4 December 2015

Throughout the ages, to our earliest pre-history we have collaborated to survive, and to leave a legacy that those following in our footsteps can marvel at. Wherever you look in the world, whether in the recent past or thousands of years ago, people have collaborated to achieve greater things.

Knowing this, it is perhaps surprising that we need to remind ourselves why we should collaborate, and why doing so can have such powerful results. When I began to consider how to approach the subject of collaboration in teaching, it seemed immediately apparent to me that teachers needed to collaborate more.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but it did seem a pretty obvious concept – if we do better as teams than as individuals, surely this applies to teaching as well?

There are teachers and lecturers, trainers and coaches who teach brilliantly; and those who struggle with various elements of their craft. There are those for whom their experience in a vocation prior to teaching is key to success; for others they have never worked outside a classroom environment. In all cases, there is one cultural barrier that means we do not collaborate – the classroom door. We are we all too often looking at the four walls around us for inspiration and answers. How many of us (collaboratively speaking) have even looked out of the window, let along go out there to see what we might find?

Clearly in our sector the use of the word “classroom” is meant in the widest sense, but that idea that once we are safe in our teaching space we are in command of our own world, with a range of learners subject to our control and instruction, is one that doesn’t go away easily.

No matter how open you may be as a teacher, once you shut the door and start working with your learners you are on your own, and no matter how collaborative you are with your learners, it is a challenge to be as collaborative with another members of teaching staff – after all, if being the teacher puts you in authority, a second teacher must by definition be a challenge to your position, right?

So how can we look at things differently? The place I would start is with a simple idea. Why do we, as teachers, teach at all? What is it that makes us want to share our learning and expertise with other people? And most importantly, how do we know we are any good at it?

So, let us consider some basic teacher training. Do our learners learn well in isolation, or do they learn better when they discuss, share, inspire and grow by challenging themselves, each other and their teachers? If we know the latter to be true, why do we as teachers, or as leaders of teaching, not do the same when we talk about teaching? Why do we teach in isolation? Why do we rarely discuss our teaching? Why do we find it so hard to share the challenges we face in the classroom?

For me, the greatest power of collaboration in teaching is that if there is a culture of genuine sharing and development, all of these questions simply go away. The Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment work the Education and Training Foundation has commissioned has at the heart of it a Joint Practice Development model. A very simple idea: together we achieve more than we do alone.

We have now a growing body of evidence that suggests by learning to collaborate better, several fundamental things happen:

- We learn more about how others teach and have already solved or tackled the problems we face.

- We learn more about how we as individuals teach our learners.

- Our learners become more involved in the process of learning, and become active participants in their own learning.

- Leaders refocus on the need for teaching and learning to be of the highest possible quality.

Fundamentally, by giving staff the permission to work in this open and collaborative way, we can empower and equip our practitioners with real tools to solve the issues they face in this ever evolving educational landscape.

We must have an expectation that we continue to learn. I often point out that for a sector that exists solely to educate, we are often the worst at educating or developing our own staff. We have to remain focused as individuals on our own professional identity and destiny – the time of jobs for life is as past for teaching staff as it is for learners, and we need to take personal responsibility for improving our own practice and being highly skilled employable education professionals.

The Education and Training Foundation’s Professional Standards are a powerful starting point for practitioners to self-assess themselves and begin their own developmental journey. Organisations need to foster a culture of learning and development for their staff too - leaders need to take some responsibility here - but ultimately if front line teaching practitioners do not own their personal growth and development, no amount of top down intervention can help.

Ultimately, the questions raised here all come back to the issue of culture. Do you believe in a teaching profession that shares, collaborates and empowers each other? Do your horizons stop at the classroom door, or are you scanning the outside world for solutions and idea?

Each and every one of us must have high expectations, and we must feel that we have the permission to meet them, to collaborate, share and develop with the knowledge that we can achieve so much more together than we can alone.


EMFEC_Conference-1Paul Kessell-Holland is the Programme Manager, Professional Standards and Workforce Development at the Education and Training Foundation, and spent the majority of his career in general FE as a lecturer and manager. This blog is an adaptation of a keynote speech Paul recently gave at emfec’s Power of Collaboration event to encourage outstanding teaching, learning and assessment.