How can collaborative learning systems best benefit schools? KDSL Global recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Sarah A. Boswell to learn more about the approach at her company called Collective Learning. Dr. Boswell is a scholar-leader who continues to lead change in schools. Her international experience and research interests serve as the catalyst for her success in helping teachers globally become leaders of their learning & well-being. Her international experiences with teachers range from exploring teacher support programs in Ghana, West Africa, designing curriculum for teachers in Liberia, West Africa to training teachers in United Arab Emirates and Jakarta, Indonesia.
What are the most common problems CLS sees improving for schools?
Collaborative Learning Systems (CLS) seek to improve for schools their ability to maximize teachers’ talents … helping teachers tap into their personal power. We believe effectively and authentically navigating teachers’ personal power allows their talents and expertise to thrive is the first ingredient in handling common concerns relating to teacher retention, teacher satisfaction, teacher quality, and teacher efficacy.
Through our process of establishing collaborative learning systems in schools, we build in the necessary components within the school’s culture that creates a productive, safe, mutually respective environment for sharing and learning. These components include trust and rapport, healthy communication and listening skills, and reflection and application. Teachers are at the core of designing, facilitating these systems. Hence allowing them to gain a sense of ownership as well as an opportunity to utilize their expertise, ingenuity, and knowledge. They guide the process for effective learning, problem solving and innovation. It becomes an inner support for teacher consisting of teachers.
An article I recently read regarding teacher burnout coined a term that I have not heard before, demoralization. It shares that burnout and demoralization can both lead to teachers’ dissatisfaction but distinguishes them way by saying that burnout – requires individual teachers to determine the resolve via mindset, stress management remedies, etc. But the author, Doris Santoro, states that demoralization relates more so to the conflict that teachers have between their desire to do good work and what is expected by school policy. Therefore, placing some of the resolve on the system versus only on the individual teacher regarding burnout.
I do recommend one to read the article in its entirety (The link is below). An example of a moral conflict she shares that I feel many can relate to is: “Failing to meet students’ learning needs due to a scripted curriculum or mandated textbook.” Conversations relating to this are commonly seen or heard in the teachers’ lounges, grade level meetings, etc. but hardly ever brought up to school leadership as an area of concern to try to resolve. Yet, Ms. Santaro indicates through her over 10 years of research in the area of teacher dissatisfaction, she’s noticing these and other similar conflicts are a key cause of teacher dissatisfaction. She gives one good example of a teacher named “Diana” who had brought up moral conflict to leadership who in turn dismissed her point of view and considered it unprofessional.
So the point that I am making here by bringing up this article (besides I think every teacher and leader should read it) is I’m grateful to the author for bringing attention to an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. By being a teacher and working with teachers via my teacher conversations (coaching sessions) and/or my teacher collaborative (teacher group discussion) these conflicts –where teachers have to decide between what is in the best interest of children and the expectation of school policy and practice — are not new.
My service to teachers stems from wanting to help teachers to navigate, within their realm of control, strategies to manage and effectively cope with these systemic situations. Being able to change the situation has never been the resolve nor could it be or would it ever be. BUT what Collective Learning has been successful in doing is giving teachers an opportunity to talk productively and exploring what can be done and create a strategy towards it. That mere momentum can shift the feelings of helplessness and victimization, a source of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, to a feeling of hope and possibility.
Teachers are often aware of the top down organizational models that they are walking into when they decide to teach. Yet they still do for the love of teaching and impacting the lives of children. What my CLS models do is teach ways to create space to pause, and allow teachers individually or collectively to use their ingenuity to create solutions, strategies, alternatives to manage the day to day events in their work lives stemming from their own professional learning needs and beyond. Going back to the article, the author speaks about the need for leaders to first identify the true cause of teacher dissatisfaction and continues to offer leaders suggestions of ways to respond to the moral concerns of teachers.
Read the article to get all of them. However, the themes of her suggestions include the concepts of communication and listening (key concepts of CLS process). One specific suggestion states to invite teachers to write a proposal to resolve and address conflicts within their work. That is an awesome idea & my Teacher Collaborative is the perfect solution to facilitate a discussion among teachers to create a concise proposal.
