One of the salient aspects of life is its ability to evolve – to adapt to changes in the environment, either genetically over many generations, or behaviorally in the existing one. COVID-19 has elicited such a change in human behavior, sparking survival instincts within individuals, families and communities, in turn impacting societal customs, such as school education, in ways not experienced in Australia since the last quarantining for polio in the early 1950s (Romensky, 2020). Whilst the impact has been significant, it may also give us an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of our classroom practice, and determine what positive changes might be made that can be retained going forward.
DuFour, DuFour and Eaker (2008) published lists of possible cultural shifts in professional learning communities and whilst at the time of writing we are yet to collect data on the impacts on student learning from this disruption, we can certainly look at how this change in direction impacted on the work of teachers at Clarkson Community High School in the final two weeks of term when classroom teaching time was significantly reduced, and instead transferred to preparing for a remote teaching paradigm for Term 2.
It is universally recognized that organizational change is challenging. Many people feel that change is threatening, and often go to great lengths to undermining change initiatives. Many change programs either fail, or don’t achieve the originally intended benefits, for this reason.
The main change in focus that DeFour, DeFour and Eaker (2008) foresaw for teachers was moving from 'isolation' to collaboration' (which is somewhat ironic given the main driver for the change being prepared for), suggesting that many teachers are unwilling to give up their classroom independence, and being protective of their own teaching practices.
Evidence witnessed from those last two weeks of term 1 at Clarkson certainly appeared to dispel this preconception. Despite what, from my own project management experience, I would describe as a reactive management approach to preparing for what is quite a fundamental change in teaching practice, it was highly evident that teachers, certainly in the applied science and technology department, naturally snapped into collaborative work patterns, rapidly becoming productive in their preparations for the new term, whilst simultaneously supporting many ad hoc requests from students (and parents) already trying to learn in a remote environment, as well as piloting, assessing and then documenting practice of the potential effectiveness or otherwise of technologies that might aid such remote teaching.
After two weeks of preparation, staff were, by and large, ready to start remote teaching for student cohorts with and without appropriate technology in Term 2. With limited direction: staff divided responsibilities; worked collaboratively with their co-workers to determine how and what would be taught; shared materials and ideas for re-engaging students who were already working remotely; considered how assessment strategies would have to be adapted; and gave and received feedback from colleagues in an open and honest manner.
This experience suggests that teachers are naturally collaborative given the right environment. The Hawthorne Studies, a series of experiments that studied worker productivity and morale conducted between 1924 and 1933 at the Hawthorne Works, a plant owned by the Western Electric Company, revealed the importance of worker attitude in increased productivity (Burke, 2018), with the key factors being: more freedom on the job; no boss; setting their own work pace; smaller group; the way they were treated.
Teachers in the public system have generally enjoyed a higher degree of autonomy than in many workplaces, though the lower level of supervision experienced means opportunities to learn from feedback are decreased. Interestingly in the new 'remote paradigm' staff quickly determined that 'co-teaching', whether having two staff creating explanatory (and entertaining!) videos to explain a Year 10 Maths concept, or recognizing the value of having multiple staff run online conference sessions with students covering a complete year group rather than individual classes, was not only easier, but far more manageable, than attempting to do that task independently. Staff quickly recognized that for remote teaching to be effective, trying to simply recreate the classroom environment in a home setting was not only impossible, but unrealistic, and entirely misses some of the opportunities that can be gained through the changed paradigm, namely, giving students more choice as to what tasks they should tackle in which order, and thus building new skills often not available in the somewhat regimented classroom setting where the timetable sets the agenda.
Indeed having taught both in class and remotely as a sessional university lecturer, I have been somewhat bemused by the push for academic Year 12 students to return to the classroom, given that almost all modern universities rely heavily on remote working for many of their courses. What better way for school students to prepare for working in a learning environment reliant on self-motivation, self-management and good organizational skills? Indeed would there be a better way for universities to pre-determine out who is most likely to be successful?
Our evidence somewhat debunks the oft-intimated notion that teachers desire for autonomy, to be masters of their own domain, prevents a move to a collaborative practice. So what is holding this back? I suspect the reason is far more mundane – it is lack of opportunity to work in this manner. And by lack of opportunity, I don’t mean that we are short of teaching issues that we could bring our collective approach to address, but we lack time where teachers can work together; either because DoTs, or duties, rarely overlap, or because the time required for lesson preparation, marking, reporting etc can be so overwhelming that the necessary bandwidth required for productive team working is rarely available. Having significant prior experience in team based working environments, I know that a lot of investment is required to discuss, share ideas, and solve problems, but also to bond and build the necessary trust that underpins productive teams. An hour’s meeting once a week or a training session twice a term isn't enough to build the new habits, or the mindset required. It is interesting to note that middle school teachers in Finland spend over 25% less classroom hours compared to those in Australia (Walker, 2015). How much of this additional time outside the classroom collaborating with colleagues might contributes to the academic outcomes of Finnish compared to Australian students? (OECD, 2018)
Without more direct evidence, determining whether improved academic outcomes could be achieved through increased capacity for teacher collaboration is entirely conjecture. However, if our experience is anything to go by, it certainly wouldn’t be due to a preference of teachers to work in isolation.
Burke, W.W. (2018). Organization Change: Theory and Practice. Fifth Edition. Sage Publications. Los Angeles, Ca.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving schools. Solution Tree Press. Bloomington, In.
OECD. (2018) PISA 2018 Results. Retrieved from: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA-results_ENGLISH.png
Romensky, L 4 Apr 2020 Polio survivors see in coronavirus era levels of fear not seen since poliomyelitis epidemics. ABC. Retrieved from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-04/levels-of-fear-with-coronavirus-not-seen-since-polio-epidemic/12115228
Walker, T. 4 Dec 2015. Global study: U.S. educators spend more hours teaching but wide pay gap remains. neaToday. Retrieved from: http://neatoday.org/2015/12/04/global-study-u-s-educators-spend-hours-teaching-wide-pay-gap-remains/
Steve Laing began his high school teaching career at Clarkson Community High School in 2018, and now teaches Maths, Science and career skills. He has worked in industry since the early 90s after completing a PhD in Microbiology, and in parallel taught as a sessional lecturer teaching employability skills from 2010-2019 at Edith Cowan University in the School of Business and Law. He has extensive skills in team-based working, problem solving, working in change environments, and in self-awareness development.