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Teacher collaboration

Teacher collaboration

by Paul Woodley

‘Most great learning happens in groups. Collaboration is the stuff of growth.’
(Sir Ken Robinson, eminent British educator)


Invariably, when school staff members are asked what traits they think successful students should portray in their future lives, the word ‘teamwork’ comes to the fore. We often wish the kids in our classes could be better and more productive team players. We all aim for this in many ways in our daily classroom. The irony here, however, is that many teachers display little interest in, or enthusiasm for, collaborating with others to improve their teamwork and ultimately their teaching practices. It seems to be a classic case of, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. As a profession we always seem to talk about our school as a single entity but often don’t pursue the one thing that will make it a team—collaboration in our work.

Yet, there is a great mass of research that indicates successful schools are those that have high levels of collaboration among staff members, and this is the case in many systems across the world. A very interesting study undertaken in 1999 by a Chinese researcher, Li Ping Ma, found that Chinese teachers of mathematics were achieving much better results than their American counterparts, despite the fact that schools in the USA had far more advantages in terms of resources, training and class sizes. She theorised that one major reason for the Chinese teachers being better overall teachers of mathematics was that many schools have massive student numbers that could mean up to twenty classes at each year level in one institution. To keep a handle on this many classes, they employ a highly standardised approach to teaching, backed up by a high level of mentoring and oversight to ensure all classes get similar curriculum and pedagogy. Teachers all work together to deliver the same curriculum. In other words, they collaborate (willingly or unwillingly!). The learning is better because the teachers are working together to ensure a common approach.

So, why don’t we collaborate with each other?

Is it because this will leave us too open to scrutiny and possible criticism? Maybe it is too difficult to take the initiative and make it happen? Or is it a matter of too little time and too much pressure? It is probably all of the above to one degree or another.

One of the ‘truisms’ about teaching is that we will never get it totally right. A constructivist approach to learning suggests that everybody brings different values and experiences to a learning situation. Well, our colleagues, parents and carers (and school bosses!) bring different values and experiences when they judge our work. We deal daily with a group of people who are filtering all of our work as teachers through different lenses, so there is no way that we are going to please everyone all of the time. So, as a profession we tend to stick to the tried and true. We don’t take risks. Add to this the ever increasing pressures that all teachers are under, and it’s no wonder we don’t feel like giving up precious time to try something new. Working collaboratively with other teachers can be risky. It is easier to teach in isolation, even though we might be in a densely populated work environment.

So, what are the benefits of teacher collaboration?

‘Teamwork is essential—it allows you to blame someone else!’ (anonymous)

Apart from the obvious benefits for our students who stand to gain from better planning and teaching, there are other serious benefits for teachers as well. Schmaker (1996) made the observation that, ‘Collaboration allows teachers to capture each others’ fund of collective intelligence’. In other words, each person who collaborates in teaching adds to and draws from the collective intelligence of the group. Everyone has comparative strengths and weaknesses and so, in banking terms, they can withdraw and deposit knowledge. Also, there is a strong potential to reduce workloads if you can share the planning, marking and evaluating. This stands to reason.
There is the opportunity for teaching staff to provide a more even curriculum across all learning areas. We are all teachers because we want kids to get the best deal, in every learning area. This is very difficult to achieve across the curriculum when there isn’t the back-up of specialists on staff. Collaboration can help overcome this issue by utilising relative strengths of the collaborators to fill the gaps.

However, I believe that the biggest benefit of all comes from the opportunity for professional growth. Richard Elmore puts it very succinctly with his observation that, ‘The effect of professional development on practice and performance is inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the classroom’. What Elmore is saying is that the best possible professional learning will have its genesis in the classroom. While going to workshops and presentations by ‘gurus’ can be important, it is collaborative discussion among teachers and the subsequent ‘having a go’ (action learning) type approach that really makes a difference. Professional learning has two main components—the first is gaining knowledge and the second is practising using this knowledge. If we learn new things together and then practise them together, we can compare our findings, evaluate what has occurred and then plan for the future. It would seem to me that the advent of the new Australian Curriculum provides great opportunity here as teachers come to grips with its requirements and how best to meet them.

The McKinsey Report (2006), which compared the work of top education systems across the globe, stated, ‘In a number of the top systems, teachers work together, plan their lessons jointly, observe each other’s lessons and help each other improve’. It goes on to say, ‘These systems create a culture in their schools in which collaboration and reflection on instruction are the norm and are constant features of school life’. Why wouldn’t we want to emulate them when international testing indicates their success?

What are some ways you might consider collaborating?

