When organizations link up and share their ideas for the future, learning can accelerate at a previously unfathomable pace.
It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too),” said Charles Darwin, “those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
There’s something deeply ingrained in the human race, it seems, that means we can achieve more when sharing ideas and supporting one another.
And with an ever-expanding global community of thousands of schools, plus a wide range of technology suited to the purpose, it’s never been easier to collaborate with people who have the same interests, ambitions and priorities. But what are the obstacles, and how does it bring real benefits to students?
IB Coordinator and Assistant Headmaster of the Prague British School (PBS) Alex Klaiss feels getting together makes perfect sense.
“Collaboration is important because it’s a great time saver and helps build the confidence of individual schools,” he says. “We are normally seen as being in competition with one another, but they are not our opponents, they are our teammates.”
With this spirit of collaboration at its heart, a network of schools in the Czech Republic is working together to learn from and support one another. Alex’s PBS is working alongside the English International School of Prague, as well as Riverside School, International School of Prague, Open Gate School, the English College in Prague and the First International School of Ostrava to organize and run workshops for teachers in specific subject groups. The IB Coordinators meet at least once a year to discuss issues concerning the IB in general.
“Discussing strategies on mock exam preparation and marking has been a really important element,” says Alex. “With better access to other teachers, we now know each other personally so if we have a question we can just contact someone directly.”
Alex is also a university counsellor, and keeps other schools in the loop about entrance exams, university fairs and visits, applications, personal statements and references. “It’s great that we can now share our ideas more easily,” says Alex. “Before, we were all much more isolated.”
The schools have also been able to save money by working together. “For example,” says Alex, “we needed a trainer to come in and show us how to take pictures of students’ Visual Arts work and upload them to be assessed. Instead of hiring different people to come into each school, we have decided to share one trainer and split the cost, including things like the trainer’s travel and hotel expenses.”
This sharing of resources is an approach that’s also integral to the approach of the IB Educator Network, or IBEN. This network of professionals gets involved in IB World School activities and events all over the world in a bid to share expertise and examples of best practises.
According to retired teacher Sarah Balkum, IBEN is “a fabulous network of professionals who are dedicated to providing an education to children that is meaningful and relevant.” As part of her 40-year teaching career in North Carolina, USA, Sarah has 10 years’ experience teaching PYP.
She retired last year but decided to continue her IBEN duties, as she’s keen to carry on learning: “IBEN revived my passion and energized me. When we as educators stop growing and learning, the learning of the students suffers.” For those who can spare some time, IBEN offers a rich professional experience.
Members can commit as much or as little time as they like with a minimum of two assignments a year. Activities include mentoring other teachers, visiting schools, leading workshops, reading and checking official documents, invigilating exams and sitting in on lessons.
As a Field Representative, Workshop Leader and Site Visitor, Sarah certainly keeps herself busy. “As a retiree, I really enjoy maintaining the contact with other professionals. It keeps me on my toes. I stay updated with all the latest IB procedures, maintain my understanding and keep on top of my game.”
A common denominator
Fabián Valiño, Head of Mathematics at Colegio de Todos Los Santos in Argentina, sees the IBEN as a great opportunity to learn new skills: “Each year of experience is new growth,” he says.
“It’s a constant search for meaningful ways of teaching, aligned with the effective construction of knowledge in a changing, challenging and demanding world.”
He has been involved in many aspects of mathematics education, such as looking at creative ways to work collaboratively in groups, and finding ways to improve assessments and evaluations. When moderating internal assessments Fabián has had the chance to research how students communicate ideas; not only through mathematical concepts, but proving the step they took to reach a conclusion.
“I have understood that teaching mathematics is a secondary activity, while teaching communication techniques and methodological tools should be the main course for this specific requirement,” he says. Of all his duties, leading workshops has always been his favourite activity.
“In those meetings we understand that our own fears, doubts and uncertainties are the common denominator for the whole group of participants attending the workshop,” he says.
“By the end of the activity, everybody feels that ‘the monster’ was not as frightening as we had imagined and again, a new group is ready to apply all that they have learned in the classroom.”
Sarah agrees that workshops make for some great teaching. “The real positive is that teachers learn skills they can carry back to their schools,” she says. “These techniques can be used for all ages.”
But what are the essential ingredients required for collaborations to be successful? According to Veronica Boix Mansilla, a Principal Investigator at Project Zero – an educational research group at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University – common ground is vital.
“One of the most important aspects of a successful collaboration is that it’s grounded in a shared philosophy,” she says. “Both Project Zero and the IB think about education as a means for improving society.” Project Zero works to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in arts, humanistic and scientific disciplines in institutions.
When the IB and Project Zero came together to work on a collaboration, it was a win-win situation. Veronica spent time going to IB World Schools and seeking out best practice, including examples of cutting-edge inter-disciplinary teaching and learning.
Her collaboration with IB colleagues led in 2006 to the IB producing the first guide to MYP Teaching & Learning, which concentrates on the standards of inter-disciplinary learning. Rather than being prescriptive, the material is rooted in a range of examples. Project Zero and IB colleagues visited classrooms all round the world, documented practices and presented them back to teachers.
“This guide puts us at the cutting edge and allows continuous dialogue,” says Malcolm Nicolson, Head of MYP. The ongoing collaboration with Project Zero – the guide is already being updated – has brought in expertise from those who have experience and can spot and collect best practice and has been mutually beneficial for both parties, as the best collaborations should be.
It reflects and formalizes what is already taking place in IB World Schools and allows both teachers and researchers to benefit from the results. “I’m proud that IB teachers have gained access to frontier knowledge about inter-disciplinary instruction,” says Veronica.
“When we started out, there was very little understanding of what constituted success in inter-disciplinary teaching and learning.” “The biggest impact has been clearing up misconceptions,” explains Malcolm.“Project Zero gave us three very important principles: that learning should be grounded in the discipline, it must be purposeful and it must be meaningful.”
Another official IB partnership that has begun to bear fruit is with The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The IB and AKDN share common ground in the shape of humanitarian and educational aims. The AKDN works to improve the welfare and prospects of people in the developing world, particularly in Asia and Africa, and is creating 18 Academies in developing countries. So far, two are up and running: one in Mombasa, Kenya, and another in Hyderabad, India.
They teach IB programmes and have a curriculum that was developed from mutual understanding. “Not only does the IB give us flexibility and freedom, its guiding principles align with our own,” says Alexandra Holland, Curriculum Development Manager of The Aga Khan Academies.
“By bringing elements of both sides together, we create units of work that benefit everyone. We are educating children to become future leaders and help improve the quality of life for their families and communities in the future.”
In return for sharing educational expertise, the IB is getting a unique insight into AKDN’s humanitarian work, explains Curriculum Manager Robert Harrison. “It opens the door to use all AKDN’s expertise and rich, real-world experience as part of the IB curriculum,” he says.
At an international event in Zanzibar, AKDN created a piece of work to develop students’ understanding of Muslim concepts – not just religious teachings, but the culture as a whole. This led to a paper and then a curriculum booklet that will benefit PYP and MYP classes worldwide.
“What’s interesting to me is the ability to take the experiences of the AKDN and show a more nuanced portrayal of the developing world,” says Alexandra. “I hope that we can draw on our experiences and provide access to a wider range of examples.”
Collaboration breeds courage
Veronica of Harvard’s Project Zero would like to see even more collaboration, and is looking for more IB World Schools to work with.
However, she believes it’s more important to seek out relevant links than to force connections for the sake of it. Sometimes unofficial or less formal collaborations are the most effective way: “Most of all, there are no rules – don’t go looking for a magic formula,” she says.
Collaborating can also give schools the courage and support to take on ambitious projects. Veronica believes it’s extremely important that schools and school systems try new things.
“Teachers must become very reflective of their own practice, and not just think that because they’ve always done something a certain way that’s how they have to continue doing it.”
Success in any language
When teachers, students, coordinators and parents at the Taipei European School organized a Chinese-English Bilingual Debate Tournament, the event brought six teams from Hong Kong IB World Schools and eight teams from local Taiwanese schools together for the first time to compete in two languages.
Flora Sung, Head of Chinese Language and Culture at Taipei European School in Taiwan, says: “To organize an event within the same school is not easy; to develop a road less travelled and work with several different schools is very challenging.” Setting innovative ideas in motion can be tricky, she says.
“The schools we approached were hesitant at first because people had doubts about jamming two languages into the same debate. But once a good number had signed up to take part, students and teachers rose to the challenge. The event was a success and gave everyone involved the chance to hear opinions and arguments from students with different backgrounds.
“The debaters and adjudicators were not only convinced but have considered it an inspiring and rewarding experience in the long run,” says Flora. “Teachers were amazed to witness how much progress their students made in only two days.”
This is a familiar story the world over – once people understand what’s expected and are inspired to get involved, there is no limit to what can be achieved. Collaborating with other faculties, schools and organizations should come as second nature to teachers. School life is about working together – teachers are natural collaborators and are very organized too.
Proving that collaboration works is a great lesson for students, too. Rachel Chen, an IB candidate at Taipei European School who took part in the bilingual debate says, “I learned that language can be a very powerful tool.
As the future generation, it is our responsibility to sustain these national and international connections.” On the other side of the world, Fabián has come to the same conclusion: “Collaborations open up a new world for any teacher who believes that our main purpose is to create a better world to live in,” he says.
What makes a great collaboration?
Five qualities you’ll need to make sure you come together and stick together
Willingness to learn
IBEN is all about learning new skills and experiencing new things. Working in the classroom all day everyday can feel isolating at times.
Great collaborators avoid getting in a rut by asking questions and seeing how other schools and professionals are working. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
Understanding the needs of others
IB’s collaboration with Project Zero is a fantastic success because everyone involved took the time to research the other parties and work out what they needed to happen. You need to look at the world through their eyes too.
Honesty and openness
Sharing research and opinions involves a good deal of trust. The IB can now tap into the vast knowledge and experience of The Aga Khan Development Network thanks to the strong bond that the organizations have forged.
Ambition and motivation
A problem shared is a problem halved. So providing that tasks are delegated fairly and everyone understands what’s expected of them, an inter-disciplinary team can always afford to think big – just ask the bilingual debaters at Taipei European School.
Clear aims and objectives
Whether it’s a long-term goal, such as improving the quality of education in international schools in Prague, or a more short-term goal, like creating a piece of coursework using the expertise of two different organizations, a great collaborator can not only work towards their goal but share it with others, and lead them to