Collaborative Teacher Learning

two adults talkingThis month’s Spotlight highlights five projects that are investigating professional learning experiences that support collaboration among practitioners to improve knowledge and practice. Projects describe the role of collaboration in their programs; the structures, processes, and tools that support the programs; and their approach to sustainability. We also invite you to explore additional DRK-12 projects and products as well as related resources.

In this Spotlight:

Featured Projects

Co-Learning Math Teaching Logo

Co-learning Math Teaching Project: Collaborative Structures to Support Learning to Teach across the Professional Teaching Continuum

PI: Ruth Heaton | Co-PI: Torrey Kulow
STEM Discipline: Mathematics
Grade Levels: Supporting pre-service teachers’ (undergraduate & graduate students) and in-service teachers’ learning of how to teach mathematics in grades K-12

Project Description: Our project is a multi-year, NSF-funded design-based research study to develop Collaborative Learning Structures (CLSs) which support Mentor Teachers (MTs) and Teacher Candidates (TCs) in collaboratively learning (i.e., co-learning) equity-oriented math instruction. We are currently in our fourth year and in the process of revising the CLSs and studying their use in multiple contexts. The CLSs are protocols that guide dyads' interactions as they plan, enact, and reflect on math lessons together over time. The CLSs are designed to engage MTs and TCs in co-noticing students’ mathematical contributions, funds of knowledge, and assets to make teaching decisions that disrupt inequitable classroom patterns. To this end, the co-learning protocols support MTs and TCs in briefly pausing in-the-moment during instruction to consider what they have noticed together and make joint decisions about how the lesson should proceed. Our conjecture is that routine use of the CLSs might support MTs and TCs in valuing and learning to use one another assets’ as each works to hone their pedagogical judgment and develop shared strategies and ways of thinking about teaching.

Structures, Processes, and Facilitation Approaches to Support Collaborative Professional Learning: We believe that teachers’ learning how to promote student engagement and participation is an adaptive, ongoing, deliberate, and collaborative process since teachers must continually respond to the varied needs of their diverse students across their teaching careers as well as to the ever-shifting contexts in which they work. Engaging with people with diverse perspectives and experiences (notably colleagues, students, parents, community members) regularly across time helps teachers notice and analyze parts of their practice that may be “invisible” to them. These interactions support teachers’ development by making their intentions explicit and the impacts of their actions (whether they are equitable or not) open to collective inquiry.

The CLSs have three key features that support MTs and TCs in working in adaptive, ongoing, deliberate, and collaborative ways.

  • Key Feature 1: Our CLSs prompt dyads to investigate “enduring questions” (Cochran-Smith et al., 2008) related to authentically centering and leveraging mathematical contributions from culturally and linguistically diverse students in ways that disrupt inequitable participation patterns. The questions dyads choose from focal questions to focus their co-learning. The choices include: (1) Who is expressing their ideas? What are they talking about? Whose ideas are not being heard? Why? (2) What assumptions are we making about why students are participating in the ways they are? (3) What partial understandings do students offer? How are their ideas mathematically rich & relevant? (4) What mathematical strategies & practices are we privileging? Why? (5) How are students interacting with one another? Who is included? Excluded?
  • Key Feature 2: Our CLSs prompt dyads to collaboratively engage in “anti-deficit noticing” which Louie et al., (2021) define as “noticing that deliberately challenges deficit discourses, intentionally attending to and elevating the humanity, intelligence, and mathematical abilities of marginalized people … in routine instructional interactions” (p. 100). Drawing on this description of anti-deficit noticing, the CLSs are designed to prompt the teachers to frame their students in assets-based ways as the teachers attend to aspects of their students’ mathematical competence and participation, interpret how the aspects of students’ mathematical competence and participation identified are shaped by or due to features of the teachers’ instruction and classroom environment as well as the teachers’ biases, and then generate and experiment with (i.e., respond to) instructional practices in-the-moment that leverage students’ mathematical competence in new ways and that disrupt features of the classroom environment and instruction that lead to inequitable student participation (Louie et al., 2021; van Es et al., 2017).
  • Key Feature 3: The CLSs guide dyads' interactions when collaboratively planning, enacting, and reflecting on lessons over time. The CLSs frame these teaching activities (lesson planning, enactment, reflection) as interconnected so that the mentor teachers and teacher candidates continue making sense of and having structured conversations about student engagement and participation during all phases of lesson development and across time.

