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Establishing a Culture of Collaborative Learning

September 24, 2015 / by Kristin Gray

Tch Laureate Team

This is the first in Kristin Gray's Getting Better Together series, Establishing A Culture of Collaborative Learning. Kristin and all the Teaching Channel Laureates are going public with their practice and seeking support in getting better from colleagues and the Tch community. See the entire series.

I'm an extremely curious person. I find so many things within teaching wonderfully interesting and thought-provoking, that I view my job as much about being a learner as I do about being a teacher.

While I value all the things I still want to learn more about, learning as a teacher takes time and can be messy. I have stacks of professional books I cannot make a dent in because I add books quicker than I read them, I have wonders I still can't answer, questions that lead me to even more questions, and, sometimes, I uncover content I never truly learned as a student.

Among all of this learning messiness, however, is the comforting feeling that I am not on this journey alone. I have an incredible network of educators that help me learn and get better every single day.

New Things to Learn

This year, I'm moving out of the classroom and into a math specialist position. I'll be coaching teachers and overseeing our school's Response To Intervention program, and I'm finding that I have many different questions and many new things to learn. At the top of my curiosity list, as a coach, is thinking deeply about how I can establish trusting, collaborative relationships with and among teachers, while also fostering a safe culture of learning that allows for experimentation, risk and innovation within our school.

I've been talking with Elham Kazemi about the work the University of Washington's Mathematics Education Project has been doing with Math Labs and Teacher Time Outs -- essentially, a learning cycle in which teachers plan a lesson, teach it, then observe together and debrief to refine the lesson. As a result, I'm learning more every day about structures that truly put teacher trust and collaboration at the forefront.

Being new to all this, there's a laundry list of things I'd love to get better at within my work. I would love to understand the content better at each grade level; I would love to get to know each one of the teachers better; and I would love to get to know each of the students and hear how they think about math. This list could go on and on, but I know that none of these things can genuinely happen without first establishing a culture wherein we're all safe and comfortable with one another. With that in mind, I'll work this year on creating learning spaces for us as adult learners, as well as spaces for our student learners that encourage conversations, questions, and answers so all of us can get better together.

Looking for Guidance and Feedback

This year, as part of my Getting Better Together work, I've decided to focus on experimenting as a coach with the implementation of Math Labs and Teacher Time Outs, which will both require a culture of collaboration among my colleagues and, I hope, reinforce that notion. Along the way -- here in this blog, at my own blog, and in other online spaces -- I'll be documenting my experiences and looking for guidance and feedback so I can improve my coaching practice. I'll be counting on help from the colleagues I'll be working with face to face, as well as the wider network of teachers I communicate with, including you, the Tch community.

As the first step in this year-long journey, Erin, our reading specialist, and I knew we needed to hear how our teachers view learning themselves. So during our beginning-of-the-year professional development, Erin and I involved our staff in a Talking Points activity.

During the activity, the facilitator of each group read a statement and each member took turns saying whether they agree, disagree, or were unsure about the statement. Participants were not allowed to question one another or comment while others were talking. They just had to listen. After engaging in four Talking Points, I saved this fifth one for last:

"We learn better together."

Walking around the room and listening to the teachers talk, I heard a myriad of responses.

Some teachers agreed because they believe we need to talk with one another about ideas on how best to learn. Some disagreed because they learn better alone, when it's quiet and there's time to process and reflect. And there were a handful of teachers who were unsure due to a combination of all these reasons.

It was a lovely conversation and interesting to think about the varying ways in which we learn. It was great to see that even during the activity itself, teachers were learning. They were learning how their colleagues view learning, while also thinking deeply about what they see as most important within their own learning process. Meanwhile, Erin and I spent our time observing how this activity worked -- or didn't -- towards establishing and fostering a culture of learning among our colleagues.

Afterward, we asked the teachers how using an activity like this with their students might affect class culture. The teachers said the activity would allow students to:

  • Create norms for listening
  • Practice the art of taking turns
  • Develop and support facts or opinions
  • Agree and disagree respectfully
  • Learn from their peers
  • Feel accountable within a group

I mentioned to them how extremely powerful it is to think about all these ideas in terms of the learning we do, and how important culture is in truly getting better together.

By beginning our year together with this Talking Points activity, we hoped that teachers would see the value we placed on everyone's contribution. We wanted teachers to recognize their own needs as learners, but also see each other as important resources for ideas, and as colleagues who are willing to brainstorm together and act as critical friends. We wanted to establish a culture where teachers see the value of each contribution, where every voice is invited and heard, and where we can begin to think about how we can all get better together.

As for my own learning, I know this year will be challenging and full of wonders and investigations. I'm excited to learn more with - and from - teachers both inside and outside of my building, including you, the Tch community.

Topics: Coaching, Math

Kristin Gray

Written by Kristin Gray

Kristin Gray, a National Board Certified, 21-year veteran teacher of grades 5-8, is currently the Director of K-5 Curriculum and Professional Learning at Illustrative Mathematics (IM). She has served as a writer for the IM 6-8 math curriculum and as a Teaching Channel Laureate. Kristin has developed and facilitated mathematics professional learning at district, state, and national levels and presents annually at the NCSM and NCTM conferences. To reflect on her experiences, she blogs and connects with educators on Twitter, @MathMinds. Kristin has a B.S. in Elementary Education with a concentration in mathematics from the University of Delaware, a M.Ed. in applied technology in education from Wilmington University, and is the 2014 Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

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