Why we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation)

This blog post might end up with a nice title like “Why Collaboration is Key.” But really, it is about why as educators, we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation).

Imagine that you are a student and that the information on this infographic represents a student’s experience in school.



Some students will be able to transfer from one subject area to another on their own. For instance, a grade 7 student might be able to connect setting and character in Language and literature and then connect these concepts to geography and how geography shapes the thinking and behavior of people.

What are the chances of most students being able to transfer understanding without guidance?

We need to collaborate

Collaboration, and guaranteed time spent doing it, is key to a coherent experience for our students. A study of an impoverished school linked knowledge to teacher and student learning and found that the connection between collaboration and reflection and learning was missing.

The study focused on uncovering how teachers attained knowledge necessary to improve learning in their classrooms and throughout the whole school. The study used semi-structured individual interviews, classroom observations, and follow-up interviews to form a picture of teacher and classroom learning. The purposive participant sample in the study was chosen based on teacher’s individual traits, experiences in the teaching career, and a reputation as an effective teacher. As the investigator gathered data, he examined the narratives for themes that emerged and coded them for analysis. What he found teaches us about how teacher knowledge and practice is influenced by available opportunities for collegial discourse.

Teachers participating in the study classified professional knowledge into four types. Practical knowledge, or knowing the ‘what’ of teaching came in the form of teaching strategies. Pedagogical knowledge, or knowing how to teach, formed the basis of how teachers planned and carried out instruction. Curriculum knowledge consisted of currency with a field of expertise such as subject content knowledge. A fourth type of knowledge was relational knowledge, which was social in nature and addressed, for instance, how to deal with student behavior.

The teachers interviewed in the study found that they experimented with creative ways of delivering content, but received no feedback and so fell back to lecture as the preferred lesson method. Often as they used the lecture method, teachers used questioning, but the questions were found to resemble a script. Teachers asked questions about content, and students quoted facts and descriptions from texts. There was also a reported lack of classroom management knowledge since the only pedagogy teachers used was content transmission. Students were observed to be apathetic, showing no love for learning, and they also lacked self-management, often showing up late to class and not submitting work.

The study also found that there were no structures for sharing knowledge in the school. Teachers were isolated because no common space was provided to congregate and talk about teaching and learning. There existed a negative attitude towards discussion; one teacher admitted that discussion feels like debating and that colleagues did not accept others who wanted to discuss teaching issues. The timetable provided no collaborative time, and there were no other structures in place that would provide opportunities for discourse about teaching and learning.

In interpreting the study, the researcher pointed out that part of practical knowledge is reflective, consisting of knowledge of a teacher’s own efficacy and agency in their professional identity.

Schools impoverished of collaboration are impoverished of learning.

Without collaborative structures in place, teachers cannot be expected to construct understanding of practical, pedagogical, curricular, and relational knowledge apart from what they learn on their own through other sources such as textbooks about teaching. In this impoverished situation, teacher knowledge resides in a bubble, isolated and static. Pedagogy stagnates in this context since it is uninformed and unformed by any other tensions that would result from shared dialog and discussion.

How teachers structure teaching and learning often reflects constructive understanding of these events. In other words, teacher discourse is a source of learning, which in turn shapes how teachers teach and how their students learn. What we learn from the above case study is that schools impoverished of collaboration tend to lose focus on learning. The implication is that student achievement suffers.

From a personal standpoint, teacher isolation impacts teacher growth. More often than not, teachers tend to use curriculum materials that work in their classrooms. If an activity works one time or more, teachers file this away in their repertoire and are more likely to use the activity again. Over years of experience, the piles of activities grow into binders of ‘tried and tested’ activities. As student needs shift, or contextual circumstances shift, the binder of activities may not address learning needs. Rather than a repertoire of engaging activities, the teacher may find that what worked in the past is no longer working to engage students. In this century, when factual and topical knowledge is literally at a student’s fingertips and readily available to Google searches, what worked in the past may no longer be engaging to students. The isolated teacher, although experienced, may need professional revitalization to address current student learning needs. If the school is full of isolated teachers experiencing a dearth of collaborative professional learning, how might professional revitalization occur?

Removing teachers from isolation and providing them with opportunities for collaboration and reflection is not just a way to sustain professional learning. It is also a way to build a culture around inspiring practice.

Providing teachers opportunities, time and space for discourse is a way of putting collaboration into the structure of a school. As teachers transfer knowledge and understanding across groups, several things may happen.