But here is where I think the author and many, many other people tend to create the gap when asking teachers to do things like common planning time, professional learning communities, co-teaching, and write a proposal with your colleagues. I think you get my point.
BUT … if the school culture has not gone through some sort of trust and rapport building to create safe space, have not provided learning around productive and polite conversation protocols for tough topics, have not practiced effective ways to listen and respond, then why do you think teachers will all of sudden be able to effectively comfortably openly honestly delve into these collaborative open system mechanisms for resolution, innovation and progression? Then when it doesn’t work leading to the potential of having the cycle of demoralization continuing.
With all the great intentions of so many researchers, school policy makers, school leaders and administrations –wanting to create collaborative concepts among teachers in schools … to apply distributive leaderships in schools … to have teachers openly share their concerns with schools …. they are sometimes remised in not tapping into the pulse of teachers and developing effective safe group dynamics needed in an educational system that has historically focused on and been driven by isolation, individualism, authoritative models of governing and functioning.
It’s a process to genuinely create these safe collaborate environments but starting is the key. I understand that schools generally are working from a product result oriented intention but it’s my sincere belief that schools will need to shift to embracing “process” and celebrating the change as it occurs incrementally over time.
So what does CLS seek to improve in schools? We seek to close the gap. Doing so by offering solutions that help school cultures be open and safe environments where teachers’ talent and personal power can be safely and respectfully expressed and utilized to co-create with leadership resolves around whatever is needed. This could be their professional learning, stream lining the curriculum, best ways to handle lunch duty, value conflicts that impact their work, etc. With the key goal of keeping in mind the interest of all involved in order to best serve and meet the needs of students.
How does using CLS improve things for teachers and students?
CLS improves things for teachers by giving them tools to help them improve things for themselves. We believe teachers come into the schoolhouse with much valuable knowledge. Teachers’ talents can be best maximized when given a means to identify problems, a process to resolve it, a procedure to evaluate and revise it, if needed. That’s what CLS does. We give them the means, processes, and procedures to facilitate self-guided improvements.
So what’s the source of CLS success. It is organically and authentically driven by teachers’ needs. If they have issues dealing with a student in the classroom, they can have a teacher collaborative around it that fosters a structured way to creatively brainstorm solutions. If the school decided to implement the 4C’s of a Learning Culture then they can engage peer collaboration where they see peers in action and have a constructive learning conversation around the teacher specific learning need.
But again, these solutions aren’t just collaborative models that are dumped onto teachers. We build the foundation for healthy safe collaboration to occur. Now things improve for the students by being the beneficiaries of teachers who are open and comfortable to sharing their skills and talents; to maintaining and even innovating new approaches to teaching and learning.
And other sweet benefit or improvement for students includes teachers who are happier, who have an increased level of teacher efficacy, teachers excited about coming to their work environment and showing up in the best possible way they can.
I am not trying to create this Polly Anna world of teaching … there will be situations, experiences, and encounters that will not be able to be resolved or resolved to the satisfaction of people involved. BUT having a system in place where the mere support of a listening ear and validation could make a world of difference in the life of teachers.
Does CLS require a large host of teachers to actively collaborate? Or could a smaller school use it?
Nope definitely not! School size does not matter. What’s awesome about our CLS solutions is that it’s geared toward meeting individual, team, and organization needs. This stems from our theories derived from the concepts of organizational development and dimensions of a learning organization.
Our Teacher Conversations are geared toward teachers who want to engage in a one-on-one conversation about their practice, dilemma, and/or ambitions with a professional coach outside of the school. Teacher Collaborative provides opportunity for supportive teams to convene for learning and/or problem solving purposes. The 4C’s of a Learning Culture is a school-wide process for providing ongoing learning for teachers.
The size only constitutes the amount of knowledge that is resting under one roof. However the ability to share, learn, grow, and innovate from that knowledge has no barring on the size of the school. The only thing required for CLS are teachers and school leaders who are open to the positive and productive impact that teachers’ talents (their personal power) have on creating, innovating, and problem solving solutions within schools.