Thomas W. Many

Thomas W. Many, EdD, works with teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, and other education stakeholders on organizational leadership, implementation and change, and Professional Learning Communities at Work™ strategies and concepts.

It’s Not Pixie Dust, It’s Protocol

This article originally appeared in the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association bimonthly newsletter, TEPSA News, and is posted here with their permission.

It’s Not Pixie Dust, It’s Protocol

Improving schools requires a high level of collaboration among and between teachers. Making time for collaboration during the regular school day is a critical first step in creating the conditions for high performing, collaborative teams. As David Allen argues, “Time with colleagues spent in focused inquiry about teacher and learning is a necessity, not a luxury.”

Unfortunately, time is one of those “necessary but insufficient conditions” for the successful development of collaborative teams. Without designated and protected time for teams to meet during the school day principals cannot expect teachers to have the kinds of conversations necessary to change practice. However, time alone is not enough. Ensuring that time is used productively is just as important.

Principals often ask, “Why is it that some teams use time so much more productively than others?” Some may think it is magic or luck or a sprinkling of pixie dust that enables some teams to use time more efficiently and effectively.

In truth, it is not pixie dust at all but the thoughtful – even artful – use of well-thought-out, carefully implemented, and skillfully facilitated protocols that make a difference.

Dozens of Protocols – Many Variations on a Theme

The effective use of protocols ensures that conversations between and among team members are productive. Stevie Quate, co-director of the Colorado Critical Friends Group defines a protocol simply as a set of “agreed upon guidelines for a conversation.” But a protocol is more than that.

Most protocols consist of a structured format that includes a tentative time frame and specific guidelines for communication among team members. Descriptions of protocols typically identify the purpose, number of participants, length of time required, roles of team members, and expected outcomes.

Quate differentiates a protocol from a norm - which consists of agreed-upon guidelines for behavior within a team - and suggests a protocol is “a structure which everyone understands and has agreed to that permits a certain kind of conversation to occur.” The kinds of conversations she is referring to are necessary if principals expect teachers to successfully engage in the analysis of assessment data or the improvement of a lesson.

There are protocols designed to promote the examination of student work or to reflect on a teacher’s pedagogy. Some protocols facilitate the analysis of data while others focus on the examination of a lesson. There are protocols that generate suggestions for setting goals with groups or individual students. Other protocols analyze the relationship between lessons, standards, and rubrics or enable teachers to collect data, make comparisons, and track student progress. Still others delve deeply into the quality of a teacher’s pedagogy and identify strategies for improving an assignment, project, or specific aspect of a lesson.

There are literally dozens of protocols – many are variations on the same theme - but Quate emphasizes that in its purest form, “a protocol creates the structure that makes it safe for teachers to ask challenging questions of each other.”

Benefits of Using Protocols

Joseph P. McDonald and his colleagues have studied the use of protocols in schools. McDonald agrees with Quate and argues that using protocols promotes development of a culture where teachers are “able, willing, and even eager – in consultation with their colleagues – to make changes as needed in order to make their work more effective.”

When teacher teams meet to talk about student learning they sharpen their pedagogy and deepen their content knowledge. According to the National Turning Points Center (NTPC), teachers who use protocols have a more complete and comprehensive understanding of what students know and are able to do. The regular use of protocols also helps teachers develop a shared language for assessing student work and a common understanding of what quality student work looks like.

The use of protocols creates a culture of continuous learning. David Allen says, “The process of looking at student work in a collaborative manner helps teachers take a closer look at how they teach.” NTPC believes protocols promote “collegial feedback and the critical analysis of student and teacher work in a safe and structured format.” McDonald echoes that belief and recommends using protocols because they foster a culture that “collaboratively assesses the quality and rigor of teacher work.” He continues, “When teachers are looking at student work – particularly looking together at student work – it can be threatening. This is why protocols are useful.”

Using protocols also builds a sense of community among and between teachers. NTPC argues that looking collaboratively at student work and participating in collective problem solving through the use of protocols moves teachers away from the isolating concept of “my students” and toward the community concept of “our students.”

Finally, protocols allow teachers to be more efficient in their work. Quate reminds us that in most schools, time is of the essence and the one resource that no one seems to have enough of. Once mastered, protocols become a valuable, utilitarian tool teachers use to focus conversations on what matter and thereby make the most of the time they do have.

“It’s scary work, though, and respectful protocols can help.”—Diane Weaver-Dunne

As teams begin to use protocols, principals will undoubtedly encounter questions. The NTPC warns, “When teachers first begin using protocols as a way of looking at students’ work, assignments, and assessment results, the process may feel formal or stiff.” NTPC continues, “and because teachers are not accustomed to sharing work publicly with peers, the process can also feel intimidating at first.”

Initially, many teachers feel protocols are a waste of time but effective principals encourage teachers to try them anyway. McDonald observed that, “schools mired in norms of private practice and used to ignoring the actual impact of the practice on student learning, may not take easily to learning with protocols.” However, McDonald found that when pressed to see them all the way through, “even reluctant participants find something refreshing about protocols.”

Like most changes, as teachers gain experience with the use of protocols, their confidence and comfort levels increase, as do the benefits of using protocols. Principals need to have confidence that the use of protocols will make teacher teams more productive

A Protocol Is a Means to an End, Not an End in Itself

Quate cautions that it is important to remember, “the point is not to do the protocol well, but to have an in-depth insightful conversation about teaching and learning.” It is wise to remember that a protocol is a means to an end, not an end in itself. McDonald agrees and reminds us that, “protocols are no panacea for these or any other kinds of collegial problems, but they are valuable in highlighting problems.”

In the end, it is the regular and intentional use of protocols - not pixie dust - that holds the key to helping teacher teams use their time more productively.


McDonald, J. P., Mohr, N., Dichter, A. & McDonald, E. C. (2007). The Power of Protocols: An Educator’s Guide to Better Practice. 2nd Ed. Teachers College Press: New York, NY.

Quate, S. “Conductive conversations leading to results using protocols and structures in professional learning communities.” CU-Denver School of Education and Colorado Critical Friends Group.

Weaver-Dunne, D. (2000). “Teachers learn from looking together at student work.” Education World.

National Turning Points Center, Center for Collaborative Education. (2001). “Turning Points transforming middle schools: Looking collaboratively at student and teacher work.” Boston, MA.



I was introduced to the book "Power of Protocols" by McDonald, et al (2007) during a course I took on using data to drive instruction with directors from the central office. One of our first lessons was on using protocols to assist in guiding the collaborative meetings we would have over the next several months. I found the use of protocols just as you described in your post. A protocol being “a structure which everyone understands and has agreed to that permits a certain kind of conversation to occur.” This kind of conversation promoted productive engagement in the analysis of assessment data during our meetings. I found the experience hugely beneficial and now apply the use of protocols to team leadership meetings, workshops, and professional development trainings I am responsible for facilitating. I agree that if the use of protocols may seem a waste of time to some teachers. However, I have found the use of protocols, when used intentionally, a valuable tool in using time more productively.

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The PLC that I am involved in at our school is made up of 4 Geometry teachers including myself. We are undergoing "Restructuring" and are trying to do as much as we can to help improve our students performance. We do have a protocol on how we run our meetings but reading up on this particular post has given me more insight to better help our team stay focused on topic and give us guidance towards more meaningful outcomes as we would like to create a culture of continuous learning. Regards, ~caz

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