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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Collaboration: Are You Compelled or Repelled?

By Tracey Ezard — June 28, 2016 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by author and consultant Tracey Ezard from Melbourne, Australia.

There is an incessant buzz in a school where the staff is invigorated and motivated by learning. It’s a feeling in the air when you walk into classrooms. Just as obvious is the feeling of a buzz in the staffrooms, meeting rooms and corridors.

I call this the Learning Intelligence of a school. It has a rich, deep and energetic sound and vibration. It is a sound that denotes a feeling of excitement, possibility and opportunity. It has visuals - educators talking with each other, digging deeply into their ideas and beliefs, inquiring about strategies and identifying approaches that work with students. It is full of collaborative learning and inquiry that is focused, uplifting and action oriented.

I worked recently with a school with a nice harmonious ‘hum’. The educators work well together. They share resources and coordinate activities together. They get along well as colleagues, show respect for each other and have a strong sense of well being and rapport. What is missing is rigorous learning with each other about what is happening in the classroom. Their classrooms are still their own territory and they fiercely hold onto the ‘way I do it’ as being something to protect rather than explore. They are in the middle of the collaboration continuum (see figure one). The real work they need to do as educators is further up the continuum, at collective capacity - this is where the learning intelligence of a professional learning community is pulsating!

Three pillars support this step up to a real buzz and strong learning intelligence. With these, teachers are armed with the attitude, skills and environment needed for deep peer learning. If there is not focus on building them, then the wheels can fall off as people feel exposed and vulnerable rather than stepping into learning.

1) A Collaborative Growth Mindset

The notion of solo teachers building their own capacity in a vacuum has long been found to be wanting. The impact of educators making their learning visible to each other and building their collective capacity has recently been highlighted in Professor John Hattie’s research identifying teacher collective efficacy as having an effect size of 1.57.

To build collective capacity we need to have the mindset of a learner - and some of the beliefs of a learner can challenge our ego and the ‘need to be right’. Our brain can be addicted to being right. The dopamine hit the prefrontal cortex receives from being the one with all the correct answers can stop us from stepping into the learning zone. So we have learn to ‘let it go’

Some easy steps to help:

Breath: Pause and identify the urge to ‘be right’ in front of colleagues. Breath out deeply and allow the feeling to ‘let go’. Self awareness of a rigid approach in our thinking is a big step in letting go. There is something deeply satisfying about releasing an inflexible way of thinking. It doesn’t mean we let go of who we are or what we think, we just become more open to influence, which is a big builder of trust and learning.

Identify: Write down or articulate the reasons that are stopping us from trying something a different way. It is because we want to stay comfortable and do it the way we always have? Do we have a fear of failure that we need to address and so we come up with reasons not to step out of our comfort zone? These are the DBJs of life - the Deny Blame and Justify reasons that keep us safe and in status quo.

‘I’ve always done it this way’

‘I don’t have time to try that’

‘This will never work’

DBJs can be the thinking that can keep up us out of a learning mindset and stuck in a comfortable place of ‘safe’ but no growth.

Shift and Replace:
Move to a mindset that creates movement forward and experimentation, yet supports us to grow our capability. Articulate as a group the beliefs that will hold us in a space of collaborative learning. Be clear and explicit with each other as to what those beliefs look like in behaviours.

For further ideas on collaborative mindset, click here for a short video

Compelling Environment
Setting up an environment where we are create a learning environment for each other means that we are invigorated by it, rather than repelled. Meetings that everyone turns up to, ready to learn, be curious and contribute to are full of the buzz and learning intelligence.

Space: Set up the physical space so there is room for movement, interaction and collaborative discussion. Create interest through holding learning meetings in different places - including outside. Stand up, sit down, move around and work on the walls. Do things, don’t just talk. Shake it up!

Energy: Be mindful of the energy in the room. Emotions are contagious. Spend time creating rituals that tap into the joyful aspects of teaching. Share successes and failures in a way that is a celebration of learning. This promotes the oxytocin that our brains need to be working in the prefrontal cortex - where collaboration, problem solving and learning do most of their heavy lifting.

Processes: Make sure that processes encourage contribution, collaboration and promote innovative thinking. Collaborative visual templates and processes make learning visible, creating authentic collaboration. Have people draw metaphors, create action plans on large pieces of paper, tease out their thinking with markers.

Authentic Dialogue
The last pillar but certainly not the least! Fit for purposes processes is important, but without authentic dialogue we simply skim along the surface and don’t deep dive into the work. This Feeling safe to have real conversations that promote trust and learning is one of the biggest areas of growth for teams moving up the Collaboration Continuum.

Be Curious: Unpacking assumptions is critical to the success of collaborative learning. Ask great open questions that tunnel under behaviours to the assumptions and beliefs lying beneath.

Talk About the Elephants: The issues and concepts that no one wants to talk about are probably the things we should! Use a framework that helps you walk through sensitive issues those elephants in the room - What is it that is going on presently? What are the effects? What can we do differently to get better outcomes?

Schools with a thriving BUZZ vibrate with learning energy - how is your professional learning community’s MINDSET, ENVIRONMENT and DIALOGUE?

Connect with Tracey on Twitter.

Ezard is author of ‘The Buzz, Creating a Thriving and Collaborative Staff Learning Culture’. She is an educator, keynote speaker, and strategic facilitator working with education systems, networks and schools to develop high quality staff learning and leadership.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.