Recruitment, Retention, & Collaborative Teacher Learning: Our CLSs help teacher candidates see teaching and the practice of learning about teaching as a collaborative and on-going endeavor, which could potentially support retention efforts. If new teachers enter the field understanding the value of having collaborators, perhaps they will be more interested in and more able to seek out support from colleagues. They would now have a tool to use with future collaborators, a way to structure their future collaborative interactions.

Products: The primary way that we are planning to share our tool and learning with communities beyond our project team is through our project website that is currently under development with a planned launch in Fall 2024.

Publications & Presentations

  • Knapp, M., Kulow, T., Gao, M. & Goffney, I. (March 2024). Reimagining how Teachers Work Together: Co-Learning about Equity through Co-Noticing Student Participation. Presentation at The Teachers Development Group Leadership Seminar, Portland, OR.
  • Kulow, T., Goffney, I., Stafford, T., Carlson, M., Heaton, R., Jackson, K., Knapp, M., & Fink, H. (2024). Opportunities for co-learning equity-oriented mathematics instruction in the field experience. In Reflection on Past, Present and Future: Paving the Way for the Future of Mathematics Teacher Education.
  • Kulow, T., Elston Khorvash, J., & Stafford, T. (February 2024). Mentor Teachers and Student Teachers Co-Learning about Equity-Oriented Math Instruction. Presentation at the 2024 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Regional Conference & Exposition, Seattle, WA.
  • Stafford, T., Fink H., Heaton R., Knapp, M., & Goffney, I. (February 2024) Expanding Equity Oriented Professional Development Opportunities in Clinical Experiences: Leveraging Assets and Perspectives Through CoLearning. Presentation at The Twenty-Eighth Annual Conference of the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators, Orlando, FL.
  • Heaton, R., Kulow, T., Carlson, M.A., Knapp, M., Fink, H., Gao, M., Goffney, I., Jackson, K., & Stafford, T. (2023) Designing and Adapting Tools to Support Collaborative Learning of Equity Oriented Math Instruction. Presentation at the National Science Foundation 2023 DRK-12 PI Meeting, Arlington, VA.
  • Kulow, T., Goffney, I., Fink, H., Heaton, R., Knapp, M, Stafford, T., & Gao, M. (2023) Mentor and Novice Teacher Co-Learning to Promote Student Engagement and Participation. In Proceedings of the forty-fifth annual meeting of the North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, Reno, NV.

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Comparing the Efficacy of Collaborative Professional Development Formats for Improving Student Outcomes of a Student-Teacher-Scientist Partnership Program

PI: Catrina Adams | Co-PIs: Jeanine Cotton-Proby, Joseph Taylor
STEM Discipline: Biology (Plant Biology)
Grade Level: 9-12

Project Description: This project is a conceptual replication and extension of a previous project (DRL #1502892) which investigated the efficacy of an online plant biology mentoring program module on improving students’ achievement and attitudes about scientists. The current project additionally compares how the format of an ~36-hour summer collaborative teacher/ early-career-scientist professional learning (PL) workshop (in-person vs. online) impacts fall implementation of the PlantingScience Power of Sunlight module with students, and ultimately impacts students’ achievement, counter-stereotypical attitudes about scientists, and motivation to study plants.

The PlantingScience Power of Sunlight module covers topics of photosynthesis and respiration and includes a series of guided investigations and classroom discussions culminating in student-designed investigations. Throughout the 2-4 week module, small teams of students document their progress on a website-based “project page” while communicating asynchronously with a volunteer scientist mentor assigned to each team. Early-career scientists acting as “PlantingScience liaisons” work closely with teachers to set up and facilitate conversations between the teachers’ teams of students and their assigned mentors.

Structures, Processes, and/or Facilitation Approaches to Support Collaborative Professional Learning: Our goal for the collaborative PL workshops is to enhance participants’ science knowledge and pedagogical strategies related to teaching photosynthesis and respiration at the high school level, and to prepare teachers and early-career-scientists to effectively implement the Power of Sunlight module with students in a way that facilitates positive changes in student achievement, attitudes about scientists, and motivation to study plants.

