Teachers Working Together

June 4, 2012
Robert Klassen and Tracy Durksen

Why Collaboration Really Matters

Teaching may be commonly viewed as an individual act, but given the growing complexity and diversity of school communities, there is a growing consensus that we must move toward teaching as a shared practice. The image of teachers gathered around a table working enthusiastically to address teaching and learning issues is appealing for many teachers, but day-to-day teaching can present a different picture. The current reality of school structures means that much of a teacher’s work is done in isolation; teachers often plan their teaching or face student problems individually, with few resources and little time available to work together.

Collaboration is essential in almost all professions—and teaching is no exception—but experience and research tell us that collaboration by itself is no sure formula for success. The benefits of teacher collaboration are multiplied by building collective motivation: the more we see that working together is effective, the more we are motivated to work together. Key to this sense of efficacy is teachers seeing a positive influence on their students’ learning. In this respect, the degree to which teachers develop and nurture their collective motivation is a critical factor influencing the future of education in Alberta.

Our research at the Alberta Consortium for Motivation and Emotion at the University of Alberta (http://albertacentre4me.wordpress.com/) focuses on factors that motivate teachers and teaching in schools in Alberta and around the world. We are currently paying particular attention to how teachers’ collective motivation evolves across the career span and across international settings. Our research program has revealed findings with fundamental implications for the professional lives of Alberta teachers and for the educational outcomes of students. In this article, we look at emerging findings from current research that highlights the importance of collective motivation and explores how professional learning opportunities build teachers’ collective motivation.

Legendary social psychologist Albert Bandura (1997, 477), a Stanford University professor since 1953 (and a product of Alberta schools), points out that “equipping people with a firm belief that they can produce valued effects by their collective action and providing them with the means to do so are key ingredients in an enablement process.” From a psychological perspective, motivation drives behaviour at an individual level, resulting in increased effort, persistence and resilience. But motivation also drives how groups operate: the strength of any educational system lies in building teachers’ individual motivation and in growing teachers’ collective motivation.

Teachers’ Collective Efficacy Makes a Difference for Students

Teachers’ collective efficacy refers to a motivation belief consisting of confidence in collective capabilities to influence student learning at the school, district and provincial levels. At the school level, a teacher’s confidence in her school’s collective capability to positively manage student behaviour influences her day-to-day relationships with students in her classroom. Teachers who believe that their school district is capable of responding effectively to a changing student population are more likely to feel confident that their own teaching can make a difference to a wide range of students. At the provincial level, teachers’ confidence in their province’s educational policies influences their belief that they can educate students to international standards. A strong sense of collective efficacy lowers the impact of teaching-related stress (Klassen 2010) and fosters student achievement and a positive academic climate, even in low socioeconomic settings (Klassen et al. 2008).

Collective Efficacy in Alberta Schools

Our research shows that collective efficacy plays an increasingly important role in effective teaching across diverse settings. We conducted a series of international research studies examining teachers’ self- and collective efficacy beliefs in Alberta and a variety of high-performing international settings, including South Korea and Singapore. Some researchers suggest that collective motivation is less important in Western contexts, but our findings show that collective efficacy is critical for all teachers, regardless of cultural context. In fact, we found that collective efficacy was higher for Alberta teachers than for South Korean teachers, and just as predictive of positive outcomes (Klassen, Usher and Bong 2010).

A comparison between teachers in Alberta and Singapore again revealed higher collective efficacy beliefs for Alberta teachers, and also showed that collective efficacy was a stronger predictor of positive educational outcomes than individual efficacy in both settings (Klassen et al. 2008). Our international research shows that teachers’ collective efficacy is a critical factor influencing teachers’ engagement and well-being in a wide variety of cultural and social contexts. For teachers in Alberta, building a sense of collective efficacy positively influences the academic climate of schools, the quality of interaction between teachers and students, and the academic engagement of students.

By many comparative measures, Alberta’s teachers have had impressive success in educating students to a high standard, but rapid technological and social changes present increasing challenges for the future. Alberta’s educational success derives from effective teachers working individually, but also from teachers’ collective belief in their capability to teach effectively, even in difficult circumstances. As we look to the future, we worry that teachers’ beliefs about their collective efficacy are vulnerable to economic and social pressures that threaten opportunities for collaboration. Since teachers can be invigorated through sharing the best possible models of educational practice, our education system will benefit from our providing opportunities for high-quality collaboration and professional development.

