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Collaborative Learning Design – A Third Way

Recently, I’ve been working with a couple of student teachers from the University of Auckland. Both are young, enthusiastic, and ready to dive into teaching. It’s an interesting space being a student teacher – depending on the Associate Teacher you get, it can be an opportunity to design lessons or to deliver them. I remember when I was student teacher, working with a school where the curriculum was relatively traditional. Phrases like “just follow the unit plan” and “here’s the PowerPoint for this unit” were commonplace. Assessments hadn’t been updated since the early 2000s. It felt stale. But being a content deliverer had its benefits. Sure, it meant less creativity, but it also meant simpler planning, streamlined content and it was easy. Another school I worked at offered large amounts of creative freedom but with very little support. I was engaged, inspired, and exhausted.

It feels like when it comes to curriculum, these are the two modes schools get stuck in. Teachers are either curriculum deliverers or content creators. You’re either being asked to roll out the programme or design your own. Each is a guise – trade structure and support for creative freedom or vice versa. These two ends of the spectrum, this binary, it isn’t helpful. Neither positioning gets you what you want. What we want is learning designers and that requires a new third way of being – one that offers support, understanding of the pedagogical mission and creative license.

Rewriting the curriculum

This year we’ve undertaken the rewriting of our junior social science curriculum. As far as learning experiences go, it’s been a little messy. But the opportunity to learn together about how we design the new curriculum has seen deeper engagement with learning from both students and staff. Not only this, but collaborative planning has led to pedagogical growth. Teachers involved in the planning process have seen the impact this level of deeper thinking has had on the way they teach. They’ve had to think critically about what and how we teach before heading into the mahi (work). This clarity of purpose translates in the classroom, with more relevant and interesting learning programmes. It has become clear that when we plan together, we become better teachers. So why is it that this isn’t the norm?

I’m not sure we have to tools to design collaboratively. What I mean is – we don’t have the time, the energy, or the know-how. So, how do we do it?

Providing time and space

Collaborative learning design takes time. In a traditional system, time isn’t regularly allocated for co-planning and learning design. Our meetings are often taken up with moderation & assessment. We’re busy tackling systems and structures, as opposed to asking questions about what students are learning & why. School leaders need to start providing opportunities to collaborate or we are only going to replicate the status quo. This is what I saw at the school where assessments hadn’t been updated since the early 2000s. When I asked the question about why this context was taught, the response was “oh no one has had the time to create a new learning context”. It’s fundamental that leaders give time and space for collaborative learning design. One of the reasons our team was afforded time to rethink our learning programmes, was a partial timetable towards of 2021, a side-effect of the return from our COVID-19 lockdown. In order for transformative change to happen, we needed several hours, as opposed to the 30-minute morning meeting before class.

Honing the programme

Many schools with innovative learning programmes boast high staff-turnover and poor staff wellbeing. Teachers are constantly burnt out by the creative of drain of creating new courses. Here we re-encounter our problematic binary – we might be creatively inspired but we’re exhausted. In what I call – the ‘everything new, all the time’ bias, teachers aren’t allowed to hone their practice, to build on previous courses and refine interesting and exciting learning programmes. Their encouraged to create new programmes yearly, with no regard for their personal wellbeing. If traditional schools are the masters of rolling the same programme year in year out, then progressive institutions are guilty of the opposite.

I’m guilty of this too. As an English teacher, every year I wanted to teach a new film. However, the best learning I saw from students was when I re-taught a text and gathered new insights and skills. I think all our learning programmes need a minimum 3-year cycle. One year to figure it out, one year to fine-tune and another to absolutely nail it. We need to start providing opportunities to enhance learning programmes that already exist and ask the question ‘is this fit for purpose?’ We shouldn’t be rolling out the same programme for different kids each year, but we should have adaptable programmes for the learners in front of us. Change for changes sake, is not transformative nor is it sustainable.

Asking questions

Creating learning programmes that are collaborative starts by asking questions. Starting from a place of questioning means we are more willing to embrace that knowledge is fluid, dynamic and not one-size-fits-all. It means that we are putting ourselves in the shoes of the learner. Author and lecturer, Brene Brown in her book Dare to Lead talks about to the need to shift from always knowing to always learning. A daring leader encourages people to ask questions and unlocks power within people as opposed to holding power over people. Repositioning ourselves as the learner not only brings people into the conversation, it has the flow-on effect of our programmes being more responsive to our students’ needs.

In order to realise the vision of this third way of collaborative learning design we need to be willing to have difficult conversations about what we deliver, not just how we deliver it. The question we need to be asking is ‘what are the non-negotiables in the courses we design.’ I think part of the problem is we often confuse collegiality and collaboration. When our conversations are about sharing activities, information and anecdotes as opposed to raising questions about learning goals and practices, we’re not really collaborating (Nelson et al, 2010). In order to have collaborative conversations about connections between the specifics of practice and what students know requires a conversational shift from sharing to inquiring together. We need to be engaging in wananga, not hui. Again, this takes time. Time to start asking difficult questions about what we are teaching and why.

We have the opportunity to transform learning experiences through this third way. A way that turns the binary of traditional and progressive on its head and asks, ‘how can we provide structure and support without compromising creative freedom?' If educational leaders begin to provide the time and space for teachers to ask tricky questions and collaboratively plan together, we might have a hope of creating a curriculum that engages both students and educators.

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