The unifying theme in this presentation is improving teaching and learning through collaboration. I will discuss one practical aspect of collaboration that you can take away and act upon instantly with only a little bit of effort and planning. Hopefully, it will help you see the benefits of collaboration in your professional life so that you can appreciate the potential of collaboration right across the school spectrum. However, the key message that I want to highlight today is the absolute importance of developing collaborative practices in every aspect of your working life.
Schools need to develop a collaboration rich environment where all stake holders in education are included and involved. Principals, faculty heads, teachers and even students, their parents, members of the community and education academics.
I suggest a gradual approach that begins with teacher to teacher collaboration which is what I will focus on today, and moves through the following stages but not necessarily in strict order except perhaps the first three.
- Teacher to teacher
- Between teacher and students
- Student to student
- School and parent
- School and community
- At later stages teacher and academic
In terms of classroom teaching (stages 2 and 3) the benefits of collaboration include:
- It builds character. Collaboration teaches students life skills which make them better people. These include respect, independence, self-direction, responsibility and teamwork.
- Collaboration teaches skills that are in increasing demand, especially in high performance industries.
- Collaborative learning tasks are more likely to embed Higher Order Thinking which where is real learning takes place
- Student engagement in learning is much higher with collaborative tasks so that students who are currently missing out on a sound education are drawn into the education process and begin to take responsibility for their own learning.
- Recent research by the Cisco Learning Network on IT professionals demonstrated the power of peer-to-peer learning leading Cisco to the conclusion that peer-to-peer learning is necessary and just as important as knowledge coming from the instructor.
Advocates of 21st century skills favour collaborative student centred methods-for example problem based learning and project based learning-that allow students to collaborate, work on authentic problems, and engage with the community. These approaches are widely acclaimed and can be found in any pedagogical methods textbook; teachers know about them and believe that they’re effective. And yet, teachers don’t use them. Recent data shows that most instructional time is composed of seat work and whole-class instruction led by the teacher (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care research Network, 2005). Even when class sizes are reduced, teachers do not change their teaching strategies or use these student centred methods (Shapson, Wright, Eason, & Fitzgerald, 1980). Again, these are not new issues. John Goodlad (1984) reported the same finding in his landmark study published more than 20 years ago.
The reason most teachers don’t use these methods which they believe are most effective is because they are demanding. Student collaboration can lead to chaos in the classroom in less than expert hands. It demands a wide range of knowledge from the teacher and having the flexibility to make in the moment decisions during class that can completely change the direction of the lesson. What we need is more robust teacher training and support than we receive today, including specific lesson plans that deal with the high cognitive demands and potential classroom management issues that arise when using student centred learning.
Until teacher training and the education systems we work in adequately cater for these challenges, the onus is on us as practicing teachers to fill the gaps as best we can. One key problem that I have identified with teacher training is that the separation between theory and practice is too great. At university I learned about many of the cutting edge ideas that are transforming education globally. By the time I had the opportunity to implement them in a classroom, the details of many of them had escaped me, so I, like most other teachers, fell back on what I already knew about teaching. For most of us, this means reproducing what we observed from our own teachers at school. The sad consequence of this is that the latest graduates are simply repeating old teaching methods that have serious flaws in them, methods that don’t reach enough of our students, methods that are not necessarily grounded in sound and tested theory and no longer meet the demands that the delivery of education in the 21st century requires.
So I believe that the first task for any teacher once established in a real classroom on a professional basis is to rediscover the new ideas that are transforming education in order to deliver the best education to our charges. As schooling becomes more universal and higher education more widespread, this task becomes vital if we are to effectively reach all students, especially those students who do not perform well using traditional methods.
What this means is committing to a process of lifelong learning and a crucial aspect of that is modelling it for our students so that they do the same. How can we expect our students to take their education seriously if we don’t do the same, especially if our lack of commitment to the process of lifelong learning is delivering substandard classroom practice?
How do we do this?
It makes sense to use the same kind of practices that we wish to develop in the classroom. Collaborative ones. According to Carla McClure, a school district administrator in the US:
Teacher collaboration and professional learning communities are frequently mentioned in articles and reports on school improvement. Schools and teachers benefit in a variety of ways when teachers work together. A small but growing body of evidence suggests a positive relationship between teacher collaboration and student achievement.
My suggestion is to start with the conscious and systematic development of a Personal Learning Network or PLN. According to David Warlick a PLN:
…involves an individual’s topic oriented goal, a set of practices or techniques aimed at attracting or organizing a variety of relevant content sources, selected for their value, to help the owner accomplish a professional goal or personal interest.
