From Artisan Teachers to Learning Teams

Teaching has been an artisan profession for generations. Individual teachers, working for the most part behind closed doors and in isolation from their colleagues, develop and refine a rich array of personal skills and resources to meet their students’ needs. With decades of experience they become accomplished educators. But far too often their professional practice remains a personal practice. Because the job description for artisan teachers was written in the 19th century, educators’ ability to share what they know about how children learn is hampered by yesterday’s silos. In traditional “egg crate” schools, teachers have limited opportunities to collaborate with colleagues or coach novice teachers who need sustained support to get a strong start.

Today we recognize that preparing every child for college, careers, and life in a global innovation economy is a demanding challenge that goes far beyond the capacity and resources of even the best artisans working alone. Schools don’t become great places to learn until good teachers join forces to develop a learning culture more powerful than even the best of them can create alone.

With the recognition that effective teaching is a collaborative enterprise, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are becoming increasingly common. These communities are comparable to Artisan Guilds in that they have a long track record of setting higher standards, developing new skills, creating better tools, sharing best practices, and mentoring apprentices into the profession. Although such communities encourage teachers to collaborate, their primary goal is to improve the practice of artisan individuals who then return to stand-alone teaching.

Education’s next evolution is the formation of Learning Teams of teachers, comparable to the high-performance teams operating in other sectors of our economy. Corporations are achieving dramatic productivity gains by leveraging agile teams that effectively solve complex problems, develop cutting-edge innovations, and create revolutionary technologies. Today’s students will join a world where they are engaged in constant collaboration and high standards for developing new knowledge and creating solutions to complex problems. But by and large they are still sitting in factory era classrooms. To succeed in a global innovation economy, students must learn more, do more, and create as participants  in high-performing learning organizations.

In today’s world, learning is no longer preparation for a job—it is the job. And teamwork is the way to get the job done. What does this mean for teachers? First, as learners themselves, teachers should be constantly learning, modeling for students the continuous job-embedded professional development of knowledge and skills that is at the heart of all high-performing teams. Effective Learning Teams establish well-defined goals for student learning outcomes and a well-defined game plan for collectively meeting those goals, with differentiated responsibilities for team members based on knowledge, skills, and experience—all while holding themselves mutually accountable.

Learning Teams guide their work with authentic assessments that provide feedback on teaching effectiveness—assessments valued not because they are linked to high-stakes consequences but because they are essential tools to improve student learning. This culture of continuous improvement requires protected time to reflect on performance and stable settings for refining teamwork. Successful Learning Teams are supported by strong school leaders who balance appropriate pressure for performance with a climate of openness and trust that empowers educators to make professional decisions about student learning needs.

Tom Freidman has suggested that “We might be able to stimulate our way back to stability, but we can only invent our way back to prosperity. We need everyone at every level to get smarter.” A century before him, John Dewey observed that if we teach today like we taught yesterday, we will rob our children of tomorrow. Getting smarter in schools means teachers teaming up for deeper student learning.

Learning Teams enable students to become curious, thoughtful learners as they work with teams of teachers to develop the 21st century skills they need to truly prepare for college, careers, and life. Students thrive because their teachers are continuously developing deeper content mastery and more effective instructional strategies that they collectively create and execute with accomplished colleagues.

It is time to team up for 21st century teaching and learning. Learn more by following the work of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

The Literacy in Learning Exchange is another place to learn more. NCLE’s Framework for Capacity Building and its related Asset Inventory provide tools for self-assessing and strengthening the effectiveness of a learning team’s collaborative learning practices and structures. Myriad resources are available to support the learning of your team, including these: