Educators around the world are making a special effort to connect with one another around resources and collaborative opportunities during October, Connected Educator Month. It’s a time to share ideas, remember that there are others that think alike and find the inspiration to continue to do the tough work of experimenting with teaching strategies that stretch both learners and educators.

A key theme this year is how to move from merely connecting with other educators into collaborations that push pedagogy and the education conversation forward. A panel of educators who’ve made this kind of connection and collaboration the center of their work discussed the challenges posed by the current American education system and helped present a dream for what truly collaborative learning could look like.

“When new technology comes out, our first efforts to use it are for what we already do,” said Connie Yowell, director of education for U.S. programs at the MacArthur Foundation. “So a lot of what we’ve done in traditional education is to put content up online.” Yowell argues that using technology to push the same kinds of content that have been used for decades isn’t actually innovative.

“It has to be about a shared interest and it has to be about making, producing and creating,” she said. “The places that we’ve seen it happen most effectively are places where it’s a shared purpose or interest amongst a group of peers.”

The dichotomy she describes is a lot like the conceptual move from merely connecting with other educators to collaborating on specific projects. The internet has greatly enhanced educators’ capacity to connect with one another, something that only used to happen during professional development or at conferences. But taking that ability to the next level, using it to innovate and produce something new, would mean collaborating beyond districts or even national boundaries.

“Our students have been often rendered as consumers of information, rather than collaborators and creators of information,” said Yong Zhao, director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education at University of Oregon. “We want students to create genuine, authentic products for each other.” In many ways Zhao’s vision of learning applies to educators as well as students. Through connection and collaboration teachers can start down a learning path that parallels the one they try to create for students.

“It is about how you as an adult help a learner create their own need to know so they are on a learning path with you, so they have a motivation that is connected to a shared interest,” said Yowell. She has seen this approach work well in schools that are constructed around “quests” or “missions” that students care about, often projects that affect their own communities. Within the framework of a quest, standards and knowledge can be thoughtfully embedded without disturbing the learner-driven pedagogy.

“It’s not learning a set of stuff that’s the curriculum,” said Marc Prensky, speaker, writer and education consultant. “We are going very quickly away from that. It’s learning a set of skills. And therefore the teacher becomes not the person who gives you information or helps you learn, rather they are more like a sports coach that helps you become.”

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One way Zhao envisions this type of collaborative learning is as a personalized learning ecosystem. Many college students already create a type of ecosystem by seeking out the most helpful professors, the best libraries, peer tutors and even social spaces. If K-12 education was envisioned in much the same way it could be more learner-directed with teachers acting as coaches and resources along the learning path. And for Zhao, it’s important to think of that ecosystem in a global context. Teachers and students from around the world can learn from one another, share lessons, best practices and even policy solutions.

But to move in the direction of a learning ecosystem, or Yowell’s definition of personalized learning, educators on the leading-edge of this work may need to redefine learning outcomes. Zhao cautions that if every new idea is justified using the requirements of an old system then it can never break free and realize its full potential.


Kecia Ray, executive director of learning technology for Metro Nashville Public Schools brought an in-district perspective to the discussion. According to her, teachers need two things to be convinced to take risks in the classroom: an understanding of how those risks will affect their evaluations and enough trust with students, parents and administrators to step out on a limb. She also said there are a lot of practical things like seat time requirements, textbook funding and other logistical policies that stand in the way of teachers experimenting with letting students become co-collaborators, creators and producers of new and authentic work.

“The collaboration is so significant for transformation that it cannot be underestimated,” Ray said. In her schools, if even a few educators can be convinced to take risks associated with blended learning or incorporating technology into their pedagogy, others follow. Collaboration helps educators feel that they are part of a movement, not alone and stuck. Supportive administrators are another key ingredient, remaining steadfast behind the teacher even when an experiment fails.

Many panelists acknowledged that the current U.S educational system has become so focused on standards, accountability and testing that there is very little room to use technology in the generative way that Yowell, Prensky and Zhao advocate. That’s why many of the education technology tools on the market place pander to the current, limited model.

“We have wonderfully inspired teachers and a whole set of tools and possibilities that we’ve never had before, but a bureaucratic system that’s preventing growth and opportunity,” Yowell said. She suggests trying out technology and its creative potential in more informal learning environments where the stakes for teachers aren’t as high. Once educators are more comfortable with students as creators and producer, they might have better success integrating those approaches into the classroom.

“We’re beginning to sense the need for an empowerment movement so that teachers can take charge of the learning environments that we’re talking about,” Prensky said. He believes this work will start from the ground up, growing in power until education policymakers can’t help but pay attention.

