If I was to tell you that collaboration is vital for teachers’ professional learning and hence for improving student outcomes would you: (a) prick up your ears at this exciting new insight into school improvement; (b) nod politely, whilst mentally (or indeed physically) switching off because it’s so boringly familiar; or (c) immediately start composing an irate comment piece attacking this narrowly fixated, reductionist view of what matters in education* [*insert alterative critique as appropriate].
Regular readers of Matthew Taylor’s blog will be familiar with the concept, but just to hammer home the point about the importance of educational partnerships I wanted to draw on insights from some of our own collaborative projects, beginning with the inquiry on research and teacher education that RSA Education is jointly conducting with the British Educational Research Association, the interim findings of which we presented at BERA conference last week (with more to come later in the week drawing on insights from behavioural science and social network analysis).
The important point (for those who’ve made it this far) is that how and indeed whether we respond at a cognitive level depends on whether it’s old news, genuinely new information, or a new but dissonant perspective, which challenges some of our deeply held beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning.
When we are told something that we already partly know, it may ‘cue’ or consolidate some existing knowledge; but of course when it is too familiar, we may well think we’ve heard it all before. By contrast, information which is genuinely new is more likely to grab our attention – and more likely to be accepted as ‘true’ when it is in line with what we already think, whereas a new position which challenges our existing views is more likely to be rejected. Despite the discomfort, creating dissonance can be a powerful way to achieve deeper learning, since in certain circumstances (particularly when there is time, space and support for critical reflection) it can prompt a deeper rethink of what were previously unexamined views and beliefs.
These three core cognitive processes – ‘cue’, ‘new’ and ‘reject or review’ – help explain why teachers (and students) attending the same course or programme do not all respond in the same way, or come away with the same set of insights, even when presented with exactly the same course materials, presented in precisely the same way. While some teachers may be underwhelmed by the experience, explicitly rejecting or ignoring the new theory and practice, others may also continue as before, whilst actually believing they have adopted some new learning into their practice. In other scenarios, practitioners may implement a new initiative precisely as required, under the guidance and support of a specialist expert for the duration of the intervention, only to revert to their original practice when the external advisor departs. Alternatively, teachers may actively engage with and adapt new learning within their teaching, leading to substantive and sustained changes in practice – and ultimately perhaps leading to significant improvements in student outcomes, particularly when teachers are committed to monitoring the impact of any changes and revising their approach as required in response to students’ changing learning needs.
So what has collaboration got to do with teachers’ professional learning? As Matthew Taylor writes in the second of his two recent blogs the subject, teacher-to-teacher collaboration is the key part of school improvement. This is because collaboration with their professional colleagues, both inside and outside the school, is vital both as a way of accessing new knowledge and expertise, but also as a way of challenging existing practice and solidifying any new learning.
As evidence from the BERA-RSA Inquiry shows, bringing about substantive changes in teachers’ practice is hard: it depends on far more than positive engagement or understanding at a cognitive level. Studies show that peer support can be an important way of embedding new ways of working in teachers’ day-to-day practice. Having the practical and emotional support of colleagues helps teachers to overcome their natural fears or embarrassment in the face of new and unfamiliar practices. In this sense, collaborating with trusted colleagues helps to create a safe environment for teachers to try out new ideas, as well as increasing their self-awareness by putting themselves in the shoes of others.
But simply relying on information and advice from existing networks is unlikely to lead to significant improvement: studies show that if teachers are simply conferring with colleagues who share a similar outlook, it is less likely that they will be challenged to really think about improvement and adopt new ways of working. By collaborating with a wider group offering a more diverse set of perspectives and experiences, teachers are better able to resist the ‘pull of the status quo’, making it more likely that they will actually change their practice and persist in following a novel approach over time – and hence increasing the chances of achieving sustained, substantive changes in student learning and outcomes.
As Matthew Taylor discusses, creating the right conditions for collaborative, enquiry-based learning depends on the interplay of three powerful sets of forces. Collaboration ‘sceptics’ may want to know more about how to overcome some of the countervailing forces which otherwise pull against productive relationships (particularly competition between neighbouring schools and the deadening hand of top-down accountability). These important issues deserve a longer response – to which I’ll return next time.
Louise Bamfield is Associate Director of RSA Education.