We are physically distant now, the future of learning is collaborative

When school returns do we keep doing what we always have done?

Teachers in the individual spaces.

Learners even further apart.

A danger of physical distancing measures put in place is that it can also support a return to traditional desks and worksheets. 

When schools moved off campus, we forced to reimagine how learning might happen when we are physically distant. Those ‘soft’ skills and attitudes of self-management, time management, resilience, and reflection became critical to our learners’ success. The community and belonging that our graduating cohorts have told us, year after year, are central to shaping them into the person became critical to maintaining in a digital environment. 

Though the research is not out yet, I wonder if students in contexts where agency is honoured and learners have choices about their learning are better equipped to negotiate remote learning.

I also wondered what advantages are afforded to teachers who operate in innovative learning environments to navigate the challenge of distance learning.

At present, I  teach in a multi-teacher collaborative learning space. There are three teachers and a classroom assistant support 75 learners.

Our approaches to team teaching are highly fluid, often flitting from parallel teaching, station teaching, observing, cross-grouping based on the needs of our learners.

Physical Spaces in the Digital World

When designing our physical learning space, our team rejected teachers having designated classroom spaces. Instead, we co-constructed our physical learning spaces with our learners – cave spaces for individual work ‘collaborative’ office and library zones and a ‘mountain top’ for presenting.

When it became time to go digital with our learning, a few of our learners started referred to some of the digital spaces by their physical names. When it was time to gather as a group, we were at the mountaintop. When we gathered in small teams, that was the office. The read-aloud time we were in the library.

Has the noticing and naming of physical spaces helped our learners to develop an understanding of the abstract world of digital spaces?

A network of relationships

While our learners still have an official ‘homeroom’ teacher, team teaching has enabled our learners to develop relationships with peers and teachers across the year group.

This has several benefits for our learners, including avoiding the disruption of friendships when classes are ‘rebalanced’ at the end of the year. It also affords the 4 pairs (!) of twins in our group of 75 to collaborate with their siblings when they wish.

Likewise, through collective events held prior to off-campus learning, our parents have relationships with our entire teaching team. They get to know our faces through the year group Instagram. I am entirely comfortable with another member of the teaching team contacting and communicating with families just as I have done with children from the other classes. 

This network becomes critical when an unforeseen problem occurs, like a sickness or family crisis for a teacher or a learner that a teacher might need to take time to support.

When a problem like this occurs, other teachers from the team can quickly step in to adapt the learning programme to reflect changed group dynamics. This makes it easy for to induct a new team member the teaching of the team to the collective culture of our school to support a substitute teacher.

In short, rather than a sole teacher being responsible for the class, it’s a team effort to nurture all our learners.

Collective Teacher Efficacy

When it was time to move to off-campus learning, our team could leverage several factors.

Firstly, teachers can explore curriculum strengths and passions. One colleague has a passion for maths and digital breakouts, I love reading, a third is passionate about writing. All the learners in our year group enjoy this passion and expertise rather than just the kids in our class.

In a remote learning environment, teachers can be ‘live’ at different times to offer support across the year group. This afforded flexibility for children and their families to access live support during the day without burning out teachers. Children were accustomed to collaborating with peers outside of their classroom and being taught by teachers, not in their homeroom which enabled teachers to have different shifts’.

More options for specialized teaching in response to learner needs. Our children opt to join reading and inquiry groups based on interest. Instead of one teacher managing 3-4 inquiry interest groups, we could support 15 across our year level. Similarly, we can offer a wide variety of texts for our reading programme enabling a greater diversity of offerings for our children.

When we gather as a collective year group, it’s unusual that a sole teacher will run the session. Often it might be one teacher talking and the other capturing notes on the board. Our learners get to see adults interacting with each other modelling the collaboration we wish to see in our learners.

In an online space, even when we gather as a year group, we continue to model collaboration. One teacher might talk, another might annotate an exemplar while a third might monitor the chat feature. The chat feature has become a useful formative assessment tool that we will continue to make use of a backchannel for formative assessment when we return to school.

A robust digital learning ecosystem

A robust digital learning ecosystem is a key feature for our team to be able to manage our learning environment.

