In schools, common planning time refers to any period of time that is scheduled during the school day for multiple teachers, or teams of teachers, to work together.
In most cases, common planning time is considered to be a form of professional development, since its primary purpose is to bring teachers together to learn from one another and collaborate on projects that will lead to improvements in lesson quality, instructional effectiveness, and student achievement. Generally speaking, these improvements result from (1) the improved coordination and communication that occurs among teachers who meet and talk regularly, (2) the learning, insights, and constructive feedback that occur during professional discussions among teachers, and (3) the lessons, units, materials, and resources that are created or improved when teachers work on them collaboratively. While common planning time may be used for other purposes in some schools and situations—for example, staff members may use the time to coordinate an academic program or school-improvement initiative—the term is predominately associated with teaching-related planning and work.
While the term suggests that the primary activity of common planning time is “planning,” the time may be devoted to a wide variety of activities. The following are a few representative examples of general activities that often take place during common planning time:
- Discussing teacher work: Teachers may collectively review lesson plans or assessments that have been used in a class, and then offer critical feedback and recommendations for improvement.
- Discussing student work: Teachers may look at examples of student work turned in for a class, and then offer recommendations on how lessons or teaching approaches may be modified to improve learning and the quality of student work.
- Discussing student data: Teachers may analyze student-performance data from a class to identify trends—such as which students are consistently failing or underperforming—and collaboratively develop proactive teaching and support strategies to help students who may be struggling academically. By discussing the students they have in common, teachers can develop a stronger understanding of the specific learning needs and abilities of certain students, which can then help them coordinate and improve how those students are taught.
- Discussing professional literature: Teachers may select a text to read, such as a research study or an article about a specialized instructional technique, and then engage in a focused conversation about the text and how it can help inform or improve their teaching techniques.
- Creating courses and curriculum: Teachers may collaboratively work on lesson plans, assignments, projects, and new courses, such as an interdisciplinary course taught by two teachers from different subject areas (for example, an art-history course taught by an art teacher and a history teacher). Teachers may also plan or develop other types of learning experiences, such as capstone projects, demonstrations of learning, learning pathways, personal learning plans, or portfolios, for example.
Common planning time can be contrasted with “teacher preparation time” or “prep periods,” which are periods of time during the school day when individual teachers, typically working on their own, can plan and prepare for their classes, meet with students, or grade assignments. Common planning time could be considered an evolution of the traditional preparation period, and in recent decades there has been a growing movement in education to encourage more frequent and purposeful collaboration among educators.
While common planning time may be used differently from school to school, and it may be more or less effective in achieving its intended goals, the concept is often associated with two general school-improvement strategies:
- Professional learning communities: A widely used professional-development strategy in schools, professional learning communities are groups of educators who meet regularly, share expertise, and work collaboratively to improve their teaching skills and the academic performance of their students. In some schools, the terms common planning time and professional learning community (or any of its many synonyms) may be used interchangeably, particularly when the time is largely or entirely devoted to activities commonly associated with professional learning communities. For a more detailed discussion, see professional learning community.
- Teaming: Another widely used school-improvement strategy, teaming pairs a group of teachers (typically between four and six) with sixty to eighty students. The general goal of teaming is to ensure that students are well known by core group of adults in the school, that their learning needs are understood and addressed, and that they receive the social, emotional, and academic support from teachers and staff that they need to succeed in school. Common planning time is often provided to teachers on a particular team to help them plan and coordinate the team-related projects and work. For a more detailed discussion, see teaming.
While the common planning time concept is not typically an object of debate, skeptics may question whether the time will actually have a positive impact on student learning, whether teachers will use the time purposefully and productively, or whether students would be better served if teachers spent more of their time teaching. Since it often extremely difficult, from a research perspective, to attribute gains in student performance to any one influence in a school (because so many potential factors can affect performance, including familial or socioeconomic dynamics outside of a school’s control), the benefits of common planning time may be difficult to measure objectively and reliably.
It is more likely, however, that common planning time will be criticized or debated when the time is poorly used or facilitated, when meetings become disorganized and unfocused, when teachers have negative experiences during meetings, and when the practice is perceived as a burdensome administrative requirement— rather than, say, an opportunity to improve one’s teaching skills. Like any school-improvement strategy or program, the quality of the design and execution will typically determine the results achieved. If meetings are poorly facilitated and conversations lapse into complaints about policies or personalities, or if educators fail to turn group learning into actual changes in instructional techniques, common planning time is less likely to be successful.
Advocates of common planning time may argue that the practice can foster and promote a wide variety of positive professional interactions and practices among teachers in a school. For example:
- Teachers may assume more leadership responsibility or feel a greater investment in a school-improvement process.
- Teachers may feel more professionally confident and better equipped to address the learning needs of their students, and they may become more willing to engage in the kind of self-reflection that leads to professional growth and improvement.
- The faculty culture may improve, and professional relationships can become stronger and more trusting if the faculty is interacting and communicating more productively.
- Teachers may participate in professional collaborations more frequently, such as co-developing and co-teaching interdisciplinary courses.
- More instructional innovation may take hold in classrooms and academic programs, and teachers may begin incorporating effective instructional techniques that are being used by colleagues.
- Teachers may begin using more evidence-based approaches to designing lessons and delivering instruction.
When implementing common planning time, administrators and teachers may encounter a number of challenges that could give rise to criticism or debate. For example:
- Competing responsibilities and logistical issues can make the scheduling of regular common planning time difficult. Insufficient meeting time or irregularly scheduled time may then undermine the strategy and its intended benefits.
- A lack of support from the superintendent, principal, or other school leaders could lead to an inadequate investment of time, attention, and resources.
- Inadequate training for group facilitators could produce ineffective facilitation, disorganized meetings, and an erosion of confidence in the strategy.
- A lack of clear, explicit goals for common planning time can lead to unfocused conversations, misspent time, and general confusion about the purpose of the meetings.
- A negative school or faculty culture could contribute to tensions, conflicts, factions, and other issues that undermine the potential benefits of common planning time.
- A lack of observable, measurable progress or student-achievement gains can erode support, motivation, and enthusiasm for the strategy.
- Highly divergent educational philosophies, belief systems, or learning styles can lead to disagreements that undermine the collegiality and sense of shared purpose typically required to make common planning time successful.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.