Education Talks: “Learning from the middle” and other ways to collaborate

Have you tried to share practices with another teacher or school? Then you will know it is no simple matter! Collaboration can be weak or strong, threatening or non-threatening; it can involve structures or protocols or “learning from the middle”. Hear all about it in this interview with Andy Hargreaves: speaker, author, adviser, researcher, and internationally renowned expert on the subject.

Why should we consider “learning from the middle”?

The more complex our problems are or our challenges and our goals in education – the more they involve things like global competences, or innovation, or creativity, or well-being, or senses of belonging – the harder it is to implement those straight from the top, and the more the people have to be involved in developing their own competence and their own understanding of how the practices they are developing fit their students over time. So the role of people in policy is to help people in the middle to work together. Schools can do this in a neighbourhood, they can do it across a country, they can do it across the world; we have worked with schools like this in networks. But the networks need a structure – they need support, they need expectations and a direction, and then they need the leadership that will enable people in the network to design it in such a way that suits their own teaching, their own students and their own circumstances. The people in the middle are connected to people at the top, but close to the practice. Their job is not to just be a bridge between the top and the bottom, but to really drive change, because they understand best what suits their students and the needs of the communities that they are located in.

Why is collaboration important?

More and more now, people are saying that one of the important solutions for how to create school improvement is collaboration. Collaboration is on average related to improving the student learning and achievement. Collaboration on average increases teacher motivation and teacher retention. And collaboration on average helps you implement change more effectively. However, there are some ways of collaborating that are more effective than others: some are weak, some are strong. And so, we need to think about moving towards those that have the greatest impact over time based on the examples we see – always choose more than one that you look at – and based on the evidence that is available to us.

How can practice be shared across school education systems?

It sounds fairly uncontroversial to say that teachers should share their practices. Who could possibly disagree with that? What could possibly go wrong? But there are many ways to share practices and some are more threatening than others. It is important to begin somewhere less threatening, rather than more threatening, until you have built up trust, relationships and to some extent solidarity or mutual support with each other. So at this point, it is usually more wise to begin by exchanging materials or engaging in planning around the curriculum or talking about your ideas before you begin to, say, observe each other's practice or comment on it or even teach together in the same classroom. So begin with a low-risk activity, and then as you build trust, move to higher-risk activities over time. Once you are in high-risk activities, then as well as a good relationship, you need protocols and structures that separate the criticism that might be being made of your practice, from the critic who is making it.

How can protocols improve collaboration?

So, for example, if you have planned a lesson together as a group of teachers and you all teach that lesson, and you have all practised it, when somebody comes and gives you feedback on that lesson, it is not a feedback on your teaching but it is a feedback on the lesson that you have created together. So we need protocols to make conversation respectful, even though it is direct and open – and protocols also to separate the criticism from who it is who is making the criticism.