How School Buildings Affect Teacher Collaboration

Education Next LogoWriting for Education Next, researchers James P. Spillane and Matthew Shirrell describe the findings of a four-year study of a midwestern suburban district, where they analyzed collaboration patterns among teachers and teased out the impact of teacher proximity to one another, shared workspace, and school design.

Their analysis finds that physical proximity predicts staff interactions, with teachers and school leaders more likely to interact about instruction with colleagues who are located physically close to them or with whom they are likely to cross paths during the school day. In addition, teachers and administrators often reference physical proximity in describing why and how they interact with one another, with chance encounters due to proximity serving as a supplement to more formal collaboration.

As a matter of fact, given two colleagues with a 30% chance of interacting in math, being 78 feet further apart decreases their chance of interacting to 19%. If the pair is 156 feet further apart, their chance of interacting decreases to 11%.

Physically placing master teachers, highly effective teachers, or coaches in central locations where they are closer to—and more likely to cross paths with—their colleagues would increase the probability that these individuals interact with and influence others. School leaders also could place lower-performing or inexperienced teachers close to high performers, or place staff with complementary strengths and weaknesses in closer proximity.

Even within conventional egg crate school buildings, such intentional location scouting could influence the flow of information about instruction. Creating strong cultures with shared high standards and proven best practices is critical to the development of new instructional knowledge. Although far from a magic bullet, the analysis suggests that intentionally assigning staff to workspaces is a relatively straightforward and cost-effective way to promote interaction and collaboration, to the benefit of students.

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