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.


Engaging conceptual dialog through lesson design

A student’s reflection recently illustrated how performance of understanding can emerge as a conceptual dialog between teacher and student.

In this Arts inquiry, the Key concept is creativity and the Related concepts are expression, boundaries, narratives. The unit’s Global context is Identities and relationships, framing the learning around building expressive skills for performance, requiring the actor to discover his center, his essence and thus supporting a better understanding of self. In studies of drama performance, the ensemble requires that the actor ‘give up’ their identity to the ‘group’ when working together. The fostering of relationships in the ensemble is of paramount importance. The lesson focus was to introduce the concept of neutrality through use of the neutral mask (see Jacques Lecoq, The Moving Body, Routledge, NY, 2001), with the objectives to develop expressive skills for performance, increase awareness of how actors use their bodies and gesture not just voice, to communicate (Whitaker, personal communication, November 20, 2014).

White neutral mask. Found on

White neutral mask. Found on

The specific inquiry in the series of lessons using the neutrality mask was to investigate the tools of the actor preparing for performance (voice, body, mind, imagination). The student, Gavin Liu writes, “Putting on the neutral mask puts the actor in a state of “neutrality” when acting. A neutral mask is a mask that everyone wears to hide emotions on the face, and it requires the actor to use their body to convey the emotions. In the past classes, we have been wearing these neutral masks and practicing conveying emotions with the boundaries of not being able to express our emotions through our faces but through body movement.”

The teacher intended for the neutral mask to be ” the start of a journey. It produces a physical sensation of calm. The neutral mask opens up the actor to the space around them, creates a state of discovery” (Whitaker, personal communication, November 20, 2014). Dialog in the class revolved around the intention to form conceptualizations of creativityneutrality, boundaries, and expression.

The students used two exercises with the neutral mask. Gavin describes one of the exercises, “Farewell to the boat.” “Farewell to the Boat” allowed us to express our emotions using only our body, without any narrations to the audience of how we felt when a friend leaves on the boat. Personally I found it really challenging because I speak a lot at school and having that boundary really challenged me to explore what I might express with my body. It used more creativity because we have to act like being water using the neutral mask. It adds more challenge to the activity and there is no right or wrong answer because anyone can interpret water differently, making it very creative (Gavin Liu, reflection).

The teacher reflects, “When students shared responses, what emerged was a sense of freshness, of new beginnings. The mask creates balance, calm and economy of movement, which the teacher will use as a point of reference for later work with expressive (Commedia) masks” (Whitaker, personal communication, November 20, 2014).

The depth at which the student experiences conceptual understanding emerges in the reflective dialog with the teacher. In Gavin’s reflection, he writes, “The reason we are doing these activities is that it is essential not to only rely on your facial expression to show emotions, sometimes you have to rely on your body to show those emotions when your face can’t. Therefore, having a neutral mask can explore creative aspects of our body because we are forced by these boundaries to think creatively more than usual.”

Gavin has achieved concept attainment in the few lessons at the onset of the unit, underpinning the importance of discovery through learning engagements designed to engage students in internal and interpersonal dialog and active inquiry into the concepts.

The depth of Gavin’s understanding emerges in this dialog. He writes, “This has helped me realize that sometimes there are things in life where there are boundaries that we can’t change. We have to work with what we have and try to convey the same intention we wanted to convey without the boundary. This helps me focus on what is most important, which is to convince the audience without saying a word and be creative about how to convince them into believing what you really believe.”

A valuable lesson suggested here is the student’s opportunity for metacognition and transfer, which were facilitated by the conceptual design of the lesson.


Thanks to Gavin Liu, Concordian MYP 4,  for permission to use his reflection in this blog post and to Clynt Whitaker for permission to study his lesson design!