Teachers all over the world are embracing working collaboratively, inspired by the benefits to learners and also the benefits for themselves. But it's not all smooth sailing. I often describe this move to collaboration as a journey, which is "two steps forward, one back". It seems to be a process where some days everything is running smoothly and effectively, then the next day it can all fall apart. As educators wanting to make a difference for our learners, sometimes it can be tempting to keep pushing forward - with often disastrous results. Challenges with learner behaviour, a disengaged community, parent complaints and damaged relationships can follow.
So how can you make sure that you recognise the signs that something isn't working? How do you know when to stop doing something? And how do you move forward again once you have reflected and evaluated?
THE BIG PICTURE
Often as teachers we have a picture in our head of what we think a collaborative learning space will look like. We have visions of motivated learners working on a range of activities, personalised timetables, effective technology use and workshops running that meet learners needs. However, the reality is that this vision is not achieved overnight. It involves a long period of scaffolding, modelling, systems development and organisation. Constant reflection and refinement is key.
My question is, do your learners have this vision? Do they have an understanding of what is possible and where you are headed? Your learners probably haven't had the opportunity to visit other schools and classrooms. Share with them the possibilities - how you hope that your learning environment will operate. Co-construct with them the steps that you are planning to take to support them to get there. If your goal is personalised timetables, talk to the learners about the purpose and how they will enhance their learning. What opportunities will there be? If learners understand that and can see the "big picture" they are more likely to engage with the smaller steps along the way.
IF IT DOESN'T FIT, DON'T FORCE IT!
I often hear "collaboration isn't about spaces it's about pedagogy!" While this is totally true, flexible and innovative learning environments definitely support and enhance collaboration. Often teachers begin working collaboratively in environments that are challenging. I have seen amazing teaching and learning happening in very traditional spaces but one thing those teachers have done is to recognise and respect the limits of their learning spaces. Usually they tell me that they are working in a certain way, but if/ when they move to an innovative learning environment they have intentions to make even further modifications to their practice. These teachers haven't been afraid to admit something isn't working and to modify or even scale back their collaboration if necessary. Old spaces weren't acoustically engineered and having a large number of students in a space where noise becomes a huge issue isn't healthy for anyone. Using a space as a breakout area that isn't visible by teachers is probably going to cause some issues. Try things out and include your learners in the ways you are trying to use your environment. Keep your big picture vision in mind of where you want to head and make the environment work for you.
REFLECT, REFINE, REFRAME
So back to the questions that I asked at the start of this post:
How can you make sure that you recognise the signs that something isn't working?
How do you know when to stop doing something?
Oh you'll know because there'll probably be chaos! But seriously, your learners will tell you! Listen to their feedback to help you refine teaching and learning programmes and to develop systems. This is also where your collaborative relationships are key. Maybe you think something isn't working but others on your team think everything is fine. How will you have those conversations with others? Rely on your professional expertise to make those calls.
In practice, my key question was always "How is what we are doing better for learners than when I was just on my own in my single cell classroom?". If I couldn't answer that question with evidence that it was better, then I needed to make a change, with one further check in: "Have I given enough modelling/ scaffolding/ time for what I am doing to work?" This is where once again that professional expertise comes into play. It actually takes longer than you think for students to get the hang of a new system or way of working and too much change becomes really confusing.
I really like this diagram from John Spencer, which illustrates how as you practice something, the time it takes reduces. He writes a great blog post about developing creative fluency in students, which kind of links to what I'm saying about giving ideas and systems a chance to work. Your professional judgement needs to come into play to make those key decisions - this isn't working and it's time to stop, this isn't working and it's time to refine, this isn't working but it might just need more time.
How do you move forward again once you've stopped?
Don't ever be afraid to model your journey as a learner. Sometimes it's hard to admit something hasn't worked in your classroom. Be open - share with your learners what you have stopped doing and why. Reflect and make a new plan. Sometimes that new plan is what I call "pulling back". This often has to happen when we've tried to move too fast on our collaborative journey. Something I think every teacher has probably been guilty of at some stage. Because we can see that big picture vision and we want to get there... NOW! But remember, there is no final destination, there is no end in sight. We're not going to arrive at Destination: Perfect Collaborative Practice.
A key question here is how are you as a school supporting and developing collaboration? As you journey together, the path will get easier. I will always remember, three years in to my school teaching collaboratively having learners arrive at the start of the year who already knew how to find a learning space to work in, choose who they worked with best and manage their belongings. I realised that they were now learners who had only ever known having more than one teacher. It was an a-ha moment for me, recognising that the work we had been doing as a school was now providing a solid foundation for effective collaborative practice.
So if you are facing challenges with collaborative teaching, my key wonderings for you are:
Does your school have a shared vision for collaboration?
How do you share this with your learners?
What opportunities are there for your learners to give feedback and ideas?
How are learners involved in the problem solving process when issues arise?
How do you scaffold and model systems in your collaborative classroom?
What are your strategies when things aren't working? How do you decide when to stop doing something, when to refine it or when to give more time?
How are you supporting learners and each other through a process of change?
Unattributed images all licenced by Creative Commons
I'm really liking this diagram? snakes and ladders game? from "The Essential Guide to Professional Learning: Collaboration" put out by the Australian institute for Education and School Leadership.
I don't know that you want to start rolling dice and moving counters, but the ideas in here are worth examining. Could be worth exploring as a reflective tool/ self review tool for school leaders?
I love the easy access of virtual professional learning communities! I seem to end up checking them out while waiting in the car to pick up my kids, in the Dr's office and at other random times. The beauty and ease of online means that anytime access! I recently came across these benefits to being part of online professional learning communities.
One of the online groups I think is worth a look has definitely been around for a while. The virtual learning network has been going for quite a few years and has some great groups worth joining. One of the key groups that I follow in the Innovative Learning Environments group. Often great discussions taking place on these.
Of course Twitter is most people's "go to" virtual community. My hot tip, find someone you know who's awesome and see who they follow! Then stalk them! Easiest way to build up your network and if they're boring, you can always unfollow them!!
Using your online network to share your Teaching as Inquiry is a great way to get new ideas and support. Just make sure you participate as well. Don't just stalk!
Think about how you can connect with others professionally in 2017. Online communities are a great resource to access.
Last week I was talking with some teachers about different ways of planning together. Google Apps are often a "go to" tool for this and many teachers use them in amazing ways to share information, monitor and track data, record notes etc.
Google Forms has been on my radar recently as a great way of recording information. Often used as a survey tool, it has the potential for SO many other uses. Recording anecdotal notes, as an exit ticket - the list is endless. It also has the ability to turn your data into graphs and tables as well as the ability to sort the data in different ways in the spreadsheet where the form responses are stored. Here's a really basic example of what a form for anecdotal notes might look like.
So a teacher I was working with really liked the idea of using Google Forms to record information about her learners. She would be able to have her iPad with her during group time and quickly make notes on the form. The only thing was, she already had a great setup in Google Sheets, where she had data shared with her collaborative teaching partners. They were using this really well and were making notes attached as a comment in cells on the spreadsheet. The issue was, that they had to hover over each comment to read. "If only the data on the Google Form could be stored in the Google Sheets too?" we thought. Well, the good news is it can!
Here's the steps:
1. Set up your google form with the questions that you want. (This is actually a big deal! Clever drop down boxes, checklists and questions will guide the information you want to collect. Don't rush this - set it up well!)
2. Set up your Google Sheet with whatever data you want.
3. Set the destination for your Google Forms data to "an existing spreadsheet".
4. Now when you complete the Google Form, it will just create a new tab in your spreadsheet and your information will be there. New google form, same destination? New tab!
You can of course rename the tab however you wish - group names, teacher name etc. The Google Form tools can be accessed so you can view graphical representations of your data.
And there you have it - everything in one place. You can have tabs to store data and tabs to store form responses. Gotta love Google!
"We really should have more meetings," said no teacher ever. Meetings are probably one of the biggest annoyances for any teacher, especially poorly run ones. I often hear from teachers that they are reluctant to work collaboratively as they think there'll be way more meetings and they'll waste too much time.
Time truly is an educator's most precious commodity and we don't have it to waste. Saying that, I truly believe that working collaboratively leads to better outcomes for everyone. So how can we make sure that our collaborative team meetings are effective, purposeful and learner focused? As we kick off a new year when there sure needs to be a lot of meetings, I thought I'd share my hot tips for making them work for you.
#1 Start with a team charter.
I'll go into more detail about these in another blog post, but it's important that meeting protocols have been discussed and decided as part of a team charter. This sets you up for success right from the start. Start times, finish times, agenda, decision making, roles and responsibilities, actions - all need to have clear processes and guidelines.
#2 What's the purpose of this meeting?
Why are you having this meeting? If it is purely to give people information, perhaps there is another way it could be done. Email? Shared google doc? Otherwise it's helpful to outline a clear purpose at the start. This can also serve to keep a meeting learner focused. For example: "Our purpose today is to analyse last year's achievement data and to group our students." "Our purpose today is to discuss ways of gathering and using student voice."
#3 Shared agenda - but get it done!