One result of collaboration is better alignment across the board. Because people talk about curriculum, there are more chances to examine how it aligns, for instance. As teachers talk about aligning the taught curriculum, the written curriculum might begin to reflect this coherence. There may even be discussions about assessment and how this needs to be coherent.

Marzano (2006) has pointed out that a “coherent, viable and guaranteed curriculum” (p. 15) is necessary to improve student achievement. Discussions between teachers, which center the development of teaching around student learning is a start to guarantee a viable learning pathway for each student in a school.

But again, we cannot leave this phenomenon to chance. Just because we institute new staff rooms doesn’t mean that teachers will automatically engage in professional discussions that will transform practice and improve coherence in a school. Like all systematic processes, we have to develop ways to sustain the discourse and make it purposeful, impactful work.

As we end another school year, we might reflect on these essential questions:

  • How will we guarantee a coherent experience for our students?
  • How might we use collaboration to guarantee that coherence?




Marzano, R. (2006). What works in schools; Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo credit: Red arrows radom by via Wikimedia Commons.


Fractals by Aloha Lavina 2012

Finding patterns

Recently at an Adaptive Schools® Seminar, the cohort was invited to think about fractals, which represent the patterns of being and behaving that construct the organizational behaviors of a group.

These invisible fractals are the calculus of the architecture in and through which we build our relationships and collaboration in organizations. Fractals are repeating patterns, wherein the resulting geometry is composed of the repeating patterns of the original pattern, but in more pronounced complexity.

When we think of the invisible fractals forming the patterns of an organization, we might find that as these patterns are constructed:

  • We add things that we value
  • We multiply the things we believe and that we assume are good for ourselves and our organization

Our beliefs, values and assumptions are the woof and warp of the organizational identity we weave.

We always weigh our actions and decisions against the assumptions we hold about learning and relationships in which learning is undertaken.

We may not do this deliberately. We may not do this by design.

If we did cultivate a deliberate architecture for the relationships that hold up learning in our schools, we would see…

  • That we value relationships in how they support learning and meaning-making around learning.
  • That we continually seek to improve the ways we communicate – listen and speak both verbally and nonverbally – so that our communication respects and values all perspectives and allows a balanced participation within our community, not just of the extroverts and those who process by talking
  • That we presume positive intentions and seek to understand the contexts and personal learning trajectories of all individuals
  • That we are open to the examination of our assumptions, beliefs and values as they pertain to and impact the ways we learn and teach.

The analogy in schools’ work

Each iteration of the ways we communicate and treat one another becomes a part of the patterns of our community.

When we have a pattern of talking over each other, we begin to groove this unproductive way of communicating into the very expression of our organization. When we allow ourselves to hold meetings in which advocacy rather than inquiry is the default stance, we create a culture of debate, of winners and losers, of one-upmanship instead of creating a culture where all ideas are valued and there is a healthy, balanced cognitive discourse where ideas may be shared, tweaked, challenged, evolved, co-constructed.

Patterns of being are great teachers. Wellman (2013) suggests that “Patterns are the ultimate teacher.” When we are not mindful of the ways in which we create the invisible fractals of our organization, what might we be teaching those who are members of our organization?

When we have a pattern of talking over each other, we might be teaching any or all of these:

  • That only some ideas are valuable
  • That idea generation is competitive
  • That you, my colleague, have to try to beat me by talking over my talking, to be heard
  • That this is a place where the loudest person can triumph
  • Introverts need not apply

Imagine the new person who comes into this situation. How long before they begin to either withdraw from the conversations, or begin to compete for air time? How long before they experience frustration with this dynamic of communication? The answer might be: immediately.

What an exhausting and unproductive fractal. Repeat this pattern over and over, and the results might be a tangle of ideas and communication wherein few ideas reach shared understanding, few ideas evolve beyond the initial expression by whomever is loudest. There might have been other iterations of the ideas, more effective iterations, but these are already lost in the silence of those who are drowned by the loud. There might have been intended shared understanding, and perhaps there might be resulting coherent practices among the group, but this potential for coherence and consistency has not had the opportunities to emerge because members are busy competing to be heard, but the listening is missing. Perhaps one take-away we might have from this illustration is the importance of examining our intentions in the collaborative work we do, and choosing congruent behaviors to make that intention happen through the actions we choose. Perhaps to communicate well, we must seek to understand the fractals of our communication.

Why patterns are important

Although we have evolved to be social beings, we are not naturally able to get in a group and collaborate effectively without learning, without rehearsal, and without feedback. Just like all learning, we need design and planning, design and instruction, feedback from assessment.

