Working collaboratively in the classroom

There is a great deal of discussion about classroom management and how relationships should operate between the teacher and the students in the classroom. In Dorothy Heathcote’s view the classroom should be a ‘laboratory for learning’ where the students and the teacher work together on tasks that are important and urgent in the ‘now’ of the imaginary world. I find this an interesting challenge. While acknowledging that power can never be authentically equal between children and adults in a school environment, I believe we can go a long way towards making our classrooms more collaborative.

The following is an extract from ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert’.

At heart, Mantle of the Expert requires a genuine commitment on the part of the teacher to work collaboratively with the students. It is not enough just to pretend we are working together, the collaboration needs to be honest and real. We need to sincerely believe that children have something significant to offer – their ideas, knowledge, and skills – and we need to treat them respectfully as resourceful people, with a successful past, and a commitment to a hopeful future, not only in the imaginary world of the context, but also in the real world of the classroom. These beliefs are integral to the approach and imbue every part of a Mantle of the Expert teacher’s practice.

You might find, as I did, that the process of integrating them is far from smooth and you have to let go of some long cherished teaching techniques you have come to rely on; in particular certain methods for controlling a class and the use of extrinsic rewards.

Some teachers find this a disconcerting, even painful, experience. I can remember feeling disempowered for a while, uncertain about what to do, or say, next for fear of getting it wrong. This is not a happy feeling for a teacher in charge of a class full of young people and hardly conducive to a stress-free life. But don’t worry, it didn’t last for long and, if you’re anything like me, it was a necessary phase in understanding how the approach works. Be assured, although Mantle of the Expert might mean you have to ‘tweak’ the way you speak, question, and interact with your students, it doesn’t mean disempowering yourself or losing your authority as a teacher. Instead, what’s needed is a reframing of the way we see childhood and our working relationships with children.

Our current system requires schools to focus intently on how quickly their students develop as learners and monitoring this progress by way of regular tests and complicated data systems. This has resulted in a tendency to view childhood as a phase, rather than as something complete and worthwhile in-itself. You can see this in the language we use, such as ‘learning journeys’, ‘progress’, and ‘maturity’.

For Dorothy Heathcote, this view of childhood comes at a high price: “[We have created] an education system that requires children over many years to be content with an absence of status, to feel useless, to exist is a limbo of learning which relies solely on the de-functioning maxim that ‘one day, you’ll be good enough to really do it’ but never today.” [p.126]

This, she said, has turned classrooms into waiting-rooms where activities can seem like nothing more than practicing for a far distant future. For many students this makes little sense (until they approach the age when they start sitting exams) and strips much of what they do in school of meaning and purpose.

Mantle of the Expert turns this de-functioning maxim around by making the children’s learning meaningful and purposeful in the immediate present of the imaginary context. In the collaborative process of building the context and in the creation of the resources, materials, and texts demanded by the commission, the teacher draws on and incorporates the children’s contributions, making their ideas, knowledge, and skills immediately useful and important.

Of course, not every contribution the children make will be useful and relevant, and it is the teacher’s job to steer and shape the work as it progresses, keeping in mind the needs of the students and the requirements of the curriculum.

Like all teaching, Mantle of the Expert requires leadership, organisation, and forward-thinking. And without these qualities the work could quickly lose focus and momentum.

It’s all a matter of balance, and while the classroom community need to understand it is a place of learning that operates under certain restrictions – set by the state, the school, and the curriculum – this doesn’t mean the teacher has to make all the decisions.

Collaborative leadership requires the teacher to share the decision-making process as much as possible, while remembering her professional duty to support, guide, and, if necessary, provide control, for her students, as and when they need it. This involves discussion, debate, sharing ideas, and encouraging active and constructive participation from everyone within the community.

Collaborative Leadership Involves:

  • Honesty — Displaying sincerity, integrity, candour, and reciprocity.
  • Reasonableness — Basing actions on reason, justice, and moral principles.
  • Open-mindedness — Being prepared to listen and consider other points of view – including ones you may disagree with.
  • Respectfulness — Having regard for the feelings, wishes, and rights of others.
  • Being a Role-model — Displaying fairness, even-mindedness, resilience, and other qualities.
  • Exhibiting Authority — Taking charge when necessary – acting even-handedly, decisively, and honestly.
  • Openness — Being prepared to discuss and explain decision-making, limits on freedoms, and mistakes.
  • Being Critical — Being prepared to discuss and evaluate ideas honestly, reasonably, and fairly; and accepting critical feedback and contributions.
  • Having a Vision — Setting goals and being forward-thinking: creating a shared vision within the community.

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