2011 Lesson #5 Make teamwork, collaboration and relationship building a habit

Earlier this year I looked at defining the ‘old paradigm’ classroom as compared with a new ‘learning community’ model. What was immediately apparent was the emphasis that is given to ‘separation’ in the one teacher, one classroom model. Separate and separated teachers work in separate classrooms, at separate desks, with separated class groups on separate programs with separate preparation – with students sitting in many instances in separate seats in separate rows. Get the picture? No wonder conflict so easily arises in a ‘separate’ model – tension rapidly escalating in confined spaces that can rapidly become a pressure cooker of emotions.  It is not difficult to delve back into the origins of this thinking from the industrial era – separate actions in a production line gradually contributing to the finished product.

A simple question to ask ourselves in this post-industrial era is why? Why has schooling persisted with this model when it clearly is so fraught with emotional stress, professional isolation and out of touch with employment needs in the 21st century?

I think I was most challenged to think this one through when visiting Rwanda – a wonderful country full of amazing people and a very tangible sense of hope. But one where the model of schooling has been based on a colonial hand-me-down of industrial era thinking. And what is the outcome of this traditional model of separated classrooms in countries like Rwanda? (and Malawi and other similar countries) – incredibly high post-education unemployment because the education system for the large part has taught neither relevant job skills nor collaboration skills. It is often when you see something taken to the extreme – that you can clearly understand its flaws.

Where does the problem start for schools and teachers? I’d have to point the finger at the universities and colleges and question why they have not included training new teachers into collaborative work practices and team skills. I find there is a whole layer of un-learning and re-learning required for all teachers (beginning or experienced) when they come to work at NBCS/SCIL,  because training teachers as a workforce for collaborative workplace models just doesn’t happen. Interestingly, once teachers make the shift and understand the intricacies of working within a team, they do not want to revert to the ‘separation’ model.

Our experience has been that an effective team approach will lead to some very desirsable outcomes:

·       student behaviour issues drop away

·       engagement into learning increases significantly

·       teachers remodel themselves as teacher learners

·       there is a marked increase in creative approaches to curriculum delivery


Why teamwork?

Every leadership book I have read, or business exemplar that I have seen, that has a focus on the efficiencies of teamwork demonstrates the same thing: improved efficiency comes from strong teamwork. There would be countless examples in sport and in the natural world. Somehow scientists have worked out that geese flying in team formation are 71% more efficient than a solo goose. Industry leaders in innovative solutions such as IDEO provide outstanding examples of the power of collaborative creative thinking. I have been increasingly drawn to workplace environments which manage to strike a great balance for the employees between engaging ‘ideas’ spaces, comfortable team areas, group tables and solo spaces. In Australia a number of large commercial offices have been designed around these scenarios – in order to readily facilitate collaborative thinking. Examples include:

Macquarie Bank (http://www.thecoolhunter.com.au/article/detail/1701/macquarie-investment-bank—sydney) Stocklands, Blackmores in Sydney and Westpac in Melbourne (http://www.v-arc.com.au/projects/corporate/westpac-bank). Internationally the offices for Google, Facebook, Pixar (http://www.home-designing.com/2011/06/pixars-office-interiors-2), IDEO (www.ideo.com) all have similar design thinking. The evidence for productivity and inspired, creative and innovative thinking is obvious. School leaders could usefully look at these spaces for inspiration as they think about spaces for learning for students, as well as spaces for collaborative thinking for staff.

Great resource

The website http://www.p21.org has a lot of free material for education that highlights the relevance of teamwork and collaborative problem solving as core skills necessary for the 21st century.

So why have schools been so slow to re-think educational programs around collaborative models?

I think the answer is simple – teachers and adminstrators have never been taught to think this way. We therefore all have an inbuilt ‘default’ button based on our own experiences of the industrial model and in the midst of busy schedules,  we simply revert to the known. The solution? We need to reset our default button around different thinking. We need to focus on what it means to teach collaboratively – and my experience is that is far bigger than just team teaching with a colleague. Teams need to inherently understand the rules of collaboration, of team of united goals. That takes time and constant focus.

We held a very interesting seminar session in 2011 where the members of different team approaches (about 30 teachers, a third of our workforce) used the open space group process to define the optimum skills for successful participation in collaborative approaches and then set about to describe the requisite personal and professional skills to make such environnments work well. The resultant statements were fantastic – and a very useful tool for future team members.     

The future?

In the last quarter of 2011, we created a new Learning Communities Framework (LCF).  It is constructed around four pillars (CARE): culture, authenticity, relationship and engagement. This framework will be shaped into an easy-to-digest format this month. The LCF does not attempt to be prescriptive in terms of approach, rather provide the framework for team thinking as they consider curriculum delivery models. Of note is the critical importance of relational skills - learning is a relational experience and a teacher’s role is to create the conditions for learning to occur: a creative director of curriculum. That would appear to be a far more motivating role for teachers on a day-to-day basis. As human beings, our DNA is ‘hard wired’ to be relational. The implication of this is that for authentic, deep learning to occur, it needs to take place in environments where relationships are functional and inspirational. Students need to be set up for success. One critical function of a learning community is to establish positive, collaborative environments with high expectations of student success in learning. Such a learning culture should be actively described, owned and shaped.  

 Teachers are the backbone and strength of the learning community. All should be on the spectrum of ‘good to great’ as professionals. Every teacher has capacity to develop and improve – and a continual process of professional development will ensure this. Staff have much to offer and time for creative contributions to the learning community should be maximised and expected.