Many teachers find themselves missing the dynamic, social collaborative spaces, like faculty rooms, that are often the hub of spontaneous exchanges, support, and exploration. Yet now more than ever, it’s important that colleagues work together to share strategies for instruction and engagement—and energize each other. We need engaging approaches that support collaboration and build morale, not to mention break down the silos that distance learning can create.
All of that is possible through public learning, a key practice from Mills Teacher Scholars that uses dialogue to encourage a culture of questioning assumptions and biases. I’ve seen its effectiveness in face-to-face settings, and it is easily adapted to a virtual environment.
What Is Public Learning?
Unlike the typical teacher presentations that highlight best practices or share perfect pieces of student work, public learning is a structure that spotlights the messy but productive thinking that guides educators to those best practices. The key to public learning is sharing uncertainties, noticing gaps, understanding students’ current reality, and celebrating discoveries and next steps.
It requires a certain level of vulnerability, but in the end the dialogue benefits both the learner and listeners because it invites multiple perspectives to move the learner forward and, most important, the student(s) as well. Typically it takes place in under 20 minutes.
Setting Up Public Learning
In advance of a public learning meeting, the leader/facilitator invites one teacher to be the public learner and share an instructional dilemma—it can be anything the learner (the teacher) wants help thinking about, such as how to engage a particular student, increase student conversations in breakout rooms, or help students revise their work to grow toward mastery of a particular skill.
Step 1. Prepare beforehand: First the leader/facilitator should meet with the public learner for a check-in conversation to help them get clear on what they would like support thinking about with colleagues. From there, the leader/facilitator should support the public learner in thinking about what student data or work they can bring to the meeting to share with their colleagues to illustrate the current reality in their classroom. (Data can include a range of evidence, such as student messages, student work, Google Forms, Jamboard work, and recordings.) If the public learner isn’t sure what evidence or student work to share, an anecdote or story can work, too.
Step 2. Frame (1 minute): Open your public learning session by reminding your colleagues that the goal is not finding the “right” answer but rather helping the public learner think differently or more deeply about their dilemma to arrive at next steps to best support their students.
If your public learning meeting is virtual, encourage your colleagues to use gallery view to provide a collaborative space.
Step 3. Engage (3 minutes): The public learner shares their dilemma and, ideally, data related to it. They think aloud about what they are grappling with, what they see in the data, where they are feeling stuck, and what they want support thinking more deeply about. The public learner should end their sharing time by stating, “I would like help thinking about...”
Step 4. Data review (2–3 minutes): Share the data or evidence with the group; if the setting is virtual, you can share the data in the chat box via a link or via email ahead of time. Colleagues independently review the data.
Step 5. Listener discussion (4 minutes): Colleagues share reflections about what they heard while the public learner listens; they can also ask probing questions that bubble up at this time. The public learner need not respond right away, but rather is given reflective space. (This is different from many conversations, where speakers are asked to respond right away.)
Listeners may respond with:
- “I heard the public learner say...”
- “I am curious to know more about...”
- “I wonder what they meant when...”
- “A question I have is...”
- “When I look at the data, I notice...”
Step 6. Open discussion (8 minutes): The public learner reenters the conversation to engage in dialogue with their colleagues. The discussion centers on what the public learner wants thought partnership on. They should consider the following:
- Seeing what is actually happening for students (through data/evidence)
- Thinking about what they want to have happen for students
- Thinking about a next step/change in practice that would help the student progress toward their goals
Note that this is not a space for colleagues to give solutions, but rather one where they support the public learner to think differently and more deeply about their dilemma.
Step 7. Takeaways (2 minutes): The public learner shares their reflections on the discussion and any key takeaways, next steps, or “try tomorrows” they have gained from the conversation.
Step 7 is key, and if time is tight, it is important to take a few minutes from the open discussion to preserve this time for the learner.
That’s all it takes—20 minutes or less in a setting of collaboration, vulnerability, and learning—for colleagues to come together to support one another in service of students.
Back in the spring, when I pitched public learning to my team, I reminded everyone that suddenly we were all new teachers. It didn’t matter that I had nine years under my belt or that my colleague had over 15—we had never done this before, but we could do it together.