The sky is the limit here, but you don’t have to commit to total sharing of all aspects of teaching. You might consider:

  • joint assessment to monitor student achievement and evaluate lesson effectiveness
  • sharing classrooms with a peer—from providing support to a small group to full-blown sharing of lessons. There are many ways this can happen
  • sharing the teaching load by ‘specialising’ (For instance, one teacher prepare all science lessons while another prepares all mathematics lessons.)
  • working collaboratively with specialists (e.g. in mathematics or literacy) to maximise the benefits for students (I know of a number of schools where teachers passively allow the specialist in to their rooms but do little to proactively plan to work with them.)
  • combined professional learning (from undertaking professional reading and discussion, and action research approaches to lesson observations and professional learning communities that combine these, along with other elements)
  • online collaboration within or outside your school community. Teacher collaboration is not only confined to a particular school campus.

What three key ingredients are required for successful teacher collaboration?

The first is that there are some levels of common understandings about what should take place in classrooms and how it should happen. It is not helpful to undertake collaboration if your collaborative partners have views that are a long way from yours. However, different philosophies can be somewhat overcome by ongoing professional conversation.

The second is a willingness to share ideas. This sounds so simple but many teachers feel that by sharing a great idea or pedagogical approach they might diminish their own value. They want to hang on to the things that work in a profession where it is very difficult to please all the people all of the time. They seem to fear that the effect of this winning idea or approach will be dissipated if they have to share it.

The third is the willingness to ‘have a go ‘and take risks. Part of this risk-taking in collaborative practice is based on having trust in others. This willingness to trust can come from a realisation that we all learn from experience, whether the experiences are good or bad. Interestingly, the more people ‘have a go’ and learn from their mistakes, the better they become at teaching and the more likely they are to try something new. And the more people also share the risks, the more they are likely to try new things.

What are inhibiting factors to teacher collaboration?

Believe it or not, one of the biggest problems could well be your school leadership. Team approaches need time spent on collaboration. If the school hierarchy hasn’t made this time available it can be difficult to make a start. So, ask for common time, but do so with a specific proposal in mind. Team approaches benefit when there is a culture of sharing and collaboration. This should come from leadership, but if it isn’t happening, it can occur in the other direction—that is, from the classroom upward.

Another issue with teacher collaboration is that it can be contrived. Collaboration is as much in the mind as it is in physical action. People sometimes choose to work together when it looks convenient and interesting, but they are philosophically poles apart and so are not necessarily pursuing similar pathways. Consider, for example, the pairing of one teacher who believes in play-based learning with another who strongly believes that explicit teaching is the right and true path. This will obviously flounder unless common ground is reached. The better people understand where their partners are coming from, the more chance there is of success. This means having professional conversations at every opportunity and, most importantly, clear articulation of what the partnership means and what roles are to be played by each collaborator.

So, what might such conversations be based on? A good start to any level of collaborative teaching might be to discuss what a good classroom looks like for whichever learning area is under consideration. This might be considered under aspects such as:

  • what does our static classroom look like? (What’s on the walls, how are the desks configured, say, for the best practice reading lesson)
  • what does a really good lesson look like? (How is it timed? What does it entail? Who does what in the lesson?) A good lesson should have 3 parts:
    – an introduction that lets kids into the secret
    – the body of the lesson (generally, but not always, differentiated group activity)
    – the plenary (What did we just learn?).
  •  what does our planning look like? Are we really clear in what we are seeking? Have we considered long-term goals? Are we flexible enough in our planning to make changes to meet our students’ needs?
  • what does good feedback to our students look like? Is it just a series of ticks and crosses or is it a considered response based on the outcomes being sought and the student who provided them? Who provides this feedback? Is it the student, the student’s peers or the teacher? Or is it ‘all of the above’? What colour pen is used? Is feedback just written or is it in oral form as well?
  • how should we assess student achievement? Does assessment only comprise standardised tests or is there a mix of test types? Do we let the students tell us how they think they went or do we adults make all the judgements? Is there a mix of formative and summative assessment? Have we chosen the right assessment process to meet our needs?

When is the best time to start the collaboration process?

If this is something that deserves your attention, then anytime is a good time to start! However, there are natural ‘windows of opportunity’ when everyone starts afresh and the implementation of a new approach is likely to meet less entrenched resistance. The end of a teaching year, leading to a new year, is such a time. There will likely be new kids, new parents, a chance to get to the timetabling before it is set in concrete, and a chance to get to the bosses and sell the idea before it is too late for them to make the necessary changes. However, right now is the time you should do the necessary thinking and start the necessary conversations with other staff members. Now is the time to sow the seeds.

The research evidence is clear. When teachers collaborate, the kids benefit and school effectiveness rises. Not only is it worthwhile, but it is a fairly simple overall concept. It just needs people prepared to work together. Does that include you?