Our school is 1:1 iPad with a pencil and keyboard. This enables our learners to communicate across a wide variety of modalities – images, music, sound, typing, drawing, video and screencasting.  Our learners were familiar with the apps we used to create and share our learning before we moved into an off-campus setting.

A key strength of a prescribed device in an off-campus is that teachers can quickly manage any tech problems firstly through instructional videos but also guide learners through ‘share screen.’ Learners can also give support to each other because they are all using the same device. A high level of digital fluency enables our learners and teachers to focus less on learning to use technology and rather using technology to learn.

Managing workflow has been a key element to manage the large number of files our learners generate! We also need to share templates for learners to individually use – for instance a writing template. Our team used Showbieto observe individual levels of engagement and give feedback to individual learners on tasks. Learners can resubmit tasks based on this feedback creating powerful evidence of learning. img_1220-1 A screenshot of showbie with red circles for feedback.[/caption]

Any teacher in the year group can set tasks and give feedback to our learners. One teacher might give feedback on the entire year group’s reading while teachers responsible for a particular group might give feedback to learners from other tasks.

A feature our learners find useful is the ability for teachers to leave voice notes.

So far, I have received feedback and I like how teachers do voice comments because it feels like the teacher is next to me. – From student survey

For teachers, the ability to annotate is used both for feedback but also for an instructional scaffold. A teacher might conference with a child on their writing planning sheet on Showbie then broadcast the screen using google meet to the learner so they can see the notes being taken. The learner then can use the teacher’s notes through the split-screen feature as a scaffold to help them when it is time for them to begin the task.

A student using the iPad splitscreen feature. Showbie is a learning management tool on the left with teacher annotations on a planning document – google docs is on the right. The screen is being broadcast to a teacher MacBook.

Our Socratic reading circles continued to show the same level of engagement that we had in our physical spaces.

In shared digital spaces like these we were already using Google apps to share tasks through google meet. There were several affordances with google meet. Children use the share screen to present their learning tasks to others for discussion, which sometimes might take place in the text box. Either a teacher or learner can resolve a question that might have previously disrupted the flow of conversation.

Like in the physical space teachers have continued to observe interactions using equity maps, using the data to help the group identify a lack of engagement and develop solutions. For instance, learners quickly identified that addressing a person by name before asking a question is an important conversational cue to avoid interruptions during online conversations.

A graph of an online conversation observed by the teacher.



Rethinking Professional Learning

The best professional learning I’ve had in the last few years is through watching the other teachers in my team teach. As a non-expert maths teacher, I’ve learned so much from watching one of my colleagues with a passion for the subject. While my colleagues enjoy my digital expertise and the large number of children’s books I read. 

Because we are always watching each other, we’ll give feedback about actions we’ve seen other teachers do. Often these turn into a dialogue about the practice which might refine an idea for both the observer and the observed. These regular conversations enable the sharing good ideas – for example, sending positive individual updates to families during off-campus learning – the rest of the team can quickly adopt.

Travel restrictions, PL budget restrictions, and safety might mean we cannot gather in large groups for the foreseeable future. However, even when we can safely gather again in conference venues, team teaching affords opportunities for ideas to have a bigger impact for adapting ideas at PL in the classroom than just the person who went to the conference.

Personal Support

Even in a physical school, teaching in a ‘single cell’ classroom can be an incredibly isolating experience. It’s entirely possible for a teacher to rush through a busy day without talking to another adult.

In an online situation, this situation would be catastrophic for a teacher’s mental wellbeing if they lived alone. Just taking time at the beginning and end of the day to debrief is a lifeline. Once we get back to school, the need for collaboration for teachers will continue to navigate these stormy seas.

Two heads are bigger than one for navigating the two worlds

In a recent online webinar Kath Murdoch mentioned the idea that teachers will need to maintain two spaces – the physical classroom and the digital. As teaching has another level of complexity added, the need to harness the efficacy of working in high-performing teams becomes even more critical. Our physical and virtual worlds will mix and mingle. But what if instead of going back to the silos, we consider what changes the virtual world might make to the traditional physical spaces of school?

Context is king

As a final word, in sharing my experience I realize it is a product of the environment. My students and I enjoy fast internet access, most of the class in the same time zone, we are 1:1 devices, teachers enjoy a high level of autonomy and, most importantly, there is a highly supportive parent community. 


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