The whole is greater…

Lauren Burns, Head of Psychology and School Consultant Teacher at Nottingham Girls’ High School, says more can be achieved when teachers work together

As a Psychology teacher, I teach the philosophical standpoint of holism; the view that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Consider how, in studying the brain, measuring the activity of individual neurones in response to a stimulus fails entirely to capture the emergent properties which arise when 100 billion neurones are working together in unison. The mind, personality, sense of humour, aspiration: none of these can be found to reside within any one distinct region of the brain, let alone an individual cell.

As CEO of Pixar in 1999, Steve Jobs recognised the significance of this philosophy in the workplace; demanding a new design which would break down the divisions between departments to foster staff interaction. The corporate world has followed suit, ditching traditional cubicles in favour of open plan offices with ping pong tables, coffee bars and hot desking in order to increase the frequency of serendipitous conversations between people which hold so much scope for awakening ideas that may otherwise lay dormant.

What about if we applied this sort of thinking to education? Currently, a traditional school building is not a space which fosters collaboration. As a teacher it is all too easy to become a small, isolated cog in a bigger machine; working alongside, but rarely actually seeing, fellow teachers in neighbouring classrooms.

Nottingham Girls’ High School had already started making great strides towards overcoming the barriers inherent in teaching by introducing innovations at a whole-school level. This began three years ago when our Senior Leadership Team encouraged me to introduce Lesson Study; a highly specified form of classroom action research originating from 19th century Japan. Lesson Study involves groups of teachers collaboratively planning, teaching, observing and analysing learning in ‘research lessons’; creating or refining a pedagogical approach to improve pupils’ learning which is then shared with colleagues. The majority of staff now voluntarily undertake a Lesson Study every year, with a key motivator being the social aspect. Lesson Study seems to break down the glass walls that often prevent deep engagement between teachers from different specialisms because the focus is on helping the students we have in common to learn more successfully in the collaboratively innovated lessons.

With the onset of Covid-19, lockdown and the closure of schools to most pupils has necessitated a huge leap forward in collaboration.  The separation between subjects now seems far less important, when there are no classrooms to contain us; nor is the division which sometimes exists between teachers of varying levels of expertise any longer apparent. We are all now novices when it comes to guided home learning. Or rather, we were; for every one of us has found ourselves riding an exponential learning curve. Through the virtues of technology designed for the corporate world, we have continued to foster a sense of being part of a learning community, despite being socially distant.  More than ever, being a part of the Girl’s Day School Trust has proved to be hugely beneficial; as the knowledge and expertise we are amassing within our schools has been able to flood the whole organisation to the benefit of every girl and teacher.

The principles we are exploring at NGHS are ones we have known about and used for years within the classroom; the power of collaborative learning between girls is harnessed as a matter of course. However, now that we are beginning to apply the same principles to our own professional learning, I feel that we are just scratching the surface of what it’s possible to achieve for, and with, our students.

Let’s hope one of the positive legacies of lockdown will be to have advanced this progression far beyond what it would otherwise have been, as we have developed a true understanding of how technology can make this happen.