Friday, March 2, 2012

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” - Helen Keller

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”
Helen Keller

In the past, teaching has been an isolating profession. We have closed our doors and worked independently to plan, instruct and assess, often re-inventing the wheel in our classroom while another teacher is going through the exact same process somwhere else.
This might seem a bit inefficient to outsiders looking in on the educational system.
"Why not work smarter, not harder?" some may wonder.
Lack of available time to meet with other professionals has been one of the main reasons teachers have worked alone for so long. It's not like one can set a 2:00 appointment with a colleague when there are 24 Grade 7 students eagerly awaiting the next Science lesson ...

But curriculum renewal in Saskatchewan has, perhaps, sparked a change in how we work with others in this profession. Out of necessity (aka survival) more and more teachers are helping each other, if not collaboratively, then cooperatively, by sharing lessons, assessments, and ideas.
While the spirit of collaboration in education may have recently seen an upswing, there are challenges when working with a group of adults to achieve a common outcome. And there is not doubt that working with others on any project is more time-consuming, and involves a different set of skills than independent work. Knowing this, I carried a tiny slice of hesitancy in my back pocket as I enrolled in ETAD 874, Advanced Instructional Design from the University of Saskatchewan.

This course requires that adult students work together to tackle an instructional design problem and subsequently create an instructional product for a real-world client. Authentic learning at its finest! And a chance to to apply my learning about instructional design in a real-world setting!

But this excitement was tempered with a niggling worry that this was going to be a slug of a course (just trying to be honest here, folks!). 

You see, I am a Type A personality – a Bert, if you will. And while I recognize and value the importance of Ernies, I wasn’t sure how I would handle it if someone in the group was too Ernie-ish…

To kick start the project, our group of four met one Saturday afternoon at the College of Education to develop a plan. We were fortunate that each group member was close enough to Saskatoon to have this chance to meet face-to-face as much of the ETAD program takes place within an online learning environment.

Over coffee, conversation flowed easily as we shared stories about our graduate experiences, our work, our lives. Was the instant rapport a result of the face-to-face interaction? Was it a result of the right mix of personalities? Or was it due to the fact that our sole male group member was so accommodating to the three females?

I'm not really sure.

But whatever the reason, I knew immediately that this group project experience was going to be positive. I was eager to get started and excited to be working with others on this project. 

 And by the end of our meeting, had completed a number of important tasks:
1.    Creating a  Timeline
We began by developing a timeline that served as our guide throughout the process. Working around individual schedules, including our client’s, we created a list of tasks we felt necessary to complete at each stage. Although we had little idea of the actual work that would be involved during each stage, we did have the big picture in mind throughout. We allowed for some flexibility and set our team’s due date ahead of the course requirements in case of unforeseen circumstances. This was extremely valuable in allowing us to complete the final product on time.  
2.    Communication
We set up some regular meeting times for our group in addition to our class meetings on Monday. We decided to use Skype and Google Docs for our group’s online communication. Working around four schedules would be difficult at times, so we agreed to keep a consistent meeting time each week, emailing notes if someone had to be absent.

Later, as our project progressed, we set an action plan for the week at each meeting, breaking up larger tasks into manageable pieces. When needed, we teamed up to work on the same task, but more often the smaller jobs were completed individually. Being that we were so distant from each other, this model worked well.  
3.    Tackling the Blueprint
Once the delivery model was determined, each person volunteered for different parts of the project according to his/her ability and/or comfort level. I volunteered to work on the print package because I was eager to learn something new, namely designing print materials. As a former classroom teacher, I have designed many print materials, but I wanted to explore this through an instructional design lens.

Working Collaboratively
Our team reflected a diverse background and individually, we brought something valuable to the project. But it was in the strength of the team where I personally experienced an “aha” moment.

From the beginning of the project, I knew that I possessed the necessary skills to handle any one of the tasks of this project independently. Throughout the project, I realized that the team approach resulted in a much better product that I would have created on my own. This was abundantly apparent during our online conversations where we would "idea bounce" before coming to an agreement about our next step. Being part of this team was exhilarating!  

Together, we were better!
But building strong relationships in an online environment doesn’t just happen automatically. There are certain steps that can be taken to help make the group more effective. And while our members did not seek out ways to make our group productive, many of our actions contributed to our success as a team.

During our second face-to-face meeting, we talked openly about the risks and benefits of group work. Our honest discussions helped build a sense of trust that is necessary for groups to work effectively with each other. Collaboratively, we made decisions. The outcome may have been quite different if our group members did not have equal input into decision-making or did not feel individual opinions were important.    
The experience of 874 was especially rewarding. Working collaboratively on a real-world project and having a chance to put theory into practice was such a highlight of my graduate program. This authentic learning experience resulted in friendships that have extended beyond the classroom.

Best of all, we created a resource for the Learning Disabilities of Saskatchewan that has proven to be useful for new employees.

This was a win! win! experience ~


  1. Great piece Bert. I agree that it is vitally important to work and share with one another. I am pleased to hear that 874 has created positive and lasting memories for you.


  2. Done in true Jade fashion, a Bert-like efficiency and thoroughness that has been a joy to experience (being a little Bert-ish myself). Thanks for sharing your insights and reflections from this learning experience. Glad I could coach this team (although, "self-directed" was the culture I was most excited to see unfold). Congrats on completing. You'll be missed as a class member for all the great things you brought to the table.