An important aspect of a true PLN that I would like to focus on is that they are a way of formalising, systematising and expanding the relationships with human learning resources we already have and utilise in our learning processes. When we learn, we usually rely on our social capital to some extent. In developing a PLN we consciously seek out others who are working, teaching and researching in the same field as us, experts, beginners and anyone else in between. We connect with them to expand our learning networks and build our social capital with people that we can collaborate with in the learning process. The long term goal is to make it a two way process.
Although technology plays a useful role in many of the strategies I will talk about today, its use is probably most manageable in the formation or expansion of a PLN due to the low bandwidth requirements of the tools that I recommend. It is important to understand that advanced technology is not the solution itself here, but simply a means. If you don’t have reliable and affordable access to it, you just have to work harder and more locally. It is the underlying principles that count. The chief of these is collegiality, or working together as equals.
As we see from Warlick, the first thing to do in developing your PLN is to select a goal or a narrow set of specific goals that you can work towards. The goals I currently have are to develop my classroom management skills; improve my pedagogical skill set for the subjects I currently teach (which incidentally are something I did not specifically train for); embedding higher order thinking into my lessons; and integrating the use of technology in the classroom to enrich learning and communication. Initially I focused only on learning about the possible benefits of using Web2.0 technologies in the classroom. As I became more comfortable with the process I expanded my goals. It is important to add them gradually so that you can manage them well, especially when working online where the amount of information to sift through can be overwhelming and distracting for the inexperienced and those with poor Internet discipline.
The next step is to develop a set of practices that allows you to easily locate the information you require in a timely fashion by using a defined set of techniques.
I recommend three basic tools in the formation of the online aspect of your PLN: Education blogs written by educators, an RSS reader like Google Reader, and Twitter. I will limit my comments to the value of these technologies, if you are interested in how to use them I will direct you to my blog where I have been discussing them from a beginners POV and where there are links for the more advanced.
The first tool that I would like to discuss is pedagogical blogs written primarily by teachers. Teaching blogs are an excellent intersection between the realms of academia and classroom practice. There are literally tens of thousands of teachers all around the world researching specific areas of professional practice through courses, text books and research papers and interactions with their PLNs. They are sharing the ideas that they are learning about, for free, and often with the added bonus of their personal reflections on how to implement these ideas. These blogs are a very accessible way of getting in touch with ideas that may be otherwise hidden behind expensive pay walls, in academic databases or text books that the average teacher in Indonesia just cannot afford or that are simply dispersed across many websites and other sources.
After you have established a set of blogs that are most useful to your goal and you’ve been utilising them for a while, it is worth considering starting your own blog. One of the most important reasons for blogging is that the process of constructing a blog post involves a lot of reflection. It forces you to examine your own teaching processes. Critical self-examination is one of the most important assets you have in becoming a more effective teacher.
Along with commenting on blog posts written by other educators, writing your own blog is an effective way of making your PLN a two way process. A further value of blogs authored by local English speaking teachers is that it makes the ideas rapidly transforming education in wealthier countries available to local teachers who cannot read or speak English effectively. Simply summarising the world of change that is out there in Bahasa Indonesia will allow other teachers to transform their own pedagogy. It will give you more partners for change here in Indonesia.
The next technology I will discuss is one that many of us are familiar with on some level but do not understand how powerful it can be: the RSS button on websites. When used in conjunction with a good RSS Reader like Google Reader, RSS feeds allow us to pull large amounts of targeted content to a single platform interface saving lots of time in checking and rechecking or searching out new content from our favourite learning and news websites. The content can be quickly scanned before making the decision to read it.
RSS readers allows us to dedicate the maximum amount of our precious personal development time to its primary purpose: learning about those areas we have chosen to focus on in our personal professional development plan and implementing those ideas systematically. I try to plan for fifteen minutes of reading time from my RSS feeds three times a week. Using this powerful yet very easy to manage technology is something I cannot urge strongly enough. My challenge to you is to set up an RSS Reader before the end of your next working day. Choose three teaching blogs that focus on the subjects you are interested in learning more about and add them to the feed in your reader.
[Brief demonstration on how to use Google Reader]
The last tool that I would like to discuss is Twitter. There are many exciting professional conversations happening inside Twitter and most education leaders today are using this platform. If you already use Twitter personally, and from my observations of student uptake of this technology here in Indonesia, I would guess that many of you already are, do not, I must stress that again, do not use your personal account professionally and keep to a minimum the personal Tweets from your professional account. Set up a dedicated teacher to teacher professional development account that you use exclusively for tweeting articles, blog posts and opinion about education issues. Many conferences now have their own Twitter hashtag and conducting a search on the hashtag is one of the most effective ways of finding excellent material that is highly focused on a small range of subjects. It is also a quick way of finding education leaders worth following. I am also beginning to use Twitter in my classroom but more on that later.
