Cooperative Learning to Rid Teaching in Isolation

I read with great interest Weston’s Teaching Problems (And How to Solve Them) – The Paradigm Series and can certainly appreciate issues around teaching (and learning) in isolation being brought to the forefront. The basic argument is a problem-solution scenario based on distinguishing between teachers co-existing and teachers co-evolving as being a solution to issues related to isolating teaching practice. Teachers who co-exist assumes that teachers, “do their core work alone, all the time, never together” while teachers who co-evolve, “establish mutual goals, foster a common professional language, and develop a shared commitment to specific educational practices for doing core-work” (para. 8). But to better understand the problem, a more nuanced discussion is needed in terms of framing the problem sans suppositions and recognizing the value of cooperation above all else.

Teachers teaching in isolation is a problem many face that few would disagree with, but how to go about addressing this problem typically reduces down to the following: 1) administrative responsibilities toward change and 2) teacher responsibilities toward change. Here, I will focus mainly on the latter and assume a great deal of administrative responsibilities rely on understanding teacher evaluation from a formative assessment lens conducive for making change happen across the institution. Another reason for focusing on teachers as change agents over administrators is that making generalizations about schools or school administers as the problem (e.g., teacher isolation) seems to skirt the issue, thus sidetracking the fact that much of one’s own professional learning is within one’s control. Thus, the problem should be framed simply as teachers working in isolation are at a disadvantage when it comes to improving pedagogical practice that yields higher student achievement. Framing the problem this way refrains from presenting broad accusations that rarely are always true in all cases. And even if they were true, educators will more often than not have more control over their own professional development than leaving it up solely to school administrators.

Teachers have a responsibility in avoiding the complacency that is teaching and learning in isolation. Even classifying teachers as co-existing and co-evolving does little to shed light on how teachers seldom are ever stripped from having the power to seek professional learning opportunities as needed – think cultivating a personal learning network through elearning. To “exist” or to “evolve” has more to do with a personal choice than school confinement or mandate. Still, I cannot share the same enthusiasm in using words like co-existence and co-evolving in separating two philosophical mindsets that dichotomously put teacher isolation at one end and an apparent community of practice (CoP) at the other. In my mind all humans adapt and adopt based on their surroundings, for better or for worse; perhaps one could argue to co-exist is to adopt more than adapt and to co-evolve is to adapt more than adopt, but regardless, adapting and adopting does not automatically mean the individual is transforming into a better person (e.g., educator). For this reason, an alternative term is needed to clarify what it means to “co-exist” and “co-evolve”.

Taking responsibility of one’s teaching practice by cooperating with colleagues underpins how teacher isolation begins to dissipate. Cooperation typically happens when individual strengths (based on individual interests, needs, contexts, preferences, identities, etc.) are supported and promoted within an institution and through self-organizing networks that align with individual goals as well as the individual goals established by fellow colleagues. Cooperation contrasts the notion of collaboration where common domains, interests, goals, like-minded individuals, etc. come together via a CoP, striving for organizational goals that take precedence over individual goals. So, teachers who are able to self-organize with colleagues both internal and external to the institution are better positioned to cooperate if they begin making their teaching and learning more transparent and who are willing to work interdependently so that individual goals and objectives are met. Teacher isolation begins to dissipate when cooperative learning begins to meet individual goals and instructional leaders, supervisors, and other administrators learn how to leverage and align the meeting of these individual goals within the context of overarching organizational goals, objectives, and values. A big part of leveraging between organizational and individual goals depends on how teacher evaluations are formative in nature by the support teachers receive when taking risks in their own teaching practice and student learning.

Institutions have a commitment to adhering to a mission and vision statements, but the responsibility of the teacher is to self-organize and to become a network of interdependent individuals by cooperating with each other on topics related to the field of education. There is a synergistic effect when individuals (at any level within the organization) are able to align self-forming and cooperative action among a group of educators to an institutional mission statement in ways that are absent of any coercive behavior interfering with one’s pedagogical practice and own professional learning potential. It is beneficial when top-down support facilitates this process when individual goals take precedence, but even in an absence of such support, much can still happen directly from teacher cooperation that emerges bottom up.

Quoting Blanchard, “None of us is as smart as all of us” (as cited in Weston, 2016, para. 16). Perhaps this is true in certain circumstances, but it is also not a given in all cases. The limitations of developing only strong ties, cliques (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clique), and rationalizing are real phenomena that can go against an oversimplified notion that groups of individuals are somehow inherently smarter than the individual. It ignores the dynamic ways individuals communicate: collaboration vs. cooperation; strong vs. weak ties; groups vs. network formation; and leadership by rank, position, or title vs. leadership by entitlement.

Organizations that promote self-organizing, teacher cooperation through interdependent professional learning instances that ultimately align with overall mission and vision statements are better equipped to address issues of teacher isolation when it comes to both individual teaching practice and professional learning potential. Organizational change in this regard is both a bottom up and top down endeavor, but both do not necessary need to occur at the same time – one can have a positive impact on the other and one be precede the other (e.g., cooperative learning from self-organizing groups preceding top-down mandates).

How do you initiate change when it comes to addressing the problem of teacher isolation? Is it hopeless or can something be done? Should change be bottom up or top down? Or does one happen before the other or are they concurrent?