My professional focus is the future of learning and learning environments. I see that the design of the spaces where learning occurs, plays a significant part in providing the context for the education our students need today. The innovative learning environment (ILE) enables an array of opportunities for student learning, supporting a variety of learning modes and pedagogical approaches. It gives teachers the opportunities to work to their strengths, to share practice and collaborate. But the effectiveness of the learning and teaching in an ILE, I believe, is dependent on how teachers work together as a team and how the culture is shaped by the leadership.
Where there are multiple classes in shared spaces, maximising the opportunities afforded is dependent on the collective values held and the connectedness of the teachers co-located. If teachers and students are operating as discreet classes in an open learning environment, then the walls may as well be in place, with cupboards and bookshelves used to create makeshift walls.
A critical factor in the success of ILEs to provide the landscape for enriching and engaging learning opportunities for students, is the capacity of the teachers in the space to collaborate and work as a team.
Growing effective teams is a process,
“The label, ‘team’, may hold a certain mystique but this mystique, we suggest, must first be earned. . . Teams need time and opportunity to mature; they are not simply created by the application of the label or by a managerial fiat” (Fisher, Hunter & Macrossan, 1997).
Providing ‘time and opportunity’ seems like a luxury in schools. However, as I work with teachers and leaders in growing teams, I am convinced that there are numerous advantages, to students and their learning, and also to the teachers, in terms of professional practice and wellbeing.
The work of theorists, such as Vygotsksy, places learning in a social context, through the interactions with others. So, why not teaching?
“There was a strong sense of no longer being alone. . . workload and ideas could be more easily shared. . . de-privatisation of practice challenged long-held beliefs and understanding of privacy in teaching”.
This quote is from a study by Saltmarsh, Chapman and Drew (2013) who looked at teachers in ‘non-traditional’ classroom environments. There are benefits of social and interpersonal connection amongst teachers and teaching teams. I’ve heard teachers say ‘I’d never go back’ when asked about a teaching-team, rather than solo-teaching. They experience professional enjoyment and fulfilment in their work.
There are also the benefits of sharing ideas and workload, while being part of a teaching-team. It takes time to reach optimum performance stage, as team development passes through defined phases: forming, storming, norming and performing, before they can really ‘hum’. It may feel easier for teachers to just stay on their own, the stages of team development can be difficult, but the advantages are worth it, for the teachers themselves, as well as their students.
Then there’s the second part of that quote, “de-privatisation of practice challenged long-held beliefs and understanding of privacy in teaching”. This requires addressing prevailing mindsets that may exist around privatisation of practice, and fundamental beliefs underpinning teacher pedagogy. The predominant mental model of what it is to be a teacher has long been one class, one teacher in a four-sided box. Look at the way media portrays school and teaching, newspaper articles online about education are usually accompanied by stock images that show the solo-teacher paradigm, thereby reinforcing the community’s own long-held beliefs about school.
“principals also need to adjust their leadership practices to be more conducive to innovation, collaboration, reflection, diversity, and professionalism” (Ross & Cozzens, 2016).
Supporting a team approach to teaching is not only reliant on the teachers, but also the school leadership. Ideally, when teachers embrace a team approach that is characterised by sharing, collaboration, transparency and openness, the school culture holds corresponding values, attitudes and practices which are articulated, and modelled by the school leadership. This means that the leadership of the school operates as a team, and perhaps the principal or head teacher may need to take drastic steps, such as relinquishing their own private office.
This post is based on a presentation at the University of Melbourne/LEaRN symposium:
Talking Spaces 8
Fisher, S. G., Hunter, T. A.,& Macrosson, W. D. K. (1997). Team or group? Managers’ perceptions of the differences. Journal of Managerial Psychology(3-4), 232.
Ross, D. J., & Cozzens, J. A. (2016). The Principalship: Essential Core Competencies for Instructional Leadership and Its Impact on School Climate. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 4(9), 162-176
Saltmarsh, Chapman & Drew (2013), Issues of teacher professional learning within ‘non-traditional’ classroom environments. Improving Schools 16(3), p.220