Core components of the collaborative professional learning design include:

  1. experiencing Power of Sunlight module activities as students would, including modeling the use of the website with small teams of teachers using student accounts and early-career scientists serving in the scientist mentor role
  2. analyzing video clips of teachers using BSCS’s evidence-based STeLLA strategies (Science Teachers Learning from Lesson Analysis) and practicing these strategies in the context of the Power of Sunlight module activities
  3. discussing strategies teachers and scientist mentors can use to address common student preconceptions about photosynthesis and respiration and about who scientists are and what they do
  4. analyzing and discussing transcripts and artifacts of past student-scientist website interactions as well as past participants’ use of behind-the-scenes teacher/liaison/scientist mentor communication tools and strategies for supporting the student/mentor conversations
  5. explicitly discussing how the teacher, liaison, and scientist mentor roles work together to reach the desired student outcomes.

We aimed to make the online and in-person versions of the professional learning workshop as equivalent as possible with similar content, activities and goals. The in-person workshops took place over 4 days and included large group work (demonstrations, discussions, small team share-outs and gallery walks), small group work (replicating student team experiences, discussing artifacts and transcripts), and some independent work (readings, personal reflections, adding post-it notes to posters hung around the room). At times, teachers and scientists worked together, while at other times teachers and scientists were separated to participate in activities targeted to each role. The online workshops took place over the course of one or two weeks and included 5 facilitated large group synchronous Zoom sessions (3-4 hours with breaks), unfacilitated small group meetings scheduled by each team that took place in open Zoom breakout rooms, and independent work including readings, posting to discussion boards and adding notes to Google Suite “Jamboards” (online shared whiteboards). Online participants received a kit of materials in the mail and a small stipend to purchase perishables needed to complete module activities independently or while meeting with their small teams on Zoom.

Resources & Tools to Support Collaborative Teacher Learning: We were able to make changes to our website to be able to host PL workshops directly on the same website where the online mentoring takes place in the fall. Workshop materials and website-based PL activities were shared on customized “group” pages for each workshop cohort and used in both in-person and online workshops. However, the online PL groups spent more time on the website, where they were encouraged to communicate with other participants between large-group Zoom sessions via forum prompts and links to small-group Zoom meeting breakout rooms and Google Suite “Jamboards”. Additional development of the website platform enabled a smoother mentor invitation process and additional changes to make collaboration easier during the fall implementation with students. Some of these changes are documented in a recent press release from our HubZero platform developers.

Collaborative Teacher Learning & Equity: A premise of the research is that authentic interactions with scientists can challenge stereotypes about scientists and support students’ formation of a science identity, especially for those historically underrepresented in science. Most students participating in PlantingScience have had no prior interactions with scientists. As a classroom-based online student-teacher-scientist partnership (STSP), PlantingScience expands opportunities for all students in a class to receive mentoring from scientists as opposed to most other STSPs that target students with high interest or achievement in STEM.

The collaborative PL brings teachers from a range of schools teaching diverse student populations in a variety of high school biology courses around the US together with early-career scientists who have an interest in science outreach, science education, and mentoring. An important feature of the PL involves collaborative strategizing to make the module and mentoring as effective as possible with diverse classroom contexts and student populations. The STeLLA pedagogical strategies component of the PL is designed to make student thinking visible. This helps teachers and scientists to leverage the resources students bring to the learning, identify students’ preconceptions, and meet each student where they are to push their thinking forward.

Explicit reflection and group discussion time at key points in the PL encourage teachers to consider principled adaptations to the module customized for their classroom situation and students and to discuss this with the PL facilitators and each other. We wanted to provide for connection between teachers facing similar challenges and opportunities, but also to facilitate sharing a wider range of experiences and opinions. When selecting artifacts and transcripts of student projects to discuss during the PL, we seek to maximize representation of different student populations and classroom environments (rural vs. urban, well-resourced vs. under-resourced, general education vs. AP, various class schedules, etc.).

The early-career-scientists participating in the collaborative PL found discussions of teachers’ varied classroom contexts and the use of examples from a diverse set of contexts especially useful for broadening their own preconceptions of what high school biology classrooms in the US can look like. They also appreciated learning about the STeLLA pedagogical strategies which can be used by scientist mentors to identify and meet the needs of different student teams through asynchronous mentoring conversations.

