Do you, or teachers you work with, ever feel that the changing and evolving nature of the work you do in schools is undervalued or underestimated in the energy, effort and attention that it requires? I imagine that if you had said “yes”, then you may also recognise that time and exhaustion are viewed as issues for collaborating to “get the right work done”.
Have you ever considered that the very nature of the ways schools are organised does not account for what we now know about the cognitive cost in maintaining relationships in schools? Relationships are foundational for ALL work being undertaken in school contexts. Yet, we can often underestimate the number and type of interactions required for the types of collaboration taking place for capacity building and student improvement.
Dunbar’s number proposes that the brain’s computational capacity sets a limit on the number of individuals who can be held together in a coherent social group. This relationship predicts a group size of approximately 150 for humans at any given time. Now think about how we describe the relationships in schools. Not on a one to one basis! This is because in schools we categorise relationships collectively (classes, teams, department). Consequently, the number of interactions can be miscalculated because they are “lumped” together, rather than viewed as independent interactions that require different cognitive requisites and time investment.
Collaboration is important work in schools. However, we also need to recognise that the number and frequency of those interactions can take its toll on those engaged in the day-to-day work of teachers, and leaders in the service of supporting student improvement. Leaders can underestimate the time needed to invest in these collaborative interactions. Individuals distribute their energy, attention, and effort unequally and determine this on the basis of frequency of contact and recognition of a mutual and reciprocal relationship.
Multiply and vying day-to-day demands shapes and misshapes this distribution of energy, effort, and attention. Maintaining these relationships can have costs to the individual and the organisation in the form of silo mentality. Collaboration is cognitively taxing, and schools’ organisational structures can add to the complexity of using collaboration as a whole school improvement strategy. Without additional and different types of knowledge, training, and professional experience, school leaders can inadvertently contribute to further barriers to collaboration within their contexts.
So, what can we do? Although there are no easy or fast solutions, there are some quick wins to be had. To begin the process, consider an alternative framework to provide structure for your team’s planning and decision making. School leaders, in considering the nature of the relationship between human cognition and sociality, from an evolutionary point of view, can explore ways to address problems of practice that are based on their own context, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Lead with the social brain in mind is a framework that applies the existence of associations among organisational structures that are employed in schools to manage large groups of people (e.g., departments, teams, year levels) and cognitive constraints for human interactions (social brain theory). The changing and evolving nature of educators’ work means that there are multiple demands vying for attention, often simultaneously, in the time available. It is not surprising then, that this places cognitive constraints on individuals as they make the mental shifts to accommodate different types of relationships and associated tasks within limited time frames. Employing this framework can support leaders in their investigations of what is working and not working in their contexts. These tools work more effectively when based on the best available data, rather than on instinct or opinion. Frameworks can also help leaders to better communicate and explore ideas with their teams.
First step…collect some data
- List the categories that your school uses to describe school relationships (students, teachers, teaching team…).
- Identify the number of people, within the categories you listed, that you have direct contact with throughout the course of a “typical” school week.
- From that list identify the purpose for interaction using the following categories: support student learning, support my own learning, support both, none of these.
- Record how often you meet (every day, 2 to 3 times a week, once a month, once a term, once a semester, once a year).
- How would you describe the strength of these relationships (Very Strong, Strong, Less strong, Not strong, Not applicable). Why? For example…we have frequent and/or purposeful contact that has lead to enduring, long-lasting connections.
Next step – Data analysis
- What do we notice? What haven’t we noticed?
- What are the inherent complexities and challenges in our context that arise when implementing structures for collaboration?
- What resources do we need, have, adjust, or deploy elsewhere?
- How might we use this framework as a lens for reflection, exploration, and dialogue?
- What further learning is required?
Leading with the social brain in mind offers school leaders ways to think about implementing and critically reviewing sustainable, realistic, and impactful collaboration that takes place within their contexts. Purposefully leading collaboration as a strategy for improvement requires intentionality that reflects schools as complex work environments.
Joanne Casey is an education practitioner who works in a range of contexts to support reform agendas that build sustainable practices over time. Her focus remains on improved outcomes for all students. She understands schools are complex environments requiring flexible but research-based approaches to achieve improved outcomes for those they serve