The Need for Collaboration

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My school’s Student Commons (or cafeteria), during third period.


When is the last time you worked on a project from start to finish entirely on your own? It’s rare, isn’t it? In some capacity you collaborate with colleagues, professionals in a related field, or with customers who shape your vision. The physical design of most high schools and the curriculum, unfortunately, is organized in a way that encourages individual work, both for the professional development of teachers and for the education of students.

Many high schools are arranged by department; Social Studies, English, Science, World Language, Mathematics all in separate areas of the building. One might argue this is so like-minded colleagues can offer common assessments and share teaching strategies. This could be true if the high school schedule was not further divided into separate periods where one would be lucky to share a period with a similar teacher. Also, demands placed on teachers ultimately means any non-teaching time in school is pre-established for looking at student data, monitoring hallways, contacting parents, grading assessments or preparing daily lessons. A traditional high school offers little time for collaboration. With a little creativity, we can begin to break the mold.

Let’s start with the easiest solutions. Rather than sequestering oneself in a teacher workroom during prep time, open yourself to sitting at a desk in the hallway, in the library, or in the cafeteria. If you make yourself visible, you will find others will sit next to you and chat. Is this always productive? No, but the first step to collaboration is opening yourself to new people and new ideas. You will need to change your physical behaviors for this to happen. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he noted that Jobs built his Apple headquarters with centralized common space. Restrooms were only in this common space, and people were forced to mix. With the physical mixing of individuals, new relationships were formed and new ideas sparked. The first way to increase collaboration in high schools is through opening up to common space.

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Our Knowledge Commons (or library) at any given time of the day.
Next, convince your administration to allow talking in the library. Convince them to use the cafeteria during off periods for group work. Get chairs and tables for lobby areas so students can work. Open these physical spaces, limit the rules, monitor the space of course, but open it up. Once these spaces are used, teachers should work there too. This mixing of ideas, between teachers and students, will increase collaboration on projects.

One last idea with physical space—and this one is much more difficult—encourage the administration to let you teach in another wing of the building. Some subjects will find this easier than others, but the more you mix teachers in a building, the more you will share teaching ideas with those outside your discipline. You will collaborate more.

After you open the physical space in a building, open your doors. Search for interested community members to teach a lesson, give a guest-lecture, speak in a native language, or assist in a lab experiment. Many community members want to help, and collaboration outside the building is crucial. Connect with interested educators and community members via social networking. Bring their ideas into your school. Skype with your classes. Travel to visit their school, if funds permit. By connecting with individuals outside my school, I have been able to arrange a New York Times bestselling author for a future visit. We frequently have many interested businesspersons in our building too. These connections are crucial for collaboration.

Once you establish these connections and you mix with others in the building, share your ideas on how to improve your teaching. Build group projects that cross curriculum. Invite experts from the professional field to assist in authentic learning in the classroom. Require your students to communicate digitally with a classroom in another state or country on a project. Students need the ability to build these relationships and work on projects in this way. The global society they will graduate into demands it.

As teachers, we must model effective collaboration and idea-sharing before our students can perform. Students need this skill to succeed in the modern workforce. It is only with collaboration and cross-discipline ideas that one can hope to innovate and perfect education for his or her students. Unfortunately such collaboration is starkly missing from most high schools.

Unless we, as individual teachers, attempt to make the changes, we will continue teaching in a model built in the early 1900s, and our students will suffer for it.

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