It's great to have a shared agenda that people can add to, but nothing worse than an empty agenda at 3:00pm followed by last minute additions and a full agenda at 3:15pm. Decide on a closing time for adding agenda items. This gives the chairperson time to order agenda items and check time.
A key role in meetings is that of the time keeper. Assign times to agenda items and have a group member monitor this. This helps to keep discussion focused and on track.
#5 Share the load
Share roles and responsibilities for chairing meetings, taking minutes, organising the agenda.
#6 End the meeting
There's nothing worse than a meeting kind of finishing, but people are still chatting and you're not really sure if you can leave or not! So you kind of stand around and before you know it, you're pulled back into a discussion that should have been part of the meeting. Make a definite end time and let people know it's fine to leave. Then anyone who wants to stay around and chat can but meeting decisions shouldn't be revisited.
#7 Park the questions and idea "sparks".
It's easy to get off on a tangent during a meeting because someone thinks of a question about a previous agenda item or has a sudden idea based on the discussion.(Anyone whose been in a meeting with me knows I'm guilty of this!) Have post-it notes handy so that people can jot those thoughts down. Then at the end of the meeting, set aside time to revisit any questions that need answering. Ideas can maybe go on the next meeting's agenda or be discussed if time.
Build in some reflection time periodically. Check how you're going following the processes you agreed to. Celebrate progress you have made. Be self-aware and think about how you are contributing. A fun way to look at roles is with the video below - "Every Meeting Ever". You will have definitely met some of these people in your career!
I hope these ideas give you some support around having effective meetings in your collaborative team this year. I highly recommend Joan Dalton's "Learning Talk" series as a resource, particularly Book 5, "Important Conversations At Work". Some of the ideas above I have adapted from her work and some are from my experiences in many boring meetings in my career! Here's to less of those in 2017.
Recently I read Richard Wells new book "A Learner's Paradise: How New Zealand is Reimagining Education." I've followed Richard for a few years - he writes an awesome blog, shares great iPad tips and tricks and was a CORE efellow last year. Make sure you follow him on twitter if you don't already.
I was interested to read this book for a few reasons. Firstly, I have been trying to find out more about teaching and learning in high schools. As a primary trained teacher, my knowledge of high schools are really based on my own experiences, which are now scarily over twenty years ago. Next, I taught in the United States for six years. Friends and colleagues would often ask me about the education system in New Zealand and it was often hard to explain to them just how education here "works". This book provides a great overview to the kiwi education system in a way that people from other countries could easily understand. Finally, we are currently having a brand new high school built in our local area which opens in 2017. My own children will eventually attend there. I have been following the process closely, intrigued as to how they are setting up their curriculum and learning spaces. I found this book really helpful with providing background knowledge about the way high schools operate in New Zealand.
This video provides a great summary of the key themes of the book.
So I don't want to spoil the book for you, but thought I would share some of my key takeaways. I certainly feel like I have a much better understanding of the secondary schooling system and the maze of NCEA after reading this book. It made me feel proud to be a New Zealand educator and highlighted the many positives we have in our system.
I particularly identified with the Richard's thinking around transitions - from ECE to primary to secondary to tertiary. He highlights the loss of potential that happens with these transitions. If teachers don't know or acknowledge what the student brings with them as they walk through the door, then much is lost. "When teachers of older children remain ignorant of these developments, they underestimate the progress made by students in the earlier years. This can lead to inappropriately reduced expectations of students in high schools." (A learner's paradise, p44)
That constant movement from "king of the hill" to "bottom of the pile" needs to be addressed in New Zealand schools. How does that feel to a learner? And what opportunities are being missed if we don't build on a learner's prior knowledge and experiences? Richard outlines how communities of learners have been created to develop a more seamless education pathway for New Zealand kids and I think we have a real opportunity here to build relationships, learning pathways and collaboration across educational sectors.
I also liked the practical solutions that Richard provides for overcoming barriers to student centred learning. His key components for success - timetabling to learn, teachers releasing control and letting the students drive their learning, enabling technology to empower and having students design and have ownership of their assessment. Many schools are on this journey and working to overcome real or imagined barriers to effective 21st century learning.
So after reading "A learner's paradise" it was with excitement that I saw this curriculum plan from my new local high school. So many of the ideas in the book are reflected in the learning design that Steve Saville and his team are putting into place for the new Rolleston College. I'm feeling very excited that my children will experience quite a different way of learning at high school than I did. Some awesome possibilities on the horizon.
Think about "A learner's paradise" for your school's professional learning library. It could work well as a "book club" type text as there are supporting reflective questions throughout which would build in opportunities for discussion and self-review. I particularly think primary teachers should have a read. Expand your knowledge across sectors and remind yourself that we live in an awesome country.
