If teacher collaboration in ILEs is the answer, what is the question?

November 2017


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CHRIS BRADBEER says that innovative learning environments might give us the opportunity to explore the untapped potential of teacher collaboration. 

The idea that teachers will be working collaboratively represents an implicit but commonly under-emphasised aspect of the shift into innovative learning environments (ILEs): it’s often a feature by design.

Notably many contemporary primary school spaces, whether newly built or refurbished, are predicated on the idea that collaboration will be taking place; teachers won’t have their own classes in their own classrooms. Instead, they will be sharing responsibility for teaching a larger cohort of students, in a space containing multiple flexible or purposeful learning settings.

It’s very much the vision of the Ministry of Education’s current property policy – one that sees spaces built that are future-focused and that with appropriate professional learning and quality teaching, may have the potential to enhance opportunities for student-centred pedagogies. However, such spaces are reliant on teachers working in close proximity, and in doing so, relinquishing some of the autonomy, privacy and ownership that have previously been afforded by more traditional settings.

So although the shift into new environments may most obviously be emphasised by architectural changes, arguably it is this collaborative aspect that may result in being the most significant and complex professional transformation (refer Professor of Education and educationalist Mick Waters) in the shift into innovative learning environments.

Educational history documents multiple collaborative initiatives that have enjoyed high degrees of success. Furthermore, extensive research has shown that building professional teacher capital, developing collective teacher efficacy, and focused schoolwide collaboration have played significant roles in leveraging school change.

Collaboration is generally seen as a good thing. But I wonder to what extent some of what we have described as collaboration in our schools really is? How much of it is actually coordination, organisation, and ‘getting along’ rather than collaboration in its truest sense of the word?

Of course ‘getting along’ is important and may well ease the whole process, but collegiality and collaboration are not interchangeable. They may well reflect each other but the former is more concerned with qualities of relationships as opposed to the actions we undertake.

The critical difference I see in teaching together in ILEs is that it brings the level and intensity of collaboration to the fore. Collaboration is no longer an activity we are able to step out of our own classroom spaces to take part in, and then to step away from afterwards. Hence collaboration can no longer be a visited activity; more representative of a step-change in how we might work with colleagues.

At the risk of leaping into semantic gymnastics, I think it’s helpful to consider what we mean by collaboration. Delving into a definition for a moment might help us to frame it more accurately. It also presents us, I believe, with an intriguing question.

Barbara Gray, someone who has written extensively on the subject, considers that the whole point of collaboration is “a process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible”.

It’s a great definition. It shows that collaboration goes beyond levels of coordination and cooperation – in essence through increasing levels of intensification and sophistication – and is noted for its more formally understood relationships and level of commitment. The emphasis is on solving a problem and bringing people together to work collectively and achieve something in a way they are unable to do on their own. Perhaps because they lack the knowledge or expertise to do so? Alternatively, perhaps due to a lack of resource or experience? Starting with a shared problem provides a great reason to work together in the first place too. Let’s face it, if we could do it on our own then what would be the point of collaborating in the first place?

What I particularly savour in Gray’s definition, though, is the last component: the aim to go beyond our “own limited vision of what’s possible”. Not only is it about solution finding, but it is also a language of opportunity, of possibility, and potential. Given that definition, is the regular 90-minute team meeting after school on a Wednesday really an example of effective, long-term collaboration? Is priority actually placed on utilising our collective skills, knowledge and expertise to enhance student experiences, opportunities and progress? Are we together able to do something for students that we are not actually able to do on our own?

If we take Gray’s definition of collaboration and use it to problematise the work we are doing in the context of teaching in ILEs, it presents some interesting questions. We might ask in this case, “if teaching collaboratively in an ILE is a way to solve a problem, what is the problem we are trying to solve?” Alternatively, “if teacher collaboration in ILEs is the answer, then what is the question?” What are we able to do together that goes beyond our own vision? How might we constructively explore our differences in the search for solutions? How clear are we on what we are trying to achieve together?

