It’s About the Work: The Power of Protocols

To get better at our craft we need to reflect, and protocols allow us to reflect on our practice with our peers. Together we get better.

Written By rodaniel

On January 24, 2023

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the roles protocols and strategies play in our Adolescent Literacy Model. They are closely linked in enhancing learning. We introduce content literacy strategies to help students learn, and we use protocols to have conversations about the  learning that is taking place for our students and for ourselves.

Protocols have been around for a long time and provide us with standard procedures for doing things.  There are protocols for addressing heads of state, for example, addressing the King as,  “Your Royal Highness” on the first occasion and “Sir” thereafter, and protocols for military codes of conduct, among others.  It is fairly recent that protocols have taken hold in the field of education. Now there are a variety of protocols being used in schools: protocols for analyzing student work, protocols for making sense of text, and protocols for helping us address the challenges we face in our work, allowing us to solve problems together (think Critical Friends or Brief Response to Challenge).

Because so much of our practice takes place in private, the use of protocols allows us to work with others, providing fresh perspectives on the work we are doing in our classrooms. Not only do protocols provide us with an opportunity to reflect on and analyze the instructional decisions we make in our own classrooms, they invite us to listen and respond to the teaching and learning experiences of our colleagues.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to work in two different settings using the Student Work Analysis (or Sorting) Protocol (CTL, 2009a), a protocol designed for reviewing student work, and the Lesson Refining Protocol (CTL, 2009b), a protocol for analyzing and refining a plan for a lesson.

The Sorting Protocol was introduced to 4th and 5th grade teams. The Lesson Refining Protocol was used with middle and high school teachers. In both cases the faculty had been using content literacy strategies for a year or less, and the protocols were intentionally introduced to encourage teachers to: 

  • understand more deeply what they are asking students to do and how they ask them to showcase their learning;
  • go deeper about their choice of strategy and the purpose it played in their instructional practice; and 
  • most importantly, identify what the strategy caused to happen for their students and what happened for them.

Protocols are powerful tools for conversation and action among the participating teachers, but it is not easy for any of us (including teachers) to receive feedback. As important as the protocols are, it is equally important that agreements are in place on how to share and receive feedback. At the end of any protocol, the goal is that we have learned something about our practice and are in a position to get better at helping students learn to their potential. 

While literacy strategies are critical tools in our work with students, protocols can play an important role in helping us discuss, analyze, and think critically about the decisions we make when designing instruction. 

A middle school teacher listens during a team planning session.