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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


September/October 2013

Opening classroom doors to collaborative learning
by Diallo Brown

Diallo Brown is a faculty member at the College of Lake County in Grayslake , Illinois, and a doctoral student at Nation Louis University in Chicago. He is both a certified language arts teacher and administrator.

Most educators confine themselves to the classroom, ensuring they close the door behind them both when class is in session and not.

Perhaps it’s a force of routine, but if we are truthful in analyzing these intentions, most times this act marks an explicit request to be left alone. Many teachers want to insulate themselves in their mastered content area and classroom because they do not truly believe that their colleagues in other content areas can benefit from their strategic approach to educating and engaging students.

In order to achieve a more equitable level of success and enhance learning across the curriculum, teachers must open the doors to collaborative learning. School boards should consistently insist that school leaders play a more active role in the development of good teaching. This can best be accomplished by examining why these two basic necessities haphazardly take place in classrooms in many school buildings.

The mere thought of having someone else in the building take a glimpse into a teacher’s secret domain (better known as “my classroom”) can cause anxiety. Some teachers would prefer to be left alone to conduct “their class” as they wish, with limited interactions and directions from others — even if those interactions and directions could provide them with opportunities to enhance best practices.

In my experience, many tenured teachers deem the mandatory evaluation process a highly difficult one to withstand, because they are forced to open their doors as if those doors really belonged to them. These teachers aren’t so much concerned with how the evaluation process can be rewarding if provided with adequate feedback that they can take, own and apply for the advantage of the students they serve.

Instead, they are apprehensive about their own articulation of what they are supposed to have mastered. So they leave the door shut. Some even place bells on doorknobs or dark colored construction paper over windows to subtly (or in the case of the tenured professional, unequivocally) announcing to others in the building: “This is my classroom. You are not welcomed unless invited!”

This notion applies to their colleagues as well as the evaluating administrator.

The reality is that the classroom does not belong to the teacher; it belongs to those who are entitled to be educated — the students. Buildings and their contents are designed to be a shared, collaborative environment earmarked to preserve learning. Further, learning — as it pertains to the current model of public schooling — cannot thrive when we have a series of closed-circuit classrooms that simply segregate learning by closing the doors to cross content curriculum.

As a language arts teacher and administrator, I had often taught a skill called “inference.” Once understood, students begin to practice the skill with great ease on just about everything.

Our fear as educational leaders should be that we are promenading students to acknowledge through inference this selfish and antiquated practice of individualizing content knowledge that allows teachers to keep to themselves — literally quarantined from other educators who may be able to connect content areas to others in significant ways that will make the learning experience pop. Essentially, we are suggesting that ideas in general are not interconnected and stand alone. That doesn’t sound much like the quality of thinking that will be required of these students once they reach the real world of working for a living.

Two best practices

So how can school boards and administrators open the door both conceptually and literally so that teachers can see the benefits of collaboration throughout their buildings? Two best practices to consider are learning walks and team teaching.

Tony Wagner, education consultant and the first Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard’s Technology & Entrepreneurship Center, believes that building and district administration benefit greatly from identifying what actually happens in the classroom by way of learning walks.

In short, a learning walk is when a team of teachers, administrators and social service school professionals evaluate what happens inside a classroom unannounced. The premise is not necessarily to evaluate the teacher but to evaluate whether learning is occurring in the classroom. To determine that, the learning walk team may opt to speak with the students in order to process the likelihood that they are experiencing some degree of learning.

But before this promising best practice can take place, initial steps are necessary.

First, good teaching must be defined, and learning walk teams need to agree that the defined best practice can be scored consistently throughout the team. A rubric that breaks down how the learning walks will be scored should be developed and unfailing in its correlation to their shared definition of good teaching. Building the definition of what good teaching is can be complicated. That’s why many different school professionals should be included, so that the definition can account for all aspects of how learning can be impacted.

Next, teams must agree that they are on a quest to better the teaching in the buildings they serve. Viewing videos of actual classes is recommended so that uniformity in scoring on the upcoming learning walks becomes a best practice in itself.

Lastly, all eyes need to be opened. As simple as it may sound, the professionals on the walk need to be cognizant of what they are there to do: identify good teaching so that it can be duplicated throughout the building. Absolutely no special treatment should be given to a colleague’s lesson plan.

In order for learning walks to be successful, doors must be opened. These walks should occur on multiple occasions and should not be announced. Nor should they be taken at the same time in order to receive a picture of students learning versus a snap shot of a particular day’s lesson.

Educators share their knowledge of a particular content with the students they teach. So why is the practice of sharing that same content knowledge with team colleagues not a mandatory piece of every school district’s mandate for good teaching? We need to take hold of the ways we look to reach progress and commit ourselves to making sure accountability in reaching this progress is at the forefront of our agenda in doing so.

The second best practice that building leaders should endorse is team teaching. Whether it is combining classes such as language arts and social studies, or math and science, or coordinating what is being taught/learned in one class into the lessons of another, this is perhaps the single most effective technique one group of teachers can adopt to help students realize that what they are being taught is important for them to learn.

Having observed teaching teams throughout my K-12 career, I have witnessed how students can articulate what happens in their other classes as they wrote in journals, connecting or pondering about a particular idea and how it made sense outside of that class.

Students were often on their “A game” when they knew the practice of good writing was not just confined to a language arts classroom. They understood they were being held accountable for spelling and grammar when writing a lab review for science just as they would be held accountable for understanding chronology as it pertained to the order of time in math or a sequence of events in social studies. Again, in order for this best practice to take shape and form, the doors must be opened. When students can make the connection between one class and another, they come to a better understanding of why education is important. They see a picture of the whole and not just isolated classes and subjects.

So exactly what are teachers concealing by keeping the doors shut? What is it that they don’t want colleagues and administrators to view? What are school boards and administrators implying to stakeholders when they allow teachers to keep content areas shut off to the rest of the hall?

Are we not developing and approving highly qualified educators to promote learning in these classrooms? Do we not believe that colleagues with the most direct impact on student learning are entitled to know what the other team of teachers is teaching in their brief time with students?

Exploring how to best serve students through collaborative learning beyond team/department meetings may lead in a more successful direction in regards to developing the unprepared student for post-secondary education, job readiness and citizenship.

Everyone involved needs to reconsider how we mandate learning be brought about as well as how learning is observed and evaluated by building leaders in order to sustain and maintain the results that are indicative of the atmosphere we seek to create through sound governance of school systems.

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