In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson discusses the coffeehouse model of creativity and how “employees who primarily shared information with people in their own division had a harder time coming up with useful suggestions…when measured against employees who maintained active links to a more diverse group.” Johnson goes on to cite examples regarding how “many of history’s great innovators managed to build a cross-disciplinary coffeehouse environment within their own private work routines.”
Let’s take a look at how Johnson’s research can be applied to education by exploring five simple ways to diversify the types of people in any given committee or meeting:
- It is easy to fall into a rut of grade-level or department-level meetings becoming the only “official” ways for teachers to formally collaborate with one another. Balance these sessions with school-wide collaboration (not top-down, time consuming faculty meetings), vertical meetings in which a few adjacent grade-levels get together, or interdisciplinary teams in middle schools and high schools. In all of these instances, collaboration can cut across schools, possibly through the use of technology (Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.).
- A “technology person” and an “art person” should be in every significant meeting. While you can include those who hold these official positions, such as a technology integration coach and an art teacher, do not hesitate to call upon coworkers who might specialize in these areas regardless of having the official title. According to Thomas Guskey and Jane Bailey (2010), “Many schools and school districts use experienced graphic designers to gain advice and direction regarding format and layout options when developing their report cards” (p. 197). No matter what is being worked on, there is a solid chance that it can be enhanced through technology and/or art.
- Take advantage of the non-educators in your building, as we truly have to believe that a great idea can come from anyone and anywhere. On a daily basis we interact with custodians, lunch ladies, maintenance staff, etc. These workers are close enough to the action to generally understand the way children “work,” but at the same time their perspectives can be fresh and unique because they have yet to experience the classroom. As a fourth grade teacher, I frequently asked my night custodian to help me out with our project-based learning experiences. My students always enjoyed telling him that he was smarter than the teacher.
- Try to involve coworkers who may be interested in what you are working on, but may not show it through their day-to-day work. Uncover the interests of others through your daily interactions and rapport building. If you are an administrator, try something more formal like an interests survey through Google Forms or Survey Monkey. Maybe distribute the results of the survey to the teachers and allow for them to create their own groups based on what they find out about one another.
- Rather than grouping educators by interests, possibly try grouping them by their strengths. Start with Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 as a book study. As part of the study, participants will complete a survey in which they identify their own strengths. Teachers can leverage their personal results in order to become more self-aware, which is a quality of successful leaders. At the same time, the results of the survey can be called upon in order to more efficiently and effectively assign teachers to different committees or meetings.
Groups are often slapped together based on who responds to an email or who administrators think will get the job done. There is no fault in wanting to have our “A+ players” involved as much as possible. However, it is time we start to place a greater emphasis on the different ways in which we can get the right mix of people in the same room, laser focused on a specific topic, while operating under group norms that they created. In short, group dynamics trump individual abilities.
How have you seen schools or districts take a unique approach to grouping teachers for collaborative purposes?
Guskey, Thomas R., and Jane M. Bailey. Developing Standards-Based Report Cards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010.
Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead, 2010.
Rath, Tom. StrengthsFinder 2.0. New York, NY: Gallup, 2007.
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