If we are mindful that the architecture of our small meetings affect the overall patterns in our organization, we might find that deliberate study of the ways we talk and form relationships ultimately teach our community the ways we become.

And if we are the adults, what might we be teaching the children?



Key concept Change

“There is always a need for anyone that can do a simple job thoroughly.”

Charles Eames penned the statement above as part of his advice to students, and opens Maria Popova’s birthday post to the artist/designer. Eames, with his wife Ray, portrays interdisciplinary creativity in the ways he and Ray approached design. They made modern furniture, changed perceptions about design, made educational films and wrote about ways to change learning by integrating arts and the learning of arts with other disciplines. They advanced the idea that artistic creativity is not just about self-expression, but also about problem-solving.

Taking a page out of the Eames’ philosophy, let’s think for this moment that just as they redefined what creative design was, we might also expand our thinking about what it means to create.

Related concept Creativity

Creativity can be a lone process, inspired by mood, enacted as the exploration and expression of idea, driven by problem-solving.

But creativity can also be a collaborative process. The intersection of ideas in collaborative problem-solving creates a tension, a critical massaging of the ideas through different perspectives, so that what emerges is a new synthesis, new ideas.

A manifesto for creativity for those who believe in holistic, integrated and constructivist learning might be that “…creativity is a combinatorial force: it’s our ability to tap into our mental pool of resources — knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and all the fragments populating our minds — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new ideas.” This is Maria Popova’s manifesto on Brainpickings, and is perhaps an apt description of why we collaboratively plan and reflect in MYP, and why it is one of the ATL skills clusters important in nurturing the IB Learner as Communicator.

Anita Wooley’s research into effective collaborative groups highlights the collaborative intelligence that can arise in collaboration. The researcher points to the importance of “social sensitivity,” expressed in behaviors such as taking turns in conversations (Woolley et al., 2010). This intelligence is not a simple sum of the IQs of each person in the group, but an intelligence resulting from how the group works together (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2013). It’s organizational IQ, the ability of a group to combine cognitive surplus into creative problem solving (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2013).

Perhaps there are patterns to how effective teams function, suggested to us in lists like this article by Christian Jarrett. Collaboration is a multi-layered concept, visible in ways that might not be so visible through the senses, but seen through an observant and critical mind’s eye. Collaborative groups’ thinking can be seen through documentation of the dialog, through artifacts of thought distributed and evolving such as transcripts, meeting minutes, notes, correspondence, mindmaps among others. Like this blog.

Related concept Perspective

This blog has been a lone effort up to now. All it has up to now are the thoughts of one author. Sometimes readers comment, and there is a brief dialog. Once in a while, I receive a note from someone who has read the blog, and the dialog I have with that person sustains a conversation, a sort of space where we are thinking together.

Key concept Change

Lately I’ve been thinking of transformation. A long, reflective period that began with a cognitive shift in the IBAP Conference in Macau last March has nudged a sense of urgency for change. The engaging dialog I’ve had with many colleagues over the past months has convinced me that the dialog on ideas about learning to learn on the MYP Toolbox should not hide in the intermittent emails or conversations on Skype. We can bring the dialog to life, by changing the environment in which it occurs. So to change this Toolbox as an environment for learning, we have increased the number of voices on this blog.

Instead of just one voice, there will be a team that will bring you a wider set of perspectives here on the MYP Toolbox. We come together to grow and make visible the dialog on learning how to learn, and we hope you will join the conversation.

Would you like to contribute to the MYP Toolbox? Send me a message on aloha [dot] lavina70 [at] gmail [dot] com.


International Baccalaureate Organization. (2014). MYP: From Principles into Practice. Geneva: Author.

Jarrett, C. 9 Facts every creative needs to know about collaborative teams. 99u. Retrieved from on June 17, 2015.

Popova, M. Happy birthday, Charles Eames: The iconic designer on creativity, the value of the arts in education, and his advice to students. Brainpickings. Retrieved from on June 18, 2015.

Popova, M. “Sincerity, honesty, conviction, affection, imagination, and humor” : A profile of Charles Eames, 1946. Brainpicking. Retrieved from on June 17, 2015.

Powell, W., & Kusuma Powell, O. (2013). The OIQ factor: Raising your school’s organizational intelligence; How schools can become cognitively, socially, and emotionally smart. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt.

Wooley, A., & Chabris, C. F., & Pentland, A., & Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. Science (29 October 2010), 330(6004), 688-688. DOI:10.1126/science.1193147

Image used:

Lavina, A. Sunrise, December 26, 2014.