The collaborative approach to education

The concept of the collaborative classroom was, until recently, just a theory, says Simon Harbridge

By March this year, the education system in the UK had been set on a new course towards Academisation. Simon Harbridge, CEO at Stone Group, looks at what this might mean for the collaborative approach to schooling, both in and out of the classroom. 

What does collaborate mean? Like so many of our English words, it comes from two Latin words – col (meaning ‘together’) and laborare (meaning ‘to work’).  The concept of working together is an interesting one. Working together is not always true collaboration. Working alongside one another, round a table in a classroom, or at a single desk facing the teacher in rows, doesn’t instantly suggest collaboration. 

More than ever, we are seeing the education environments we work with strive to create situations for learning which mirror the world of work and prepare students for life after school or university. A recent customer visit to The University of Leeds’ Laidlaw Library was a great example – a 1500 student capacity learning environment which had more in common in terms of layout and purpose with a large corporate office than a traditional library. The collaborative ethos was at its heart – opportunity after opportunity, enabled by technology, for students to work together.

Under the new education strategy, whole schools, not just classrooms, will become collaborative environments

In primary and secondary education, the concept of the collaborative classroom was, until recently, a theory – an emerging trend being tested by the innovative few. However, this article is being written at an unprecedented moment in time. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has just announced plans to Academise all schools. The business and academic benefits of collaboration between schools and across groups of academies is at the centre of this government mandate. Collaboration is now unavoidable, and this comes with all the questions, concerns and hopes that naturally occur, from parents, teachers and pupils alike.

Under the new education strategy, whole schools, not just classrooms, will become collaborative environments. Best practice, technology services, curricular resources and pedagogical data will be shared, as is the financial responsibility for their delivery and upkeep. 

Technology supporting collaboration across the whole school system

The way children learn, who from, and what digital resources they use to learn with, is going to change. The hope is that good resources (such as a really successful teaching resource) will be shared between classrooms, or schools in the same multi-academy trust (MAT). The manner in which they are shared will change – cloud storage, accessible by all those connected with the school via a secure system, will hold that teaching resource and make it downloadable. Specific broadband networks, designed for each MAT, according to their needs, will deliver the potential for location-independent learning, freeing pupils from the classroom, giving them wifi access that is flexible and controlled. Multiple devices, whether it be through a one-on-one scheme, BYOD, or any other, mean that pupils and teachers can collaborate digitally as well as physically. The possibilities, underpinned by technology, are endless, and make collaboration in the classroom appear a natural and positive development.

Collaboration across MATs also has the potential to improve pupil safety and the continuity of their education and community care. Records can, and will be shared between primary and secondary schools, so that children can be educated and supported in more appropriate ways. The safety of their records, their digital footprints in school will be improved as a greater focus is put on digital safeguarding and data security.

Developing and sharing is key, and already happening

Of course, schools who are currently not academies are already using technology to the same collaborative effect. And who’s to say that, without this government strategic development, pockets of collaboration between classrooms, schools and even local authorities wouldn’t have become commonplace and produced some notable results in terms of improved curricular delivery, standardised testing results, and budgetary savings. Tibshelf School in Derbyshire, one of our customers using technology services to great effect to improve collaboration, has the ‘developing and sharing’ of quality teaching and marking strategies as one of the objectives in its current school improvement plan. 

Anecdotally, we asked for teacher feedback in preparation for what the collaborative classroom meant to them at the moment, and understanding was at quite a low level. Teachers share resources between them by email, download content from popular education portals and flag them to their colleagues, and discuss their successes in the classroom at staff or departmental meetings. But, in our experience at Stone, the collaborative classroom is happening, and the typical learning environment is changing at a good pace. I just don’t believe that it’s been labeled as such by the schools where it’s taking place. Sharing, improved communication, group working, but maybe not collaboration.

Does collaboration have its roots in education, after all?

So, how do we learn collaboration as children and young adults? Do we learn to work together at school, or do we learn to work alongside each other? Can the collaborative classroom concept help better prepare us for the world of work in this regard? Using technology as a platform over which to collaborate is an intrinsic life skill, from social apps like Snapchat to project management software such as Basecamp, it’s how we collaborate now. Putting such apps, tools and opportunities in the classroom would prepare students for the world of employment without the need to even learn their use or attain a standard – it’s natural collaboration, almost.

Responding to the comments on Mumsnet after education secretary Nicky Morgan’s guest article which set out the new Academies plan, a Department for Education spokesperson said, “We are determined to make sure every child has access to the best opportunities and to help them grow into well-rounded adults”.

I’d argue that well rounded students have been exposed to more than one learning environment, making the idea of location independent learning, facilitated by collaborative technology, so important. I’d also argue that well-rounded students have experienced working together (collaboration in the true dictionary definition sense) to achieve an aim, but have also been given the space and support to work alone, but side by side with fellow students. Technology that allows educators to work with their students in this way is enabling true collaboration. 

W: www.stonegroup.co.uk