Teamwork by Design - ASCD
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July 1, 2019

Teamwork by Design

For a design thinking-based school in California, educator collaboration is at the very foundation of learning.

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Anyone in a corporate recruiting department or in the trade industry will tell you: An essential skill needed for today's working world is the ability to collaborate with co-workers. At Design39Campus—a public K–8th grade school with 1,100 students in the Poway Unified School District in San Diego—staff members not only strive to create learning experiences where students have opportunities to become good collaborators, we live collaboration every day ourselves. It's part of our culture.

Design39Campus was intentionally designed by a select group of educators (five teachers and one principal) as a place where learning could take place in more flexible, learner-centered ways. The school opened in 2014 with a goal to "change the way we experience learning."

One fundamental shift the school made was to redefine the role of the classroom teacher (whom we call learning experience designers, or LEDs). A goal of redefining this role was to create a culture of collaboration among teachers, to move from thinking about "my students" and "my class" (what we sometimes call an "ego-system") to an "eco-system," where all the school's educators work collaboratively for all of its students. From the start, we redesigned structures for school scheduling, teacher responsibilities, and other areas to give teachers time to work together every school day and to codevelop empowering learning experiences across classrooms.

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A teacher and parent at Design39Campus use the design-thinking process to plan a project.

A Tale of Two Teams

One morning I joined our 4th–5th grade team's daily hour of collaboration time to pitch an idea for a new project—a collaboration with a school in Australia related to the use of drones to support efforts to prevent and fight California wildfires and Australian bushfires. Each of these teachers has a homeroom group of students, but they collaborate to plan integrated learning experiences for all our 4th and 5th graders. They regroup and "share" students, with the makeup of student groupings and which teacher(s) are helping each group depending on learning needs, kids' interests, and other factors. The learning experiences they create encompass literacy, science, social studies, math, and students' interests and learning choices; teachers connect each experience to an essential question. Collaboration time is used to plan both larger, big-picture integration strategies connected to essential questions and related smaller pieces such as an individual lesson.

On the morning I arrived, eight teachers sat around the table in their design studio, a space for adult learners to design learning experiences for students. Around the room were whiteboards and planning templates that the group regularly uses to capture members' thinking as they go through the process of developing essential questions, integrating curriculum, creating opportunities for real-word applications of learning, and developing student agency.

What followed was almost like magic. The teachers began expanding on my suggestion to bring it to life for their students. One teacher searched online for articles to establish the purpose—the why—for the learning experience. Two others began looking at Common Core and Next Generation Science standards to find connections to the activities and lessons they were already building and ways to integrate science and language arts. One teacher, Stacey, started thinking about resources we have in our community (including people) that could support this experience, while Katie speculated on how teachers might connect this idea to students' interests. The educators worked like musicians in an orchestra, each person elevating the work of the others as they shared thoughts and ideas.

This was just one collaborative session at Design39Campus. Within this one hour, the educators in the room turned a small idea into the beginnings of a deep, integrated learning experience that would not only create opportunities for amazing learning, but potentially impact students' world. The teachers on this team feel valued, trusted, and empowered to do their best work to benefit all their students.

The same day, in another design studio, a group of 2nd and 3rd grade teachers collaborated on their upcoming Shark Tank experience, where student groups would pitch their business plans to investors to get funding to create companies. The teachers discussed how student groups were doing with writing their pitches and offered suggestions on how best to support students that were having challenges. One teacher shared how she used a mentor text from Warby Parker, an eyeglass company skilled in storytelling, to model the kind of writing students needed to do, thus keeping the learning student-centered rather than teaching the specific writing skills without meaningful context. The team began building on this suggestion together for their own lessons.

Consider what happened here. Not only did both teams generate ideas for creating integrated learning experiences and supporting all their students, but multiple team members contributed to the discussion. They built one another's capacity. Teacher collaboration like this doesn't just happen. It doesn't happen at Design39 simply because we have incredibly passionate teachers. Collaboration was an intentional part of the school's design and is supported by structural and systematic changes we made when creating Design39Campus.

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Two teachers plan integrated learning experiences in morning collaboration time.

Doing School Differently

The Design39Campus began in 2013 with a small group of educators interested in creating a new learning environment using the design thinking process. With the help of our community—including parents, students, local businesses, and community members—we spent time empathizing with stakeholders in education, researching, and looking deeper to define the actual problem we were trying to solve and the causes of that problem. From our research and listening to one another, we found that the current traditional model of schooling wasn't giving learners the skills and dispositions to make an impact in our world today, let alone the world of their future—a serious problem. We determined that the traditional structures and way we "do school" needed to be completely redesigned, along with the perception and expectations of what "success" means today. From there we continued to have our community help us form ideas, prototype, and test solutions that might work within this new school.

Our design team also considered our own beliefs about collaboration and student learning. We realized we shared the following beliefs:

  • By working together, we can achieve and create more than by working alone.

  • Each person has "super powers," skills, and passions that they bring to a team. It's important to value having different perspectives and cognitive diversity within a team, so team members can push their thinking and continue to grow as professionals and as people.

  • It's important for us to make sure all students have access to our teachers' different "super powers," to eliminate the typical system of only kids in a certain teacher's class getting the opportunity to benefit from that teacher's gifts.

In essence, we believe the future is the place we create—and to do all of this, people have to work together.

Once we identified our beliefs and our desire to create a culture of collaboration that fostered student-led learning, we had to break through the systems and ways of doing things that are standard in most K–12 schools. One major shift was to try to eliminate "batching" of students by age and the siloing of subject areas. Our grade levels are grouped into three spans: Kindergarten through 3rd grade, 4th and 5th grade, and 6th through 8th grade. Teachers in the spans work together to design learning experiences and "share" students: Sometimes students work in their homeroom and at other times, a group from different homerooms (or just one student) will work with other teachers to learn in line with their particular interests, choices, or areas of need. Students work in flexible groupings that may last several weeks depending on the purpose and students' needs. LEDs work with students to ensure they know when to switch to a different experience.

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2nd and 3rd grade teachers collaborate on their Maker 39 entrepreneurial learning experience.

Building Teamwork into Our Day

Another shift had to do with time use. If we believed it was essential for teachers to be collaborating, we needed to create the time for this to happen. Without the ability to pay teachers for longer days or the personnel to "cover" students while their assigned teacher is meeting with his or her team, we had to creatively structure our teachers' workdays. In our district, teachers' contractional day began 30 minutes before school and ended 30 minutes after school. We realized that by putting the two half-hours together, we could carve out one hour of collaboration time every morning before students arrived at school.

This daily time has been essential in helping teachers design powerful, meaningful learning experiences. In our third year, things like IEP meetings, student drop-off supervision, and other meetings began to creep in and take away from this important before-school collaboration time. But because we see this time as an essential driver in the work we're doing, we figured out ways to ensure it remained uninterrupted. The payoff has been richer student learning.

Visitors to our school tell us one of the first things they notice is the nontraditional design of our spaces. But after they've toured the school a bit, the novelty of that design fades and—as they converse with young and adult learners—what they notice is our culture of learning. Visitors often comment that everyone on campus views themselves as learners; they notice how articulate and excited our students are as they share what they are doing (and why) and reflect on their process for learning.

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A teacher takes down ideas to support students writing "pitches" to investors for a SharkTank-type project.

Changing the Teacher's Role

To use this built-in collaboration time most effectively, we had to make another important shift—in the roles for our teachers. This included a change in terminology. If you want to change the way you think, you need to change the way you speak. The word teacher typically brings a specific image to people's minds, but the role of a teacher today is shifting. No longer is the focus of good teaching mainly on delivering content. Rather, a good modern teacher is a designer of experiences. Teachers today aren't expected to be experts in everything; they're more often part of dynamic teams that combine their experiences, skills, and passions to help elevate all students' learning.

