Posted on 20 April, 2016 by Richard Grazier

The unnecessary predicament of teachers who work in isolation

Dan Lortie, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Chicago, described ‘teacher isolation’ as “one of the main structural impediments to improved instruction and student learning” in his classic 1975 book, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. The phrase ’teacher isolation’  has long been used to explain the tough working conditions of educational professionals, in which each teacher is required to develop their own planning, teaching resources, and examination preparation techniques, alone.

Although so many aspects of teaching and learning have changed over the past few decades, ‘teacher isolation’ is still a prominent concern. A recent study by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that teachers in America spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues – and less with peers in other establishments, who are creating similar resources for their own use.

In countries such as Finland and Japan, where students regularly top international tests (such as PISA and TIMMS), collaboration among teachers is seen as an essential aspect of instructional improvement. In America, teacher isolation is not due to teachers resisting collaboration – nearly 90 percent of US teachers believe that providing time to collaborate with colleagues is crucial to retaining good teachers. Isolation occurs when teachers struggle to overcome geographical, time and budget constraints, which prevent them from collaborating.

There are subject matter experts (SMEs) – individuals with specialist knowledge, experience, or skills in a specific area who are in a role long enough for the topic to become ‘second nature’ – in academic and professional industries globally, who are extremely valuable resources for teachers. But teachers regularly struggle to access, or collaborate with, these experts. It would be an inefficient use of time for SMEs to spend much of each day on the road travelling to schools to impart their knowledge or advice. But schools don’t have sufficient funding to be able to invest in hiring SMEs in full time or part time capacities.  So how can teachers better access these experts?

Accessing the right technology, used in conjunction with well-developed strategies and conditions can provide a solution that facilitates these necessary learning partnerships: student-to-student, teacher-to-teacher, and student-to-teacher. Direct access to SMEs who may also have first-hand experience of working in the industry empowers the learning process and offers students relevant knowledge for the world of work. The use of technology to create opportunities for teachers to collaborate, in their schools, with subject matter experts in other schools, offices or homes around the world, allows the same number of experts to now build many more positive learning partnerships with teachers than is possible by using traditional face-to-face methods of collaboration. There just are not enough resources, both human and financial, to bring these experts to every school.

Teachers also benefit from technology by being able to share with their peers the mediated content they have developed, and vice versa, and a number of institutions globally now use Professional Learning Networks (PLN) as a way of bringing teacher knowledge to a centralised area. In its basic form, a PLN is an online platform that facilitates communication, as well as access to a suite of proven structured content, tools, collaborative forums, encouragement and inspiration.

A PLN is an aid for lifelong learning, and can become the individual’s own cloud-based laboratory where they connect with others who have similar passions, interests and subject focus, and acquire knowledge and learning moments at a time and a pace to suit them and their personal situation. PLN’s are also useful for tracking and meeting individual learning goals, as well as research and professional development needs.

Through the smart use of technology, physical time and space are no longer limiting factors; self-paced, reflective learning can occur at anytime, anywhere, simply by connecting to the internet. The main challenge then, as with many new learning initiatives, begins with changing people’s mind-sets.

The benefit of PLNs goes way beyond teacher experience: the heartbeat of any learning process is the learners themselves and, once a school is comfortable using technology with a well balanced mix of cloud-based SMEs and great on-the-ground teachers and support, students can use a similar platform for peer tutoring and collaboration, and knowledge acquisition, again without the boundaries of time and geography. Students can develop their own learning timetables.

Individuals create their own learning moments each and every day, visiting YouTube for example and watching simple ‘how to’ videos, which tell them how to complete tasks they are unsure of. In today’s society students are digital natives and are so frequently online that educators must meet society’s technological expectations in order to keep pace with the latest styles of learning.

Bringing together cloud-based subject matter experts with teachers on the ground combines both key elements of learning: knowledge and inspiration. It also teaches both the subject, and the student, with equal focus, creating the optimum teaching environment.

The reality is that teachers who still work in isolation are doing so unnecessarily. There is a choice and maybe now it is they, or their institutions, who are unwilling to take advantage of the collaborative tools and the new way of learning which is available.

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