Thought” classes, choose from an IB program of study or a standard curriculum augmented by numerous enrichment classes including robotics and world politics, and apply to world-class universities including some of the top schools in America.

It is no surprise, then, that when the teacher subject groups meet each week, talk often turns to how teachers’ innovative new practices can be spread throughout Shanghai. In the subject group we watched, 19 math teachers participated. The group was so large because in ShiXi, as in many schools in Shanghai, teachers teach only two periods out of seven per day. The principal was in the room—but as a participant, not a leader. He teaches one class himself, as do most principals in the city.

Due to the large size of the group, a subject Lead Teacher from the upper levels of the career ladder carefully facilitated discussion. As his colleagues spoke one by one, they revealed a passion for their teaching and a deep pride in the innovative strategies they were trying. We learned that four math teachers recently opened up their classrooms to do demonstration math lessons for teachers around the district and the municipality. The lessons focused on a specific protocol for getting students to engage with unfamiliar material, think critically, and debate controversial and ambiguous topics with one another. In the protocol, students are introduced to a new math concept or technique through reading material and encouraged to do independent research to learn more and support their approach. Then they work in small groups to tackle complex problems using the strategies they have learned. After ten minutes of small group work, they share their strategies and progress with the class. Because the different approaches yield different solutions, debate follows, and students find that some approaches yield different results for different kinds of problems. They then develop a deeper understanding for how to choose from all the strategies they know and apply them in ambiguous and unfamiliar situations. Finally, they upload a short research report with their findings to social media to share the results with their peers and facilitate the spread of new knowledge.

In the subject group, teachers asked questions of one another about these techniques and how the teachers observing the demonstration lessons responded. The lead teacher shared that the demonstration lessons were standing-room-only—dozens of teachers from across Shanghai wanted to attend. Because fostering debate and critical thinking is a key priority for Shanghai schools, the work at ShiXi is seen as cutting edge. Through this discussion, the math subject group at ShiXi was able to review an innovative strategy being piloted by a small team of math teachers, while at the same time celebrating the school’s successes and learning about how their work was seen as a promising model for the entire city. In this large meeting, professional development and team morale building were rolled into one.

7th Grade English Grade-Level Subgroup at Xiang Ming Middle School: Critiquing and Refining Lessons

As we learned, teachers in Shanghai teach few classes so they can have time in the day to reflect, plan, and do research. As a result, these groups are too large to allow teachers to work together in-depth on the detailed work of lesson design and improvement. Shanghai has a common curriculum framework with accompanying textbooks that outline the concepts students need to learn and the skills they need to develop. But they leave teachers with a lot of leeway to design the actual lessons that accomplish these goals.

In order to design lessons with their colleagues, reflect on these lessons, and improve them, teachers meet weekly with the members of their Grade-Level Subgroup. Each week, these groups observe the classrooms of one of their peers, and then come together to share feedback on what they have seen, compare the lesson design and delivery to their own plans, suggest improvements, and work together to refine the lesson.

We watched a 7th Grade English Subgroup meeting in Xiang Ming Middle School, a relatively high performing school with a long and rich history. We began our visit by joining the 7th grade English team in observing one teacher’s English class. In the class, the 32 students, all native Chinese speakers, practiced their English vocabulary, writing, oral fluency, and ability to read with expression by acting out and writing adaptations to a traditional fable about a competition between Sun and Moon. In the process, they learned about the concept of genre and specific elements that make up the genre of a fable.

Although the class was large, the teacher gave ample opportunity for students to practice in small groups and in front of the class. The teachers’ demeanor was warm and inviting even as her classroom management was tightly choreographed, so students were free to express themselves but never in a way that was disruptive or off-task. No one wasted a second of the tightly packed 35-minute class period. From beginning to end, students and teacher spoke only in English and never once reverted to Chinese to explain anything.

Following the class, we went to a conference room with all the 7th grade English teachers for their subgroup meeting. The teacher who led the lesson was invited to speak first in order to outline her objectives for student learning—to integrate writing with reading comprehension, to develop imagination through open-ended questions, to build vocabulary—and explain how she hoped the design of her lesson would achieve those objectives. The other teachers in her group evaluated the extent to which her students met the objectives (quite well, by their assessment). They also congratulated her for taking risks in her choice of text: although the teaching standards merely instructed teachers to focus on reading comprehension, she elected to use texts in the difficult fable genre. This required more interpretation and analysis from students, and got them writing and thinking more about meaning and theme.

At the end of the session, several teachers shared their thoughts on what could be improved, based on their first-hand experience teaching similar lessons. These suggestions were quite detailed: one teacher felt that specific PowerPoint slides contained too much explanatory text that prevented students from drawing their own conclusions; another thought that the open-ended questions the teacher posed the class could have been designed to get the students to practice a wider range of new vocabulary. The teacher whose lesson we had seen took notes throughout the feedback, and at the end of the meeting, told her peers she planned to review and refine her lesson based on the feedback for use in future years.

We saw that even the negative feedback shared in this meeting was received warmly. We suspect that Chinese teachers’ commitment to continuous improvement partly explains receptiveness to constructive criticism. But it also likely stems from the warm rapport between members of the team. These team members knew one another very well because they interact constantly: in almost all schools, grade-level subgroups share an office and spend the majority of each school day working side-by-side in them, as also noted in our Global Perspectives interview with Professor Sato.

Conclusions and Future Directions for Teacher Collaboration

These two forms of teacher groups are the most prevalent and longest-standing structures for teacher collaboration in Shanghai. But they are not the only ones. During our visit, we heard about two other kinds of teacher teams that have begun more recently, and will spread further throughout Shanghai in the future:

  1. Empowered Management Team mentorship groups. This program, begun in 2007 and now scaling rapidly, pairs a high-performing school that has applied to the municipal government for funding to be a mentor school with a low-performing school that has applied to receive additional support. Teachers of the same grade level and subject matter partner across the schools to share strategies and observe and critique lessons. The high-performing teachers spend one day per week in the lower-performing school observing their colleagues and offering constructive feedback, while the lower-performing teachers spend one day per week in the higher-performing schools to observe and reflect on what they have seen.
  2. Online teaching research groups. In this new model of online learning, an experienced teacher with a strong research background posts a pressing problem of practice to an online portal. Other teachers from all across Shanghai who are interested in this problem apply to form a formal research team. This team, under the guidance of the lead teacher who posed the problem, suggests potential solutions—designs for innovative lessons, specific interventions—and puts forward a research plan to evaluate the effectiveness of their solution. An expert advisory team of professors of education and subject matter experts, funded by the municipal government, offers advice on the research direction and mentors the team as they begin testing their hypotheses. The advisory team videotapes the research lessons and uploads them to the portal so the entire group can see the results and share them with teachers across the city.

These promising models show that Shanghai is piloting new strategies to get teachers to collaborate and share their expertise, even as it already has one of the strongest systems in place for collaborative professional learning. In our team’s recent trip to Shanghai, we were fortunate enough to see this professional learning in action. Even better, we saw some of the results: engaged children supported by loving, nurturing, and highly-skilled teachers delivering finely honed lessons.

During our meetings with teachers, the majority of which were filtered through an English interpreter, we heard one Chinese word repeated hundreds of times throughout the week. At the end of one meeting, one group member thought to ask our interpreter what the word meant. “Improve,” she replied. It seemed fitting. Improvement is so baked into the culture and ethos of Shanghai’s schools that it is all many teachers can talk about.