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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Teachers: Have This Conversation Before You Collaborate 02-08

Teachers: Have This Conversation Before You Collaborate

Getting educators to collaborate around instruction is really hard.
When I was coaching teachers, I had a framework for observation similar to many of the teacher evaluation frameworks that are out there today. It contained phrases like “Designs lessons so that timing supports learning”, which seemed fairly clear and objective.
I often saw things in the classroom worth improving, and the teacher and I would debrief them and brainstorm steps for positive change. Imagine my surprise when I would return a few weeks later and find that very little had changed. I would ask why, and teachers would usually say something like “I liked the suggestion, but it just didn’t really fit my style” or “I just wasn’t sure that would fit my classroom.” Usually that would kick off good conversations about teaching and learning. But occasionally, my mis-understanding of the teacher’s ideal classroom could cause real mistrust, and I’d struggle to get traction in supporting that teacher.
In graduate school, I began to research different styles of teaching.  I found that different styles varied in two really big ways: 1. How does the teacher articulate the purpose of education? and 2. What theories does the teacher hold about how students learn?
When you think about the wide spectrum of possible answers to these two questions, a criteria like “designing lessons so that timing supports learning” becomes much less clear cut. After studying multiple styles of teaching, I began to see that I had biases towards certain styles of pacing and timing in the classroom. My timing bias was towards an almost frenetic urgency, with lots of hands up and a lot of “buzz.” That’s because I usually thought about the purpose of education in terms of mastering content–and there sure was a lot of content to get through!
But what if the teacher I was collaborating with had a different notion? What if she believed that the purpose of education is to develop a young person’s sense of agency and self-mastery? She naturally would have a different interpretation of “timing that supports learning.” I found that teachers tend to approach common teaching tasks in a way that aligns with their sense of purpose and their theories about student learning.
I realized that I had done very little deep thinking about the purpose of education. If you had asked me about purpose in my first year of teaching, I would have said something about closing the achievement gap. But to what end? If it was college completion, that would imply one thing about how I do the work. If it was “citizenship”, might that imply something quite different?
Same goes for my theory of learning. Did I think students should first grapple with big, hairy problems or get lots of practice at basic skills? Did I think students learn best when they get choice over what they learn or is it better for them to feel like part of a collective effort? When you start having these kinds of conversations, you realize that most teachers’ conceptions of their jobs are a crazy maze of beliefs. How are educators supposed to collaborate effectively if they don’t know how their colleagues think about this stuff?
So as you are engaging with other educators and find that you just can’t seem to see eye-to-eye around some aspect of instruction, take a step back and see if you might need to have a conversation about your perspectives on education! If you need some conversation starters, consider these:
  1. What do you think is the end-goal of education?
  2. What do you hope your students will be doing 8 years after graduating from high school?
  3. What are your top three pre-requisites for an effective classroom?
  4. Complete this sentence: Students learn best when…
Hopefully this kind of conversation can spur better collaboration on your teams!