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
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.