Our research design includes collecting data on student demographics as well as school, teacher and class context that will allow us to explore differences in student outcomes. This will help us to better understand in which contexts and for which students the intervention is most effective. This analysis will be useful towards understanding how efforts to support equitable teaching and learning play out in student outcome data.

Sustaining Collaborative Teacher Learning: We plan to sustain collaborative PL efforts by involving teacher and scientist participants as future facilitators of the professional learning workshops. Selected teacher and scientist leaders from our first cohort of participants will co-facilitate workshops with a second cohort of participants this summer. A detailed workshop facilitation guide created by project staff will be revised this summer with feedback from participant leader co-facilitators, and then participant leaders will be supported to facilitate workshops in the following year. Including participant leaders as facilitators may increase participants’ trust and preparedness to implement the module as they will be able to discuss implementation with other teachers and scientists who have directly experienced the module in their own classrooms and can share lessons learned. Our dissemination plan also provides opportunities and support for teacher and early-career-scientist participants to present about the program and their experiences at scientific conferences and teacher professional association meetings.

Initial findings: The current project aims to replicate and extend the work of a previous research project, which found that the PlantingScience Power of Sunlight module (including in-person professional learning support for teachers and scientists, the module curriculum, and online mentoring by scientists) led to higher levels of student achievement and more positive attitudes about scientists, compared to those same student outcomes in classrooms using Business-as-Usual (BaU) student materials and receiving business as usual teacher professional development. A visual summary of the main findings of that project is available on the PlantingScience website.

One main limitation of the earlier study was a lack of detailed contextual information describing differences in implementation among teachers using the PlantingScience module and a clear description of what was happening in Business-as-Usual classrooms serving as the control condition for the study. The current study includes more detailed information on implementation of program components by participants. Data being collected about the PL workshops include participants’ perceptions of the workshop content and format, degree of participation in workshop activities, and the relative cost of each workshop format. Differences in subsequent implementation of the Power of Sunlight module with students will be evaluated using a daily teaching log completed by teachers and by analyzing website activity. We will examine teachers’ adaptations of the module, and the degree and type of support teachers and early-career-scientist “liaisons” provide to each other, to students, and to scientist mentors during the fall module implementation. The degree and type of interactions students have with scientist mentors as well as both student and mentor perceptions of how the project and mentoring impact student outcomes are also being collected. Business-as-Usual teachers will also complete Daily Logs describing how they usually teach photosynthesis and respiration. The richness of this implementation data will provide needed context to better understand differences in student outcomes between students of teachers who participated in online vs. in-person collaborative professional learning.

While little of this data has been analyzed yet, we do have a few preliminary findings related to our first cohort of teachers’ perceptions of the online and in-person workshops. According to our research design, participating teachers were randomly assigned to participate in online or in-person format PL workshops. After the workshops, we provided teachers with a brief description of how the format they experienced differed from the alternative, and asked teachers which format they would have preferred if offered a choice. The in-person PL format would have been preferred by 73% of teachers (n=24) with 18% (n=6) having no preference and 9% preferring online (n=3). Those randomly assigned to the in-person PL format showed a stronger preference for the in-person format (81%, n=13) than those randomly assigned to the online PL format (65%, n=11).

On post-workshop evaluation surveys, we saw a significant difference in teachers’ perceptions of the quality of the PL workshop they attended , with a mean composite score (derived from the extent to which teachers agree with related statements) of 90 for teachers attending the in-person workshop vs. 79 for teachers attending the online workshop. However, between teachers attending in-person vs. online PL formats, there were no significant differences for composite measures of teachers’ post-workshop perceptions of their understanding of the module, preparedness to implement the module, or preparedness to address student preconceptions related to the module.

We are excited to explore whether and how teacher preferences for and perceptions of a particular format relate to differences in implementation, and ultimately to measured student outcomes.