This is probably my favourite video at the moment. Short, sharp and to the point! John Spencer is an innovative educator who SHARES. He is passionate about design thinking and blogs and shares great videos that he creates.
Sign up on his website to receive his free design thinking toolkit and to follow the blog. Well worth it!
Loving this new resource from the fabulous team who run the inclusive education site as part of TKI. They have created an amazing resource to support the development of innovative learning environments that work for ALL learners.
The resource highlights that "Sensitivity to individual differences and learner variability must be a driver for decisions relating to pedagogy, practice, and design of flexible spaces. The guide emphasises the need to plan in partnership with students, teachers, parents, and experts. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles underpin the approach, recognising and supporting the learning and wellbeing of all students."
Take some time to explore the different aspects. There is just a wealth of resources, links, videos etc. Content curation at it's best!
You can also download the summary of the content site - could be a good resource to refer to to help plan out areas you wish to explore further.
A fabulous video that discusses real, deep focused collaboration. Not just surface level collaboration. We don't want collaboration that's fast and furious, or forced and fearful. Really worth a watch - share with your staff and start the discussion. How do we create communities of people who work together and support each other around a common cause?
As Term 3 begins in New Zealand, I always think that halfway through the year is a great time to check how everything is going in your innovative learning environment. When teachers begin to collaborate, one of the bonuses is the frequent "check in" moments. Those quick discussions at morning tea or the after school sessions when you talk about your day.
However, I also think it is important to really stop and reflect on how teaching and learning is working in your class. When you're working in an ever changing, evolving environment it's important to assess how you are doing!
I wanted to share two tools that I think are really valuable to support teachers in doing this. They could be used alone or together. The best thing, is they are both free! The first is the Core Education MLE Matrix. This has been around for a while and is still an excellent tool to track how your school or space is progressing, towards sustainable and mature innovative learning practice. Depending where you are on your ILE journey, you would use different parts of the matrix. It's a great way of seeing how far you have come and what your next steps might be. The questions also support you to check if you really are where you think you are.
How could you gather evidence to support where you think you fit on the matrix?
Could you involve learners or whānau as part of this process?
There are ten dimensions to explore and five process elements. There are also guiding questions posed as success measures around ubiquity, agency and connectedness.
The other tool that I recommend looking at is the Grow Waitaha Monitoring and Evaluation Framework. Once again, this is free and available on the Grow Waitaha website. Permission has been given for adaptations to be made. For those unfamiliar, Grow Waitaha is a programme running in Canterbury, supporting education renewal in the area after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.
The Monitoring and Evaluation Framework describes the areas that schools need to consider if a future-focused vision is to be realised. When in use with a school it effectively becomes a ‘tool’ that can be used to monitor progress over time. Its purpose is for schools to be able to evaluate, plan and monitor their progress throughout their build process to ensure that they will be in a position to maximise the potential of their new or redeveloped spaces.
Although designed to support schools through the building process, it could easily be adapted for use in your ILE. The framework identifies nine aspects that enable schools to advance with their transformation of teaching and learning practice. Schools can identify where they think they fit on a rubric, reflect and plan out next steps accordingly.
If you use these tools, it's important to remember that no ILE is the same and they are ever changing, evolving places. Changes in staffing, learners, community, leadership and buildings can all have an impact on teaching and learning. It's not a race to get to the "final column" of these tools and to stay there. Often, it's a case of forward and backward movement, revisiting something that has fallen by the wayside, deciding that you need to go back in order to move forward.
Two examples I have seen recently of this have included:
A teaching team who has moved into a new, purpose built learning environment. They have needed to revisit collaboration with their learners and really build some understandings about working together in their new space. They had done some prototyping of this in their previous environment, but the learners are struggling to transfer these skills.
A teaching team that has had several staffing changes. They have needed to go back and redevelop their shared vision for innovative learning, in order to make sure they move forward together as a cohesive team. They are also planning how to include their learners in this process.
Speaking of the learners, there is the other piece in this process. Half way through the year is always a great time to collect some student and community voice. Check out this previous blog post on Student Voice in the Collaborative Classroom for some tips!
How best could these tools be used in your space?
Could you include them as part of a staff meeting?
Would your collaborative teaching team benefit from looking at them together?
What other questions do you still need to ask?
My name is Ngaire Shepherd-Wills. This website is a record of my TeachNZ sabbatical, Term 2, 2013 and then I have continued to share my wonderings and discoveries about Innovative Learning Practices. I now work for CORE Education. Views are my own.