I've written about collaboration a lot but the more I work in a collaborative environment the more I see how it may be the most important 'magic wand' to improving education. Collaborative teaching encourages us to always look for new magic wands- new ways to teach, new ways to approach learning, test current research, and be willing to take risks. Collaboration is what moves us forward.
My magic-wand series began a few weeks ago after I attended the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston. All of the sessions caused me to reflect on what we're doing at the think-tank (my amazing school) and let me realize why what we're doing works (the research behind the practice). I regret calling it 'magic wands' because it implies that it is magic- which it isn't. It's hard work, and it's not just one magic wand- it's many- all working hard together to improve learning outcomes.
Sunday morning we listened to Keith Sawyer present on 'Educating for innovation' (Thinking Skills and Creativity 1 (2006) 41-48). His spirited talk referred to what happens inside Google with their 10% time and how that it's not just one person being given 10% time but those people all working together that drives progress. He called collaboration "general tinkering" and called teachers to realize the importance of being creative professionals who are collaborating together to create knowledge.
Collaboration is truly what drives the think-tank. The elementary schools in our county have "half-day Mondays" when children leave a few hours early so the teachers have a chance to plan. At our school that time is expected to be done together- we have an hour of "sacred planning" where nothing else can be scheduled so that co-teachers can sit down together to analyze the lessons from the past week, decide where to go next, and how best to teach it.
In many ways collaboration frees us up to not be driven by a set path of teaching the same thing each day. Instead it lets us look at what the kids need and set up "if this, then this" plans. A lot of times we feel safe saying "If we teach this Tuesday and Wednesday then let's look and see what needs to happen Thursday. If they don't get it we'll do X activity. If they do get it we'll do Y. And we'll know whether or not they'll get it because we'll look at Z."
So instead of just heading on with our plans because we have to cover content and we have to all be on the same page, we're able to actually drive our instruction based on the kids we teach. Shocking, right? Because we're working with another adult somehow we feel a sense of freedom to be able to plan our lessons around the kids, instead of planning lessons around what the other adults in the building are doing.
There are schools out there that use "collaboration" as a way to force everyone to teach the same thing on the same day. It's a very top-down version of collaboration and in truth, isn't collaboration at all, but creating factory models. I understand how tempting it is to want to know that on December 2nd every third grader learned how to multiply by 5s, but what if one class was ready to multiply by 10s and one was still working on understanding the concept of multiplying and needed another day to use manipulatives? Teachers collaborating can identify how to measure when children are ready to learn the next step and when it needs to be re-taught.
My awesome co-teachers and I are currently using Google Docs to collaborate in real-time. It is amazing and I plan to write more about this later. Our writing workshop is a dream because of it and we're leading a conversation on it in January at EduCon. Stay tuned for more...
To be licensed in special education you have to take a class on collaborating with other teachers. In the beginning of this class I made a lot of fun of it and called it the "how to be nice to people" requirement. By the end of the class I realized how important it was to my professional development, and found it upsetting that only special educators are required to take a course on collaboration. We're trained to collaborate with gen ed teachers, but the gen ed teachers have no requirement to collaborate with us. Kind of an uphill battle...
Regardless, I am lucky to work at a school that values teacher collaboration so highly. It might not be the 10% time at Google where they get to work on anything they like, but we are encouraged to work together to be innovative in order to improve student achievement. And so, we do. In the end we watch our kids and find the best methods to teach the information we need to teach to the kids we've been hired to teach. Not the kids we taught last year, not the kids in Kansas who the text books were normed on, not the kids someone in central office observed in a classroom 10 years ago. We're teaching the kids in front of us and because we are able to be collaborate creativity we're able to truly engage them and make sure knowledge gets into their long-term memory.