  • PlantingScience Website (
  • Current Study (Replication and Extension) (DRL #2010556)
    • Dillon, C. (2024, February 23). SDSC Partnership with PlantingScience Enhances Student-Scientist Connections through HubZero CMS. HPC Wire. Retrieved from:
    • Pathare, V. (2024, June 22-26). Online Outreach Program PlantingScience Connects Middle and High School Students with Plant Scientist Mentors. [Accepted Conference presentation in “Symposium: A Plant Science Education Hub: How Capacity Building through Partnership Inspires the Next Generation of Diverse Plant Scientists”] Plant Biology 2024, Honolulu, HI, United States.
  • PlantingScience Digging Deeper (DRL #1502892)
    • Adams, C. T., Westbrook, A., Taylor, J., Cotton-Proby, J., & Carey, L. (2024, March 17-20). Improving Student Outcomes Through a Student-Teacher-Scientist Partnership Program. [Poster presentation delivered by J. Cotton-Proby]. National Association for Research in Science Teaching 2024 International Conference, Denver, CO, United States.
    • Taylor, J., Adams, C. T., Westbrook, A., Creasap-Gee, J., Spybrook, J. K., Kowalski, S. M., Gardner, A. L., & Bloom, M. (2022). The effect of participation in a student-scientist partnership-based online plant science mentoring community on high school students’ science achievement and attitudes about scientists. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 59(3), 423–457.
    • Westbrook, A., Adams, C. T. & Taylor, J. A. (2023). Digging Deeper into Student-Teacher-Scientist Partnerships for Improving Student Achievement and Attitudes about Scientists. American Biology Teacher, 85(7), 378–389.

StoryCircles Logo

Examining an Online, International Exchange Professional Development Program for High School Teachers

PI: Amanda Brown | Co-PIs: Patricio Herbst
STEM Discipline: Mathematics
Grade Levels: 9-12, Secondary

Project Description: This research project focuses on refining the StoryCircles approach for professional development, emphasizing collaborative learning among secondary mathematics teachers and advancing the teaching profession. StoryCircles serves as a collaborative platform where educators collectively anticipate and design problem-based lessons, capturing insights through storyboards. In this project, we examine the latest iteration of StoryCircles, where teams of teachers collaboratively craft initial lesson drafts. Each of these drafts undergo review by two additional teams of teachers (one from the United States and one from partner countries), receiving annotations along the lesson timeline for ongoing enhancement of the lesson.

Beyond individual teacher development, our approach to designing StoryCircles emphasizes systematic collaboration between teachers and researchers, fostering the creation and refinement of lesson representations. This collaborative process empowers teachers to actively contribute to the ongoing improvement of the knowledge base for teaching. StoryCircles cultivates a dynamic dialogue, where teachers engage in iterative discussions, informed by diverse perspectives, actively refining their lesson designs.

Notably, StoryCircles processes yield durable resources—malleable lesson representations that can be easily refined and archived for widespread dissemination among practitioners. The use of the storyboard medium (as compared with video) affords teachers the opportunity to focus on salient aspects of practice while avoiding other aspects of classroom life that could be sources of distraction. This focus on producing enduring materials aligns with our broader aim of not only contributing to the continual refinement of StoryCircles but also advancing the teaching profession. By fostering global collaboration between teachers and researchers, we aspire to enhance mathematics teaching collectively and contribute to the ongoing development of the profession. Our primary goal is to design a system that not only empowers individual teachers but also initiates a ripple effect in the continual enhancement of mathematics education.

Structures, Processes, and Facilitation Approaches to Support Collaborative Professional Learning: In our project, we purposefully integrate structures, processes, and facilitation approaches to foster a collaborative professional community among secondary mathematics teachers. The StoryCircles processes, encompassing scripting, visualizing (through storyboards), and arguing about a lesson, have proven effective for enabling teachers to collectively anticipate and design problem-based lessons. The emphasis in our design remains focused on creating a community that improves the profession as a whole, rather than focusing solely on the improvement of individual teachers. Additionally, StoryCircles facilitation approaches are crafted to stimulate active participation, encourage critical reflection, and foster the exchange of alternative teaching approaches.

In this latest iteration of StoryCircles, our central goal is to provide robust support to teachers through a feedback system geared towards refining initial lesson drafts. The process involves a comprehensive review by teams comprising secondary mathematics teachers from across the United States and four partner countries. This semi-structured feedback system, with annotations strategically placed along the lesson timeline, promotes a systematic and iterative dialogue, focusing on the nuanced instructional decisions that can emerge within a problem-based lesson. Importantly, our aim is to orient teachers to one another, emphasizing collaborative refinement over external structures that organize conversations.

