Evidence abounds that collaboration is an essential ingredient to having successful careers in this century. Agreement crosses the spectrum from Gallop polls to NEA to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Here we are wondering how this became new and how it became something new we needed to incorporate.
Cooperative learning has been around for a long enough time. Could it be that there has really been an impact in the world of work? If that is so, why haven’t we grasped to its principles more firmly? Schools and students might benefit. Is it possible our use of cooperative learning was successful? Did the experience of working together in learning projects, club activities and team events in schools prepare this generation of the workforce to understand and know how to bring diversity of talent and energy to a project and create solutions together? Then along came project based learning and many of us, particularly those preparing to enter workplaces, embraced it as an effective way for engaging students. Could the concept of crowdsourcing have been developed because those implementing it were schooled in cooperation? Could we have unwittingly prepared students to be career ready by teaching them how to work together? Might it be feasible that business has caught up with something we knew previously? It feels good to consider that we led the way...at least one time.
The answers are as complicated as the questions. We do not see evidence of this impact in other environments, however. The media reports opposition and an inability to come to agreement in all aspects of our lives...government and education to name two. But strangely, we do see it in business. Companies have organized their workers as teams. We remember the news reports of silicone valley companies taking down the walls in their offices and having folks all work together in big rooms...able to ask questions, innovate, and share easily. The Internet has permitted these teams to exist without geographic boundaries. Virtual teams are now simply a way to do business. But, if we turn the lens back on us we see something old remains. How do we effectively teach children to work together when teachers and schools are organized in ways that separate them...into grade levels, into subject areas, classrooms and labs and gyms and rehearsal rooms, all purposefully structured for one purpose? Teachers, creatively, included cooperative activities within their classrooms even though the structure around them was not built on those practices.
Would it be too radical if we organized schools around this method of working together? If we were able to influence the behavior of our graduates as they entered their work world by creating more cooperative learning and project based learning, what might be the result? Rather than an approach, what if it was an organizing principle of how we work as well? If it was the very framework and foundation of our schools, students might be even more career ready. They would have watched and grown while the adults in schools function in those ways.
How might that look? Most of us work in buildings designed on construction concepts that do not invite change or flexibility. It is hard to believe that it was about 50 years ago the idea of the open classroom...one without walls was constructed. The idea was sound but we did not change our practice fully enough within the context of how things were done. We did not change curriculum and time demands. Time, training, and developing support for the concept were lacking. We took down walls and tweaked our system. It was a vision for change without systemic support and without businesses demanding flexibility and collaboration as they are now.
Not to suggest that the walls should come down again...rather, let us become more creative. Educators are masters of innovation. We are suggesting that, if our work has affected how business is run, we can do more if we change the way we structure our schools and our school days. Basically, there are two major shifts that need to take place to begin this process.
One is to believe that bringing faculty members together, in teams, to work on the business of educating students will improve the quality of the education experience our students receive. There are schools that have groups of colleagues, some of whom are friends, with a tradition of talking about others as opposed to talking with others, a tradition of talking more about problems than systemic solutions. These are the most challenging. Leaders must commit to the ideal that working together directly benefits the students. Of course, in the face of new accountability systems, collective accountability is a challenging thought. Nevertheless, there is integrity in it. How must it look and feel for students when in their classes they are asked to work together, accept each other, and do it well, when they witness and experience teachers not being held to the same standard? So the value and the very idea that this is an essential shift that is in the best interest of our students must take hold. How we behave with each other in the business of our schools is as much a learning experience for our students as the academic learning taking place in our classrooms.
Secondly, we must take hold of the monster called ‘the schedule.’ Required minutes of instruction, Carnegie credits, special services all interrupt what could be a continuous flow in the educational process for students. Each problem and solution may be able, at least in part, to be found locally. Types of questions we can ask are: Do we have to use pullout services to address certain student needs? Is it in the regulations or do we just assume it has to be done the way it is done? Are things done just because they always have been done that way? Does it take the same number of minutes to learn geometry as it does to learn American history? Do science lessons that include a literacy component count for minutes of ELA instruction? If schedules already allow for teachers to work together, the leadership can work with those teachers on purpose and direction for the use of that time. Creating a system that insures collaboration is a skill and habit occurs only if it is valued. If the schedule does not allow for that teacher collaboration, changes can be made.
Changing a schedule is such a bear it is often avoided, delegated, or simply tweaked. But the process of facing it head-on can provide more opportunities for change than switching minutes spent. Existing values, conflicts, and limitations are revealed when discussing scheduling in this way, for this purpose. The first step in schedule development is to list priorities. That alone opens opportunities for discovering truth about what is being done because it is best and what is being done because it has always been so. It will uncover the important issues we face and offer the opportunity required for dedicating a focus to collaborative work and design in our schools.
If collaborative work environments have grown businesses into 21st century successes, why shouldn’t schools truly operate on those principles? These changes are within our locus of control. It may, also, offer a healthier learning environment for our students and faculties and it may lead to greater success in our own workplaces and in the global one as well.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.