One of the highlights of my work more recently was seeing about 120 students in an open learning space, aged between 12-13 years, all collaborating on solving real-world problems that they had identified over about an eight week period. It gave me a huge buzz to see the how well students worked together, their ability to overcome conflicts and the impressive solutions they designed together. Seeing it in action, I knew that it really wasn’t by accident that the students had such a positive experience of the project. The hard work of the teachers involved was put in throughout the year through participating in workshops, engaging in online discussions, working collaboratively to re-design curriculum and be open to give and receive feedback about their practice both in and out of the classroom. It was the work of teachers that were in a highly effective collaborative Professional Learning Team, which was built over time and with a very clear strategy for educator collaboration in mind.
Educational leaders know that building collaborative Professional Learning Teams is essential in supporting 21 st Century learning environments, but many schools find this a challenge. Time, group dynamics, lack of clarity of purpose and outcome as well as technology fails all pose some serious challenges to collaborative teams working well together. Often, there isn’t a strategy for how to build collaborative Professional Learning Teams or a blueprint for best practice provided. Overcoming these challenges is top of mind for educational leaders, which has been further supported by the latest research from John Hattie around collective staff efficacy having one of the biggest impacts on student achievement (Hattie, 2016). So, what are some of the hallmarks of highly collaborative Professional Learning Teams?
Developing norms and processes which support collaboration
Being able to co-construct the norms and processes which support effective collaboration allows everyone to be heard and contributes to the collective culture of the team. Having access to collaborative digital technologies in Office 365 provides a range of opportunities to establish group norms and processes in a safe, transparent way. I recently did this with a curriculum team in the Collaboration Space within the Staff Notebook. Using this technology enabled everyone’s contributions to be visible, which supported our face-to- face discussions. It enabled us to reflect on the norms and processes, and came to consensus on the collective expectations of the group and add these to the Document Library in the Office 365 Group Site. I found this to be a useful workflow to support the team collaboration whereby we moved from the iterative, developmental work undertaken in the Staff Notebook, to the shared curated content and outcome of our collaborations in the Document Library in the group Site.
Creating collaborative platforms
Having technology which supports the varied nature of professional dialogue and collaboration means that our collaboration isn’t limited to face-to- face meeting time after school or designated Professional Learning days. Office 365 Groups provides a very useful starting point to developing effective collaboration as it provides a range of tools to support the varied ways that we need to work together. It also provides a workflow for collaborative practices whereby you can develop a team strategy in OneNote, consolidate this strategy by using Planner, engage in dialogue and discussions using Skype for Business before adding your final substantive curriculum documentation to the shared document library (for example). It provides a central point of truth for collaborative practices and enables the work of the group to be collectively owned and shared. Developing a team strategy for these workflows and the tools that support them supports the norms and processes that sit ‘underneath’ each effective collaborative Professional Learning Team.
Coming to consensus on what quality teaching ‘looks like’
Without a framework on what we are supposed to be achieving in terms of curriculum design, it makes it difficult to come to a consensus on the outcome. This is because we often ‘talk past each other’ when applying our own pedagogical understanding of ‘collaboration’, ‘critical thinking’ or ‘communication’. While I work with schools that subscribe to a range of curriculum frameworks; the Australian Curriculum, The Victorian Curriculum, The New Zealand Curriculum, the IB and PYP – most schools have developed a tailored teaching and learning framework which supports a collective vision for what quality teaching ‘looks like’ in that educational context. 21 st Century Learning Design provides a ‘how to’ achieve these outcomes and provides a foundation for consensus making and professional dialogue about curriculum design. It provides a clarity on what 21 st Century pedagogy ‘looks like’ in a task which enables meaningful collaboration towards a common understanding of quality teaching and learning.
Investing in supporting educators to be able to work together well to achieve a common goal is seen to have some of the most significant impacts of student achievement. So regardless of which type of PLT structure you have at your school; curriculum, interdisciplinary PLT’s, Year Level teams or lead consultancy teams working together, developing a collaborative culture is essential to achieving the learning experiences for students. And when you have the opportunity to see that in action in classrooms, observing the student collaborations happen and what they can achieve from engaging in really well designed learning experiences – well, it makes it all worthwhile.
Click here to find out more about Building Collaborative Professional Learning Teams.
Building Collaborative Professional Learning Teams with Office 365
Learn how to create a collaborative learning environment by developing a shared purpose, implementing norms and structures which support professional dialogue, exploring the impact of collective staff efficacy and developing a strategy for substantive decision making around curriculum development. You will walk away with an understanding of collaborative Professional Learning environments, the skills to engage in online collaborative platforms and an understanding of what collectively you are trying to achieve within your Professional Learning Team.
“The workshop clearly contributed to the development of a collaborative culture, with lots of ideas for how these tools can continue to affect that development. I particularly enjoyed Rowena’s deep knowledge as well as flexibility and understanding”
(Tony Hole, CESA Lead Learning Consultant)
“It was great. We had lots of options for different ways that we can collaborate.”
(Jacqueline Asser, Lead Learning Consultant)
(Fiona Callaghan, CESA Lead Learning Consultant)