Teachers at Design39 facilitate learning in a variety of ways, including teaching mini-lessons, supporting students with finding resources for learning experiences and projects, assessing students' learning and skills—so they can be responsive to their students' learning needs—and making connections to experts in different fields. For example, a teacher might bring in entrepreneurs to speak with students about branding and marketing for their student businesses. We've found the simple change of calling teachers learning experience designers has made an impact in teachers seeing themselves as professionals and has contributed to modifying how they work.

Often, we expect teachers to create environments that promote student collaboration, yet the environment teachers experience is the opposite of collaborative (think of workshops where a presenter talks about the importance of learning in engaging ways, all the while lecturing, modeling unengaging methods). We decided that if we wanted our students to work in a collaborative environment, then all staff members—from teachers to our administrative team—needed to work collaboratively. So, for example, in our Welcome Center, traditionally known as the school's office, our administrators (whom we call design facilitators) work in an open space along with our administrative staff. This administrative team undertakes many tasks together—anything from student enrollment to traffic concerns. Adults in the school can better relate to students' challenges in working on teams because they, too, are working through the challenges of collaborating effectively.

Learning to Collaborate

Collaboration is difficult. It's not as easy as gathering teachers into a group to work together. Often in schools, collaboration becomes a time to discuss business, share activities, or make copies for each other. This reminds me of young children's parallel play.

So how do you take a team beyond this stage to actually co-designing learning experiences for kids? You have to design structures and develop skills for teamwork in all learners, and these skills and structures need to be revisited frequently. We've learned that each time a new member joins a team, the team dynamics change, so teams need to re-examine their norms and how they work together often. We've also found that each of our teacher teams works differently, and each is at a different stage in their development of collaboration skills. Teams in the early stages tend to use most of their time discussing business items or sharing what they're doing. More skilled teams use the time to focus on deeper student learning and designing learning experiences.

We have found that the most effective teams have these elements:

  • A common purpose.

  • Trust among team members.

  • Good communication.

  • A comfortable sense, for each team member, of their strengths, areas of growth, and what they bring to the team.

  • Ways to manage a conflict and a tendency to assume others have a positive intent.

  • Ways to have fun together.

We often forget that collaboration is a skill adults need to learn and practice. One way we develop these skills at Design39Campus is by training all our staff in Adaptive Schools Strategies by Thinking Collaborative, an organization that provides resources that teach collaboration skills. This training gives educators the skills and strategies to listen, understand, and communicate effectively within groups.

Taking It to the Next Level

Once you have structures in place that shift the role of the teachers while equipping them with skills for working together, teachers can collaborate at a higher level. They can begin not only designing meaningful, integrated learning experiences, but also supporting each other's growth in meeting the needs of their learners. Teachers can then work more on supporting student agency and can tackle additional issues, such as creating learning competencies.

At Design39Campus, we understand that each child is on his or her own learning journey. We want our students to be able to progress and work at the level of learning that's right for each of them, regardless of their grade level. So over the last five years, our teachers have begun to focus on developing specific learning competencies.

We look at learning competencies as having three parts: knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Developing these competencies in students across levels has led to increased conversation and collaboration between our grade spans, much of which takes place during morning collaboration time. We're discussing things like, How can we best assess students and have them show proof of mastery? Should we assess students' skills and dispositions? How can we—teachers and students—best communicate growth to parents?

Constantly Learning

Since its opening, our school has been continually learning and changing. Students and parents regularly give us feedback and help us redesign different parts of our system. Parents frequently share how their children love going to school. They notice the depth of student learning and are asking us to create a similar high school experience (which we're looking into). Being a public school, we still need to participate in state testing. According to these traditional measurements of success, our students perform at or above our district schools—without any of the traditional test prep focus and practice.

We'll continue to use the design thinking process as the school evolves. We by no means have figured everything out about how we want to change the learning experience of those on our campus. It's hard work changing the way we do learning in a public K–8 school, but it is the right work. And the only way we can continue this work is by working together.

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