Our project is rooted in the recognition of the vital role of cultivating an environment that nurtures collaborative, lesson-centered learning. By implementing structured processes such as collaborative lesson drafting, international reviews, and iterative discussions, we seek to establish a framework that not only facilitates collaborative learning but also actively contributes to the ongoing development of teaching practices among participating teachers. The ultimate objective is to develop a professional community where teachers feel empowered to engage in open dialogue, fostering a sense of autonomy and the ability to collectively shape the profession through engagement in community wide consideration and argumentation about teaching practices.

Initial Findings: At present, the data collection and analyses of our project are underway. We are diligently examining the collected data to derive meaningful insights and draw preliminary findings. As we progress through the analysis phase, we anticipate gaining valuable insights into the impact and effectiveness of the StoryCircles approach to professional development. We look forward to sharing our initial findings as they become available.

Products: Coming soon! Active development is underway for a dedicated project website. This website will showcase the valuable contributions of participating teachers, incorporating initial drafts of lessons, annotations on those drafts, and subsequently refined lessons. The aim is to create a resource not only for project teachers but also for other secondary mathematics educators not directly involved in the project and thereby expanding the network of StoryCircles practitioners and facilitators. Furthermore, teachers who opt to share their names, will receive proper attribution in these artifacts on the website.


Exploring Changes in Teachers' Engineering Design Self-Efficacy and Practice through Collaborative and Culturally Relevant Professional Development

PI: Frank Bowman | Co-PIs: Bethany Klemetsrud, Erin Lacina, & Julie Robinson
STEM Discipline: Engineering
Grade Levels: 3-8

Project Description: Teaching engineering in a way that is relevant to students’ culture can increase student interest, performance, and participation in STEM. However, many teachers don’t feel confident or trained to teach engineering in ways that connect to students’ lives and communities.

Project ExCEED is a professional learning program designed to help elementary and middle school teachers create and implement engineering design tasks in their classrooms. Teachers use our Culturally Relevant Engineering Design (CRED) Framework to create tasks that are relevant to the cultures and communities of their Native American and rural student populations and that are aligned with local STEM standards and curricula.

Teachers participating in the program meet and work together as a cohort for five days over the summer and three separate days throughout the school year. During these professional learning days teachers learn together, plan CRED tasks together, develop and share resources with one another, and share their experiences, successes, and challenges in the classroom.

Our project goals are focused on developing an effective professional learning model for culturally relevant engineering design and evaluating its impact on teachers’ self-efficacy and instructional practices. A proven model of teacher professional development can then be used to promote engineering learning and participation for students across a variety of cultural and community settings.

Structures, Processes, and Facilitation Approaches to Support Collaborative Professional Learning: Our professional development model was intentionally designed to center collaborative learning opportunities. Our teachers spent a substantial amount of time meeting and working together over two full years, including the 8 professional learning days in each year and multiple opportunities for virtual sessions and check-ins with the project team. Our design of the professional development days involved short sessions of new content followed by extended time for teachers to work together in small groups to apply the new learning to their lesson design and instructional practice.

Further, we utilized protocols and tools that fostered opportunities for discussion, shared feedback, and collaborative problem-solving. Such resources included success protocols, text tuning and rendering protocols, checklists and rubrics for lesson plans to be reviewed with a partner, and GoReact software, which allowed teachers to view and comment on videos from each other’s classrooms. We also leveraged the expertise of the teachers in our group to share facilitation and new learning. Teachers led sessions, provided input into the design of future professional development days, and contributed to materials produced and disseminated as part of our project.

Finally, we incorporated mentorship opportunities among our teachers, with those in their second year of the program acting as mentors and guides for teachers beginning in year two. Focus groups and interviews highlighted the importance these collaborative learning opportunities had on our teachers’ sense of success and self-efficacy.

Collaborative Teacher Learning & Equity: One of the participating schools within our project included numerous teachers across content areas and grade levels. During our professional learning sessions, the teachers worked together for lesson design and refinement, resource support, and efficient and effective implementation of the culturally relevant engineering design framework. This collaborative approach helped them to solve problems in creative ways through sharing of their varied experiences and application of learning across disciplines. Some of the teachers worked together to develop lesson plans where the engineering design task was facilitated across various content areas such as language arts and science or social science and math. As their instructional approaches and resources became increasingly implemented and consistent throughout their classrooms, more of the school’s students gained equal access to community and student-centered learning.

