Want to Improve Teacher Effectiveness? Embrace the Flock Approach

Want to Improve Teacher Effectiveness? Embrace the Flock Approach

There has been much discussion in recent years about the need to find and hold on to high-quality teachers using a combination of recruitment efforts and the development of what are often called “teacher talent pipelines.” The talent pipeline model typically focuses on how to best train new teacher candidates, either within or aside from traditional teacher prep programs. The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, for example, invested philanthropic resources into studying what happens when school districts and teacher prep programs team up to nurture and develop “high-quality teacher talent.” The ensuing report, produced in collaboration with the Education First group, focused heavily on ways to cultivate a more diverse crop of teacher candidates, as well as how to make sure future teachers are getting the training they need for today’s rapidly changing classrooms.

But what about the teachers who are already certified and have years or even decades of classroom experience under their belts? According to a 2018 survey conducted by EdMarketer, a division of the online education news site Education Week, “improving effectiveness of existing staff” is among the most pressing concerns for district leadership, second only to “meeting all students’ needs.” This raises an important question: How can school improvement happen from within? While finding and supporting new teachers is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, there is clearly also a need to support and develop experienced staff members—indeed, this aligns with a 2016 Brookings Institution report that found “teachers care about their working conditions” and tend to respond well to “professional and collaborative working environments.” With this in mind, the question then becomes how best to create the kind of positive and collaborative environments that boost the effectiveness of current school staff.


Stepping back from superchickens

One place to start is to focus on the whole flock, rather than on any one member in particular. In her 2015 TED Talk, experienced CEO and strategist Margaret Heffernan invoked this strategy by offering advice on how to avoid the “superchicken” mentality. Citing the work of evolutionary biologist William Muir, Heffernan shared that when Muir set out to identify the most effective way of increasing egg production in chickens, he found that grouping together the chickens who produced the most eggs individually actually led to the worst outcomes. After observing six generations of these so-called superchickens, Muir noted that they had nearly killed each other in their hyper-competitive efforts to become the top chicken. Meanwhile, an “average flock” composed of ordinary egg producers thrived under the same conditions.

In drawing upon this example, Heffernan was seeking to make the point that it is less important to cultivate superheroes than it is to foster an environment of cooperation and creative exploration. “We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars,” Heffernan noted, but research like Muir’s has shown that the most successful groups are those without one dominant, high-achieving individual. Instead, the groups or teams that operate best are built on mutual respect, an equally shared workload, and empathy. Thus, Heffernan contended, it’s not enough to just form a group; for best results, said group should be “socially connected” based on a real awareness of the individual members and their ability to contribute meaningfully to the group’s success.


Flocks in schools

This concept has been applied in school settings such as the Pearl-Cohn Magnet High School in Nashville, Tennessee. At Pearl-Cohn, teachers participate in small cohorts that they actually refer to as "flocks," according to a video about the approach posted to the Edutopia website. Working together in these flocks affords teachers what one participant described as the “profound sense that we are not alone in this work,” reinforcing Pearl-Cohn’s overall emphasis on having a consistent structure and set of expectations throughout the building. For instance, social studies teacher Jessica Hansen described how teachers meet weekly in small groups to continuously reinforce the school’s “five core values”—which include having a strong work ethic (“more grit”) and putting the needs of others first—while music teacher Marqo Patton characterized the goal of this endeavor as being to “really support each other for the sake of our kids.”

This cycle of continuous improvement and mutual support has reportedly led to greater teacher effectiveness, particularly in light of the fact that the Pearl-Cohn model focuses heavily on peer observation and feedback. As displayed in the Edutopia video, the climate at the school appears to be one of encouragement and social connectedness—which, as Heffernan would contend, is preferable to an isolating emphasis on an individual teacher’s achievement or failure. The teachers in the video also reported noticing a ripple effect on students, who staff believe have benefited from hearing the same messages around behavior and academic work in various classrooms. For students, the overall takeaway is “You have the capacity to learn and grow”—and under the flock model, this message applies to teachers as well.


Have you heard of the flock approach? What is your school or district doing to improve the effectiveness of existing staff? Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and let us know your thoughts and experiences on this topic.

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