I’d argue that these are important things to be able to articulate, not only to ourselves but within our own schools and contexts and across our wider communities as we shift into our shared ILEs. In doing so, our responses may help us to set collaborative direction and to provide clarity and common goals around what it is we are trying to achieve together in our ILEs. ILEs potentially provide us with wonderful spaces in which to explore these questions and solutions – together. I’d suggest that developing a more sophisticated understanding of collaboration may help us in turn to maximise the opportunities engendered by the provision of these new spaces. This, I think, is when they’ll become truly innovative.

The other side of the classroom: approach ILEs with caution

GRAHAM McPHAIL argues that while modern learning environments can help facilitate different pedagogical approaches, there is no inherent link between classroom design and educational outcomes.

The way our classrooms are physically designed is symbolic of deeper ideas about education.

Desks and chairs arranged with a focal point at the front of the classroom suggest a more traditional instructional style of teaching where the teacher is at the centre and standardised delivery of the curriculum takes priority over the individual learning needs of the students.

The Ministry of Education’s newly favoured modern learning environments (MLEs) include open plan classrooms with glass, natural light, moveable walls, breakout spaces and moveable furniture.

These spaces are colourful, bright and modern. They are also suggestive of student-centred pedagogy, where learners are able to move around freely, connect with each other and with the teacher, and access the internet as required by the context and demands of the learning.

While learning spaces can certainly add a great deal to a positive ambience and facilitate different pedagogical approaches, such as group learning or individual work, there is no inherent link between classroom design and educational outcomes.

The Ministry’s blanket advocacy for such spaces needs to be approached with caution as there is a risk of such visions becoming idealised. If schools dive straight into the curricular and pedagogical approaches implied by these new learning spaces (for example, intersubject and project-based learning), there is a danger that some teachers may not be sufficiently well equipped to be leaders of learning.

So, what is it about such pedagogical approaches in these new spaces that requires caution?

Firstly, in the case of intersubject learning, making deep connections between subject areas requires teachers to have advanced understanding of both foundational and threshold concepts of a subject before meaningful links across disciplines are likely to occur. In recent research in a 21st century school in New Zealand, teachers identified the unpacking of such concepts as one of the most difficult aspects of moving towards a new curricular model. Teachers are left to develop these skills pretty much on their own.

Secondly, in relation to individual student-led project work, the design and tracking of conceptual progression within a subject comes to the foreground. If a teacher is leading 30 learners through individual projects, how can conceptual progression be managed, let alone ensured?

The design of learning spaces is only one of the aspects we should be considering in relation to in-school factors and media reporting tends to represent discussions in a polarised way but solutions are likely to emerge from nuanced thinking rather than traditional-versus-progressive binary conceptions.

The longitudinal research of Morais and Neves (2011) suggests drawing on a combination of both ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ approaches in order to increase achievement with all students.

In their model there is a personalised learning environment where students feel valued and confident to question, discuss, and share ideas. The model suggests a ‘progressive’ approach whereby students are given more individual control over the time needed to assimilate, develop and utilise new knowledge. In the model, a more ‘traditional’ approach is required in relation to curricular selection, including its sequence and evaluation.

The teacher is present as an expert who oversees the selection and sequencing of content and then guides the student along the path of conceptual progression through strongly framed evaluative criteria and an engaging pedagogy.

We can logically see that certain learning spaces may well be conducive to broadened and more student-centred approaches. But they are not in themselves critical. What is pivotal is the teacher’s ability to provide a positive learning environment, detailed and effective feedback derived from deep knowledge of disciplinary conceptual progression, and time for students to assimilate and work with new knowledge.

The challenge in innovative learning spaces and enquiry or project-based approaches is to ensure the conceptual progression is positioned at the centre of students’ and teachers’ work.

The Ministry would do well to support the development of teacher knowledge, which becomes, somewhat ironically, ever more critical in student-centred learning spaces. I’m sure we all hope that such ‘classrooms’ will be filled with more than just aspirations.

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