Initial Findings: Initial analysis of qualitative and quantitative study results are showing a promising and consistent picture of:

  • increased teacher self-efficacy
  • changes to teaching practice
  • positive impacts on students

Statistically significant gains were seen in pre/post surveys of self-efficacy towards engineering teaching self-efficacy, culturally responsive teaching self-efficacy, and use of culturally congruent instructional methods. Teachers reported increased engagement from all students, particularly among previously struggling and disengaged students who took on greater leadership and among female students who showed greater confidence and engagement. Teachers also noted increased student capacity for independence, creativity, problem-solving, and productive collaborative work.


  • Project Website
  • Videos About Project (STEM for All Video Showcase): 2021 | 2022
  • Publication: Bowman, F., Klemetsrud, B., Ozturk, E., & Robinson, J. (2022, August), Using Engineering Design Tasks to Create Indigenous Cultural and Community Connections with the Classroom for Elementary and Middle School Students, paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN. 10.18260/1-2--41076
  • Poster from 2023 DRK-12 PI Meeting

Spiral Logo

SPIRAL: Supporting Professional Inquiry and Re-Aligning Learning through a Structured e-Portfolio System

PI: José-Felipe Martinez | Co-PI: Matthew Kloser
STEM Discipline: Science
Grade Levels: K-8

Project Description: Our project addresses the need for scalable models of coherent, substantively rich, collaborative professional reflection for science teachers. The title SPIRAL refers to the spiraling model of the Next Generation Science Standards, which engages students across non-consecutive grades covering concepts multiple times in increasing depth and sophistication to enable better understanding of disciplinary core ideas. The specific goals of the project are twofold: First, to investigate how a model for a vertical Professional Learning Community (PLC) comprising teachers from multiple grades levels (K-8) can support teachers’ professional learning of high-quality, science teaching rooted in rich evidence of student thinking inside the classroom. Second, to pilot the use of a new suite of digital e-portfolio tools, originally developed in a prior NSF study (DRL 1420252), as the platform for collaboration in these vertical PLCs. We leverage advanced software and mobile technology to offer new opportunities for teachers to collaborate productively with others in Professional Learning Communities or other structures, to address the traditional structural isolation of teachers from other teachers and content experts within and across grade levels. The SPIRAL app and web portal allow teachers to a) Collect and organize multimedia artifacts (documents, image, and video) reflecting instruction and student thinking and discourse in relation to DCI learning trajectories, and b) Share and discuss these artifacts with other teachers in their PLC.

Structures, Processes, and Facilitation Approaches to Support Collaborative Professional Learning: The key organizing structure in our study is the vertical PLC – a learning community composed of teachers who cover the same or complementary concepts in increasing depth across multiple grade levels. These communities seek to enable professional learning of high-quality science teaching by focusing in artifacts reflecting evidence of student thinking in classrooms. Artifacts offer concrete examples of practice to anchor reflection and promote abstract understanding, (Knowles et al., 2012), along with direct evidence of student thinking to serve as foundation for investigate teaching and learning across learning trajectories. We conjectured that classroom artifacts situated within a vertical learning community, and paired with quality reflection and feedback, from peers and experts can help transform teacher knowledge and practice (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017).

Teachers attended in-person and virtual PD sessions offering training on two science storylines (Water and Waves) and software platform. They then taught these storylines and used the digital tools to capture artifacts reflecting evidence of student thinking throughout the unit/storyline. They finally came together as a PLC to discuss the evidence collected in both in-person meetings, and asynchronously using the app and web portal.

Finally, the PLC model explicitly builds on community-grounded, asset-based content and pedagogical approaches, which acknowledge the role of culture in teaching and learning, and privilege asset-based perspectives in developing student sense-making around science content across grades (Brown et al., 2018).

Resources & Tools to Support Collaborative Teacher Learning: To support the complex work of the vertical PLCs, we developed and implemented a suite of software tools. The SPIRAL digital e-portfolio app and web portal allow teachers to a) Collect and organize multimedia artifacts (documents, image, and video) reflecting instruction and student thinking and discourse in relation to DCI learning trajectories, and b) Share and discuss these artifacts asynchronously with other teachers in their PLC.

