Teaching Team Behaviors Earlier…Much Earlier

by Peter B. Grazier
Originally Published in EI Network December 1, 1996

Did you ever wonder why adults seem to struggle when assigned to a new workplace team of some kind? As organizations increase their use of teams, the “new”skills and behaviors required seem to challenge everyone.

Why do we have so much difficulty in the workplace with something that we did so naturally on the playground?

Our Prior Conditioning
Those of us in the workplace today have been reared in a system that associates teamwork with “play” and individual accomplishment with the “real world” of work. almost all of our schooling rewarded individual work, in fact, collaborating with other students was usually considered “cheating.”

Most of us then entered the workplace and found yet another individual achievement system, so that the combination of our school life and work life have left most of us ill-equipped to really appreciate and understand the intricacies of team behaviors and collaboration.

But what if these team behaviors could be learned and reinforced earlier in life–say, in our primary schools? Would these children then move into the world of work as adults with their team and collaborative skills already in place? It makes sense–and as a result, there is a movement in a number of U.S. schools to do just that.

Recently I visited our Charles F. Patton Middle School here in Chadds Ford to talk with the school’s principal, Bruce Vosburgh. For the last 4 years, the middle school has boldly moved forward with a leading-edge teaching concept that equips our young people for the challenges that will face them in the new millennium.

Of particular interest to me was their heavy emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, and practical problem-solving skills–characteristics highly valued in today’s workplace.

“Team” Teaching
At the Patton School, 812 students in grades 6-8 are broken down into smaller groups of 75-130. These groups are assigned to a team of 3-5 teachers who work together to teach the required subjects. Each team of teachers works exclusively with its group of students creating a more intimate teaching/coaching relationship.

I was impressed that these teacher teams are given significant autonomy and latitude in shaping the process by which their students will learn. Within the context of the required subjects, the teachers may use lecture, group learning, self-directed learning, group projects, exercises, field trips, and more to greatly enhance the learning experience.

One of the great variances from traditional teaching is the actual existence of the teaching team itself. Rarely in our educational history have teachers worked so closely to coordinate the learning experience for their students. The rigorous curriculum and activities require the team to meet daily for 1-2 hours for coordination and planning.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of team teaching is the wonderful model it presents to the students. Observing their teachers in such close collaboration sends a powerful message.

Cooperative Learning Groups
The students spend about 50% of their time in what are called “cooperative learning groups.” These groups of 4 students spend 4-6 weeks learning together while working on a special project that links their subjects (math, science, English, literature, etc.) to real world examples. The students can choose their own project (learning autonomy and self-direction) within a general theme, such as Geology, The Civil War, Business, or Economics that has been assigned to them by their teacher.

When their project is complete, they will be assigned to a new cooperative learning group and the process will begin again.

The beauty of these cooperative learning groups is how they enhance and widen the learning experience:

  • Each student is responsible for bringing knowledge to the group
  • An understanding of cooperation, collaboration, and group process is learned
  • Project management and practical problem-solving skills are learned including the ability to present results
  • The subjects are integrated (for example, math and science with writing ability) and linked to real world projects so that students learn how to apply knowledge in a practical way
  • The students are beginning to use peer evaluations similar to those growing in business
  • Creating a whole person by incorporating life management skills as well as knowledge. (How often have we seen intellectuals who fail in life because they can’t relate to others?)
  • An emphasis on building self-esteem

In support of the cooperative learning process, research shows that students who participate in learning as a cooperative effort are more motivated and attain higher achievement levels than those involved in more traditional instructional environments.
According to Tom Hoover, one of the team teachers, “Most kids work well in groups. They grow in ways that traditional teaching methods cannot duplicate.”

Teacher Perceptions of Team Concept
The first teacher team I spoke with was the Discovery Team teachers, Sheri Edwards, Kathie Gregory, Beth Nanis, and Tom Hoover. These teachers volunteered 4 years ago to develop the team teaching concept at the school. Perhaps their greatest barrier, but ultimate success, was their differing opinions on what this new teaching process should look like. According to Tom Hoover, “It was like ‘The Big Bang Theory’ when we started. We all had different ideas of what we wanted.”

In fact, the development of this teacher team was typical of most new teams, following the pattern of forming, storming, norming, then performing, with an emphasis on STORMING.

Eventually, however, they stuck with it and their final product was a clear breakthrough, providing an enormous sense of accomplishment. “The final product bonded us,” says Sheri Edwards, “We were proud of it.” Although they admit to still having some problems talking things out, it was clear to me this was a well-grounded team.

The second teacher team I met was the “Gators,” whose members included Dan Cipollini, Chet Polk, and Denise Paul.

This team paid great tribute to Charles Patton, the school’s namesake and previous principal. They felt that he was collaborative by nature and tended to hire people receptive to the concepts. They said that when he hired people, he looked more for “coach” types with an ability to develop the whole person. All three teachers felt strongly that this aspect of growth was, perhaps, one of the most significant benefits of the new system.

What really struck me during these discussions was the enormous enthusiasm of these teachers. They all credited Mr. Vosburgh and the school’s administration for granting them enormous autonomy in their work. They also appreciated the direct support in being allowed to visit and research other schools and learning processes.

The importance of this new teaching process is not to be underestimated. The Chadds Ford schools consistently rank as top schools in the county and state.

Similarities with Business
As I discussed the cooperative learning process with the teachers, I saw many parallels with our work in business today:

  • The students’ cooperative learning groups resemble self-directed work teams and problem-solving teams
  • The students make team presentations, just as work teams present results of their investigations to management
  • Student team members take on roles such as taskmaster, liaison, materials manager, and reporter/recorder
  • The students experience significant personal growth through their collaborative experience, much like workers do
  • Student peer evaluations are starting to be used
  • The teacher teams experience start-up problems similar to business teams
  • Support from the administration is critical (Where have we heard that before?)
  • Old paradigms die hard, the teachers face constant barriers to the new process

Evaluating Student Progress
The students do not receive report cards with letter grades. Instead, they are assessed quarterly by their teachers and receive evaluations of Novice, Apprentice, Practitioner, and Scholar. These evaluations encompass not only the student’s knowledge of a subject, but also their ability to apply this knowledge in a practical way. Just as important, they are also assessed on their Life Management Skills. Research has always shown that successful teams and organizations use a balance of technical skills and human/social skills.

Final Thoughts
Just as those of us reared in the current system of individual achievement carried our learned behaviors into the workplace, so to will today’s child with their understanding of team concepts. Individual achievement will always have a place in an entrepreneurial society–as it should. But combining this value with a practical understanding of the power of collaboration will change forever the way people work in the future.

The educators of the Patton Middle School are on the right track, and their dedication and perseverance have injected some valuable course corrections in preparing young people for their role in the workplace and community of the future.

For more information regarding the Patton Middle School’s team teaching process, contact Bruce Vosburgh at 610-347-2000.