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  • David Loertscher

    For some
    years, students at San Jos State University have been experimenting with pairs of classroom teachers and teacher
    librarians using Web 2.0 technologies to build co-taught learning experiences.
    We find that two heads are truly better than one in the high level
    collaboration and that three levels of student behaveior begins to emerge. The first is personal expertise where each
    student brings to the table of a collaborative learning experience their best.
    The second level is cooperative group work where each member of the group
    brings a product or some other contribution to the table where it fits together
    with other products to build an accurate picture of a whole like a picture
    puzzle. The third moves beyond this to collaborative intelligence where students
    share their knowledge and skills in such a way that the outcome is larger than
    the sum of its parts so that new ideas, inventions, and creativity are the
    result. Part of the success has ben to reinvent the usual content management
    system into a collaborative space both physical and virtual using the various
    tools in the Google Apps for Education Suite that is free and safe. When more
    than one adult is “in the room” and opportunities open up across classes,
    schools, and cross country borders, the possibilities are endless.

    • CrankyFranky

      two heads are better than one – agreed – I suggested a couple of years ago that the most effective way of improving teachers’ skills was to have another teacher sit in the class – to the side or at the back – not interfering, just doing their own preparation/marking/whatever – but if a problem arose, they could quickly help out – and at the end of class, the two teachers could have a quick chat – that problem with that student, here’s how I usually handle that – can I suggest – a few words and both benefit from learning something – quickly and easily.

      it has now been picked up and recognised in my area with politicians acknowledging that as a desirable and cost-effective way to improve teaching

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  • Deborah Krulak

    I can, without a doubt, testify to the incredible impact collaboration has had on my teaching practice, and I would have to agree with Marc Prensky’s assertion that movement towards more networked learning environments will mostly likely be a result of a ground swell rather than a top-down initiative. I am a technology coordinator in an independent school, and over the years have been very lucky to have the support of my administration on many of our technology initiatives over the years. Stories I have heard in grad school classes have lead me to believe that my public school colleagues do not have the same degree of support when it comes to spending time on skills that cannot be directly assessed on high-stakes tests.

    Though I am not a digital native, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by a handful of early adopters who have encouraged me to develop and continue to build personal learning networks. My main networks of choice are a handful of educator/classroom blogs and Twitter feeds. By following the blog of a teacher in Canada, I was able to peer into her second grade classroom to learn how she uses technology tools like Skype to connect her students to wider audiences. Twitter is this teacher’s preferred method of direct contact. So after creating my own account, I discovered an international group of kindergarten teachers who connect via Twitter for a weekly chat to share lesson plans, topics of interest, and ideas for working with children of this age. One discussion actually led to an opportunity for a collaborative Kindergarten Cookbook project (http://goo.gl/s9FGh).

    While not every connection leads to collaboration, I know that my students’ classroom experience is much richer as a result of my interactions with members of my networks. And frankly, when I am trying to figure out how to reach a student, or find ways to differentiate when presenting a new concept, I am much more likely to turn to someone in my PLN, be they are across the state, country or world, than to seek out the advice of an administrator or hired-gun PD specialist. In this way, I think it is important to model collaboration for my students and for other teachers, who may be less on board with technology. Teachers, as well as students, benefit from the guidance and encouragement from their peers when presented with new ways to learn, share, and expand teaching methods and strategies.

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  • Leanne LInk

    A great place to start connecting with other educators is the CTQ Collaboratory, a free online community of teacher leaders: http://www.teachingquality.org.

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  • jellie

    Collaboration or community learning is the key. Especially, now that we are all so connected using technology even more so. I have found that students really struggle in learning how to work in groups and collaborate. They need more models to model. Why not create a physics lessons with the PE instructor in the gym, or Hispanic Heritage announcements with a collaboration between all courses? Aren’t you all tired about hearing about just Caesar Chavez? Why not allow all students in all subjects, math, science, social studies, art, etc to research and then come back with some new names of people to create the announcements. Maybe they even have their own family members that were a part of the Battle of San Jacinto or the Battle of the Bulge, or made a mark in their field? All of the studies say that when you engage students in their own learning they are more successful. So what are we all waiting for? Besides many hands make like work? Why have an English teacher assign a 500 word paper and a history teacher a PBA? When they could both collaborate on the assignment. One assignment but two grades.

    Think about how much more material you could teach if every teacher across the curriculum was supporting each other? How much more time you would have for those that need more one to one? Work smarter not harder.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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