Collaborative Teacher Learning & Equity: The PLC model explicitly builds on culturally responsive, community-grounded, and asset-based content and pedagogical approaches, which understand and acknowledge the role of culture in teaching and learning, and privilege asset-based perspectives in developing student sense-making around science content (Brown et al., 2018). Complementarily, we developed a set of vertically and NGSS-aligned storylines for the Water and Waves phenomena, incorporating a culturally relevant treatment of core ideas and locally grounded concepts with a focus on modeling and formative assessment.

Recruitment, Retention, & Collaborative Teacher Learning: The project involves a close collaboration between a team of researchers and educators at UCLA and Notre Dame, and a local school district in Southern California, which adopted our PLC model as their platform of Professional Development for science teachers. This collaboration allowed us to sidestep the common recruitment challenges faced in these types of studies, as participant teachers were nominated and recruited by the district to participate in the study as part of their PD efforts for science teachers. Teachers are supported by the district with substitutes and paid PD time to participate in full day meetings, after school online meetings, and other study activities. We have been very fortunate in this project to be able to rely on a robust, stable, and productive structure for our collaborative work in this project, resulting in a very positive experience for participant teachers and the research team.

Sustaining Collaborative Teacher Learning: We have worked with two cohorts of k-8 teachers in the district. The first cohort worked with us for two years: in Year 1 they helped refine the vertical PLC protocols and structures, and pilot the software tools, and in Year 2 they helped us fully implement the vertical PLC model using the SPIRAL app and web portal. In the last year of the project we are working with a different cohort of teachers to do a second full implementation of the PLC model and software tools. The length and depth of this collaboration, ongoing conversations with leadership, and the positive response from participant teachers, make us optimistic that the district intends to continue to use the vertical PLC structures and software tools after the project ends. (The funding already exercised will allow the software platform to remain operational for two years after the project ends; continued operation after that may require additional investment to support software maintenance and server space.)

Initial Findings: Quantitative analyses of pre-post survey data from teachers and students points to a number of significant average differences that echo the project's emphasis on NGSS DCIs and practices, in particular for developing and refining scientific models. Moreover the results point to a substantial change in teacher perceptions of and engagement in collaboration with other teachers across grade levels. Finally, teachers' self-efficacy increased significantly in the post-survey for a dozen classroom practices included in the teacher survey (e.g. supporting students' development of models, understanding student learning trajectories across grades, among others).

In parallel, qualitative analyses of interviews with teacher participants reveal that teachers in older grades were very interested in and reported benefitting from learning about the range of science topics, practices, ideas, and vocabulary displayed by students in earlier grades even within the same DCIs. Artifacts can thus be an important anchor for Vertical PLC interactions. Furthermore, evidence from videotapings of PLC meetings suggests that vertical team discussions may address issues well beyond the curricular, and comprising teacher positioning, community, and identity.

Three papers are currently under development describing different aspects and configurations of these results.


Additional Projects

We invite you to explore a sample of the other recently awarded and active work that focuses on collaborative teacher learning in the DRK-12 portfolio.

Related Resources


Brown, J., Ring-Whalen, E., Roehrig, G., & Ellis, J. (2018). Advancing culturally responsive science education in secondary classrooms through an induction course. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 9(1), 14-33.

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute./p>

Cochran-Smith, M., Feiman-Nemser, S., McIntyre, D. J., & Demers, K. E. (2008). Handbook of research on teacher education: Enduring questions in changing contexts. Routledge.

Knowles, M. S., III, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2012). The adult learner (7th ed.). Abingdon-on-Thames, England: Routledge.

Louie, N., Adiredja, A. P., & Jessup, N. (2021). Teacher noticing from a sociopolitical perspective: The FAIR framework for anti-deficit noticing. ZDM–Mathematics Education, 53(1), 95-107.

van Es, E. A., Hand, V., & Mercado, J. (2017). Making visible the relationship between teachers’ noticing for equity and equitable teaching practice. In E.O. Schack, J. A. Wilhelm & M. H. Fisher (Eds.), Teacher noticing: Bridging and broadening perspectives, contexts, and frameworks (pp. 251–270). Cham: Springer.