Steve Dembo makes an important point for beginners in his post titled “If you Tweet , will anyone hear?”:
In the effort of attempting to demonstrate how wonderful, simple, powerful and dynamic it [Twitter] is, we make it seem much more effortless than it really is.
the fact that it takes TIME and EFFORT to gain a few hundred followers. And without having a critical mass of people to message out to, your odds of getting a response from a general tweet are VERY small.
In the early stages you should use your network to collect rather than disseminate information, therefore you should measure its success in how it impacts on your learning and practice, not on how many people respond to your posts and tweets or how many followers you have. Remember that you are using this technology to become a better teacher, not a popular personality.
Used together, these three tools form a powerful and efficient engine to build your PLN by connecting with the people and ideas that you need to become a better teacher. I will add one caveat before moving on. Digital media can be addictive and because of the sheer immensity of information that is now available, it can be utterly overwhelming. This can lead the unwary user into wasting a lot of time instead of using it more effectively. So be very selective and always remain focused when using these valuable technologies.
PLNs don’t start and finish when you log on and off. Offline members of a PLN should include your immediate colleagues, both in the same subject area as well as across all disciplines within teaching. It is amazing what we can learn about good classroom practice from colleagues who work in radically different subject areas. Aim to push this network beyond your own school, especially across school systems and by this I mean public/private systems as well as age based systems like SDN/SMP/SMA. High school (SMP/SMA) teachers in Australia are turning to elementary (or primary as we call them) teachers to learn about how they are implementing some important developments in teaching and learning for example cross-discipline project work, group work, peer teaching and other collaborative learning practices.
The range of possibilities for the development of your PLN on a personal and ‘real world’ basis is huge. These can take the form of formal professional development days as well as an exciting new concept that went viral among Australian teachers earlier this year called Teachmeets , although the original concept was developed about six years ago in England. Teachmeets are structured yet informal gatherings of teachers where different teachers present on a specific topic for either two or seven minutes with the time limits strictly enforced. This allows for a wide range of speakers who are forced to design their presentations well because of the time constraint. It also limits the dominance of more powerful personality types that can occur during standard PD sessions.
Teaming up with a learning collaborator from a different faculty and engaging in peer coaching through regular meetings and classroom observations and debriefings is another excellent strategy. It does however require serious regular and ongoing commitment particularly because it involves working closely with one of your colleagues. The list of collaboration possibilities is too large to mention here. What counts is developing the understanding that collaborative practices are one of the best ways of improving your teaching and the quality of education being delivered in our schools and that many possibilities for collaboration exist, and then trying to visualise or discover them, research and then implement them.
[The following section is largely the work of Chuck Frey with only minor editing on my part]
What follows are a few tips that will help you make the most of your PLN. They were developed by Howard Rheingold, one of the leading thinkers on the cultural, social and political implications of modern communications technology. Several years ago he laid out eight key points on developing PLNs in a short series of Tweets. These are:
Whether you’re viewing the latest posts to the social media channels in which you participate or conducting a Google search, be open to encountering ideas and new knowledge that you didn’t expect to find. I experience this all the time; the bits and pieces of information I discover online take my thinking in exciting new directions. It’s essential to be reflective hen exploring and ask yourself “How can I use this?” and “What does this mean to me?” One of the objects of this is to challenge your thinking about what you already know. You need to be open: To new people, opportunities, possibilities, and to knowledge.
Since a PLN is primarily a collaborative effort to build knowledge and skills, it is very important to identify people and potential sources that you can add to your personal knowledge network. Rheingold lists some useful tools in this tweet that help you record and share what you have found.
One of the beautiful things about social media networks is that you can get exposed to the ideas of the friends of people in your network that you might otherwise have never met. Look for interesting people you can add to your personal network, in terms of your PLN this means looking at the lists of education leaders: the lists of people they consider interesting and follow themselves as well as those who follow them, look at who the original poster is for material that has been retweeted or shared. When you’ve identified people who are posting information that appears to be relevant to your areas of interest, follow them.
Then vet them to determine if they are worthy members of your network. You need to stay focused in your use of social media otherwise you will drown in the sea of data that is out there. Once you’ve assessed the relative value of the people you follow, assign them to lists to help fine tune your reading time. Make sure you go through a periodic culling of your lists as well and remove people who aren’t generating or sharing the types of content that you are focused on.
The following steps are critical to relationship building within your social media channels, it’s where the collaborative two way process that is at the heart of a PLN starts to work. As you begin to understand what motivates some of the key people you follow, you will naturally encounter information that may be of value to them. Make the first move. Share it with them. That increases the odds that they’ll share good stuff with you. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. It’s just like in real life: If you’re open and generous, you’ll tend to build more and better relationships than if you’re only focusing on what you want for yourself. Be the first to share. Don’t wait for someone you’re connected with to share something with you.