New Findings on Teachers’ Professional Learning and Collective Efficacy

Our recent conversations with Alberta teachers uncovered occasional feelings of isolation, coupled with a strong desire for high-quality collaboration: “I would like to share my professional knowledge with my colleagues … if I had time” was a common refrain. Although teachers may feel professionally autonomous working on their own, effective collaboration builds a sense of collective motivation, breaks the isolation of the classroom, stimulates enthusiasm, and produces significant social and psychological benefits for teachers and students. Teachers’ collective belief in the capabilities of their school, school district and provincial education systems is built on past success, interactive dynamics of their learning communities, perceptions of the health of their profession and, especially, sharing and observing successful practices. These sources of collective efficacy revitalize and motivate successful teaching behaviours.

One of our newest projects, sponsored by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, Alberta Education and six other education stakeholders, investigates how teachers’ professional learning opportunities influence individual and collective efficacy and how professional learning might evolve in the future. Working with veteran University of Alberta researchers Jim Parsons and Larry Beauchamp, we are collecting survey and interview data over two years from five representative school districts around the province to better understand how professional learning opportunities foster teacher efficacy.

Early results show how teacher efficacy influences student learning. Feedback received through interacting, observing and sharing successful practices with colleagues is emerging as a key factor driving collective efficacy to improve student outcomes. Results also show that the various forms of professional learning differentially influence student learning. Personalized learning opportunities shape teachers’ capacity to influence student learning through adapting instruction to students’ diverse needs, motivating students who show low interest and linking instruction to curriculum learning outcomes. Curricular initiatives such as the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) were noted as the top influence on teachers’ confidence in using a variety of assessments for and of learning. In contrast, other-initiated and short-term activities were reported to have a relatively low impact on fostering teacher efficacy and student learning. These preliminary results provide clues as to how professional learning activities might be shaped to influence teachers’ individual and collective efficacy beliefs. Our study is continuing, and further results will be available as we gather data.

Looking to the Future: Building Collective Motivation

Looking to the future, we envision an even stronger emphasis on building a culture of collaboration. For Alberta’s education system to continue to thrive, the best evidence points to the critical importance of building teachers’ collective efficacy beliefs through opportunities for meaningful collaboration. Bandura (1997) emphasizes the importance of providing the necessary means to equip people with the belief that they can collectively produce important outcomes. Darling-Hammond, Wei and Andree’s (2010) study of high-achieving countries recommends at least 10 hours per week for teachers’ collaborative work. We concur; once the stage is set for collaborative opportunities, teachers can direct the best use for this time, be it ongoing professional learning, collective planning, or opportunities to observe and experience innovative practices in a colleague’s class.

As we look to the future, we urge teachers and policy-makers to work together to develop the space and time for systematic and effective professional collaboration, with embedded professional development time structured into the school day. Doing so will build individual and collective motivation—and improve educational outcomes—in all of Alberta’s schools.

References

Bandura, A. 1997. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.

Darling-Hammond, L., R. C. Wei and A. Andree. 2010. How High-Achieving Countries Develop Great Teachers. Research brief. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Also available at http://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/how-high-achieving-countries-develop-great-teachers.pdf (accessed April 16, 2012).

Klassen, R. M. 2010. “Teachers’ Stress: The Mediating Role of Collective Efficacy Beliefs.” Journal of Educational Research 103: 342–50.

Klassen, R. M., W. H. Chong, V. S. Huan, I. Wong, A. Kates and W. Hannok. 2008. “Motivation Beliefs of Secondary School Teachers in Canada and Singapore: A Mixed Methods Study.Teaching and Teacher Education 24: 1919–34.

Klassen, R. M., E. L. Usher and M. Bong. 2010. “Teachers’ Collective Efficacy, Job Satisfaction, and Job Stress in Cross-Cultural Context.” Journal of Experimental Education 78: 464–86.

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Robert Klassen is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta. Tracy Durksen is a PhD student in educational psychology, U of A.