Co-Learning and Hierarchy: Mutually exclusive?

Co-learning: when a group of people comes together in a spirit of inquiry to share knowledge, investigate possibilities and learn from each other. (From Edward Brantmeier article)

Characteristics of Co-learning:
*  All knowledge is valued
*  Reciprocal value of knowledge sharers
*  Care for each other as people and co-learners
*  Trust
*  Learning from one another

Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Anne Davis 773 via Compfight cc

I had a wonderful opportunity during our September professional activity day. I got to sit with both elementary and secondary staff to talk about student learning needs evident in student work and what educators need to learn in order to meet those needs. Talking with people about ideas is my favourite part of the job, and these discussions were passionate and student centred.

In each school, the educators obviously care deeply about their students. They were wrestling with big ideas like integration of technology into critical literacy, problem solving, how to balance classroom management with a focus on higher order thinking skills. I loved the discussion.

At first, I flattered myself that I was co-learning. Wasn’t I open to listening, being trustworthy and valuing the knowledge of all participants? Well, yes, at least in my mind. Then I had two important conversations. The first was with a principal who shared that maybe my presence hadn’t been viewed as positively by staff as I’d hoped. In my eagerness to be transparent, I had highlighted that even though I was a superintendent, I was there to learn. But perhaps that just drew attention to my position and made people uncomfortable. When I spoke in a group, my words carried more weight than others and some felt criticized. Not the trusting atmosphere I was seeking! It was a setback.

The second conversation was with Steven Katz, a thinker, professor and researcher at OISE who works with our district. During a principal learning team meeting, he talked about hierarchy and how naive it is to pretend that it doesn’t exist in a learning session. When a superintendent sits down with principals or teachers, hierarchy exists because of the evaluative component. Announcing that I’m a co-learner and expecting that reality to disappear is naïve at best.

Honestly, I could kick myself! I know that. I have felt it in sessions as a teacher, a vice principal, a principal and now as a superintendent, with my boss. I’ve done lots of reading about trust over the past couple of years, so I understand how it is earned and builds over time through a combination of character and competence. (Steven M. R. Covey)

For a time, I felt a bit stuck. Then I realized that I have to go back to my core beliefs about learning and our work.

Co-learning can happen, even with the spectre of hierarchy at the table.  I’ve experienced it as a principal and a superintendent, after people come to know me better and when I leave my ego at the door. I need time with the schools where I work. I need to accept that the hierarchy exists, acknowledge it, and get on with the work. I also want to clarify my purpose in sitting at the table with other educators. It is three fold:

1) To hear and reflect on their ideas and insights;

2) To interrupt group think and established patterns of thinking; (see Intentional Interruption by Katz and Dack)

3) To interrupt my own thinking so I can truly learn.

I’m ready to get back in there.


One response to “Co-Learning and Hierarchy: Mutually exclusive?”

  1. Sue, I’m glad to hear that you are getting back in there! I think that we all need more experiences like this one: where teachers, principals, and superintendents sit down together and work together for the betterment of students. Yes, I’ve sat on committees with you before, and I’d be lying if I said that I’m not very aware of the fact that you are a superintendent. But over my time working with you, I’ve also learned that you’re a thinker, an educator, and a person that’s passionate about student success (and what we can do to help them succeed). The more you (and others) participate in these discussions, the more I think that people will be able to look beyond the hierarchy and embrace the collaboration. I’d be curious to hear how future meetings/planning times go!


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