6. Engage the people you follow. Be polite, mindful of making demands on their attention. Put work into dialogue if they welcome it. Thank them for sharing.
Social media networks aren’t just tools to discover resources that you can use in your professional development or classroom. They can function like an ongoing international conference where dialogue and discussion that goes beyond information exchanges, where your colleagues share insights and experiences that are shaping the future directions of our discipline at an ideological and philosophical level. When participating in these discussions it is essential to use basic netiquette like please and thankyou at a greater level than you might in face to face communication.
7. Inquire of the people you follow, of the people who follow you. But be careful. Ask engaging questions – answers shd be useful to others
Use your network to actively seek answers to questions and pose discussion topics that encourage the exchange of ideas, but be careful to not over use this resource and to frame your requests in a way that offers benefits to everyone involved. Give value, receive value. If all you do it take information from others, or give them cursory bits of attention and throw-away answers, people won’t want to engage with you. If we don’t feel valued in a relationship, online or offline, we’ll take our time, attention and ideas and focus them elsewhere. Being mindful of being useful to others helps to ensure that we build mutually productive and gratifying relationships in our social channels.
8. Respond to inquiries made to you. Contribute to both diffuse reciprocity and quid pro quo
Just as you set up your PLN to serve your goals, so too do other educators. Behave in a way that you want others to. Set a good example and influence others, so they’re more likely to do the same for you. This is how some of the leading educators who are influencing tens of thousands of teachers around the world were able to develop their networks, networks that continue to benefit them in their professional development and now are helping countless teachers both directly and indirectly. We hate to be ignored. So don’t do it to others. Ignoring people doesn’t build relationships; it destroys them. People won’t share their ideas and insights with you if you don’t give anything back.
Finally I would like to say a few words about what should be one of the chief goals of teachers who are interested in implementing collaborative practices both in the classroom and in their ongoing professional development: the development of world class professional organisations for teachers. These need to be local and federated nationally. All professions that take themselves seriously have them. In NSW where I trained and began my professional life we have the NSW Institute of Teachers which is responsible for setting the standards for and overseeing the accreditation of teachers. It has published a comprehensive set of teaching standards derived from research on what the essential set of skills is for effective teachers. Accreditation is evidence based and broken up into several stages which set a clear pathway for teacher professional development. Membership and accreditation is compulsory for all teachers who graduated after 2006.
We also have subject specific teacher organisations. For instance, I belong to the NSW History Teachers’ Association. It publishes a journal ten times a year and holds many professional development days, exam preparation courses for students in their final year and contests for students.
The development of organisations like these through collaboration by teachers is crucial to increasing the professionalization of teaching, and I stress that it must be teachers in partnership with education academics and not bureaucrats who lead this process. This professionalization is the bedrock on which the goals we hope to achieve are built. The NSW Institute of Teachers was set up by teachers and has become an important lobbying voice for teachers to influence the direction of teaching, it has been so successful in this role that it is now a body with legal standing in the development and implementation of process that regulate teaching in NSW.
To achieve this, we must start on a personal level. My suggestion is that we begin the process of what these organisations aim to do with ourselves. As we become more successful in our teaching and confident through the experience of researching what the issues and solutions for classroom and professional practice are, we can encourage other teachers to join us in our efforts.
I hope that these ideas and strategies that I shared with you today will influence the way you think about teaching and how you act as a teacher in every aspect of your professional lives. I have focused on teacher to teacher collaboration, but bear in mind that one of the ultimate goals of this approach is to implement collaborative approaches in the classroom. Hopefully the tools and techniques that I have discussed today will give you the means to learn about and implement worlds best collaborative teaching practices in your classroom. The academic research on the benefits of collaboration overwhelmingly supports using collegial and cooperative practices. It is up to us to implement them so that our students can make the most of the opportunities available and contribute to society in a way that benefits the entire community. These are the tools that will help our students cope with jobs and a future that we cannot even conceptualise effectively.
 (McClure 2008)
 (Tolisano 2009)
 (Tolisano 2009)
 (Frey 2012)
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Lindsay, Julie, and Vicki A Davis. Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds: Move to Global Collaboration One Step at a Time. Pearson Education, 2013.
McClure, Carla Thomas. The Benefits of Teacher Collaboration: Essentials on Education Data and Research Analysis. 09 2008. (accessed 11 01, 2012).
Rotherham, Andrew J, and Daniel Willingham. “21st Century Skill: The Challenges Ahead.” Educational Leadership, September 2009: 16-21.