Building bridges between teaching and learning

There is a bridge between teaching and learning made explicit in the IB World through the framework Approaches to Teaching and Learning. This framework of skills clustered around thinking skills, social skills, communication skills, self-management skills, and research skills speaks to the IB’s aim to create the bridge between teaching and learning and for IB schools to enact systems, which explicitly link the work of teachers (teaching) to the work of students (learning).

There have been attempts to implement solutions based on linear, aetiological reasoning (cause-and-effect structures) which subscribe to if-then causality or behavioralist tendencies. For example, merit pay or selective reward systems based on exam results is one of these algorithms. (Here is a discussion on why merit pay has failed, from Educational Leadership.)

Research over the past decades build a case for a more teleological reasoning around teaching and learning, a philosophy based on what meaning is created out of practice. The assumption that we hold here is that everyone stays in our profession because we find satisfaction in facilitating learning. This positive presupposition is inherent in the practices of schools where effective teaching is co-created rather than mandated.

The literature points to cultural dimensions in schools, which allow for systematic bridging between the act of improving instructional effectiveness and the facilitation of learning effectiveness in students.

Facilitating learning is a complex task for schools and the professionals in them because schooling is not a factory where the raw materials (product) come to the assembly line with sameness. Students come to school with varying degrees of readiness, personalities, life contexts and dispositions, among other variables. Schooling also cannot function with aetiological structures because these variables impact motivation, mindset, and other psychological dispositions of each learner.

In addition, children learn at varying paces, and teachers must essentially address the emerging qualities of students who have already learned whatever it is in the curriculum, some children have not learned it yet, some have gaps, etc.

Further, schools also want to guarantee the coherence of learning in a standard progression of success criteria school has decided needs to be guaranteed for the futures of the learners. Add to this complexity the fact that most of the adults who teach may not have learnt in the ways students are learning.

In the IB World, here’s a rhetorical question: how many IB teachers were products of the PYP, MYP and Diploma, themselves, hence having experience in the pedagogical approaches of inquiry leading to self-directed agency?

So we stand at an ecotone, and it is both exhilarating and exasperating at times that we labor to find innovative solutions to enacting quality instruction to bridge the approaches to learning that teachers and students employ to learn and sustain learning in self-directed ways.

The emerging design of an adaptive school, which uses both linear solutions to manage work and teleological solutions to allow creativity and innovation to flourish, has some fascinating dimensions.

The value of embedded professional learning

Embedded, situational professional learning is not new. We know from research that separating professional learning from practice tends to hinder change in teacher practices. Contextualized learning is one of the principles of effective professional development. This inherent strength of embedded professional learning may occur because of its proximity to practice, ensuring greater cognitive links between the teachers’ experience and visible impact they see as they apply their learning.

Brody and Hadar (2011) for instance, found that teachers who persisted in their collaborative work reported changes in their practice as they internalized the learning and began to redesign classroom learning to reflect what they had learned. In addition, teachers documented changes in practice while working on both personal and professional goals, and reported a new sense of empowerment and agency as their practice evolved.

Peter Senge and colleagues (2000) discussed how learning groups promote new ideas in the workplace. To address change and build teacher capacity, teachers are more able to learn to address these needs by learning with each other in a collaborative context. Professional learning fosters reflection and making sense of problems that emerge in practice and provides a venue for problem-solving solutions relevant to the work context.

The value of collaboration

Learning in context is possible through collaboration that is guaranteed, developed and sustained. Schools impoverished of collaboration are impoverished of learning. A study of an impoverished school linked knowledge to teacher and student learning and found that the connection between collaboration and reflection and learning was missing (Moneira, 2012). The study focused on uncovering how teachers attained knowledge necessary to improve learning in their classrooms and throughout the whole school. The study indicated that there were no structures for sharing knowledge in the school. Teachers were isolated because no common space was provided to congregate and talk about teaching and learning. There existed a negative attitude towards discussion; one teacher admitted that discussion feels like debating and that colleagues did not accept others who wanted to discuss teaching issues. The timetable provided no collaborative time, and there were no other structures in place that would provide opportunities for discourse about teaching and learning.

Without collaborative structures in place, teachers cannot be expected to construct understanding of practical, pedagogical, curricular, and relational knowledge apart from what they learn on their own through other sources such as textbooks about teaching. In this impoverished situation, teacher knowledge resides in a bubble, isolated and static. Pedagogy stagnates in this context since it is uninformed and unformed by any other tensions that would result from shared dialog and discussion.

Gathering around the campfire of creating conditions to make learning happen. Photo by Wenni Zhou on Unsplash

How teachers structure teaching and learning often reflects constructive understanding of these events. In other words, teacher discourse is a source of learning, which in turn shapes how teachers teach and how their students learn. What we learn from the above case study is that schools impoverished of collaboration tend to lose focus on learning. The implication is that student achievement suffers.

Other studies find that providing opportunities to talk about teacher practice not only increases understanding of sound practice but facilitates a shift in thinking (Collet, 2012). Reflection in groups through discussion pushes teacher thinking from technical to conceptual levels. Rather than a simple exchange of strategies that work, successful professional dialog allows teachers to further develop understanding of how students learn. Collet suggests that this thinking at a deeper epistemological level about student learning not only opens up the teacher’s understanding of what to do, but also engages the teacher in creative design in context.

We cannot leave to chance the phenomenon of developing collaborative groups. Just by instituting new staff rooms, for instance, doesn’t mean that teachers will automatically engage in professional discussions that will transform practice and improve coherence in a school. Like all systematic processes, we have to develop ways to sustain the discourse and make it purposeful, impactful work.

Collaborative learning through community-based situations produces emergent knowledge, suggesting that school leaders should examine the contexts within which professional learning is embedded to clearly see the direction in which a school is growing.

At the intersection of collaborative meaning construction, we find boundary crossings through the experience of professional discourse. This discourse approaches epistemological levels within the PLC. In these dialogs and discussions, teachers find a venue to glean and co-construct meaning from professional experiences and subsequent implementation of learning in their classrooms. Through these constructivist conversations, teachers examine classroom outcomes through student work, allowing a recursive feedback system to teachers’ learning and application of learning, with the ultimate result of developing understanding of how professional learning impacts teacher practice. Collaborative professional learning allows teachers to see and understand the bridges between what they think and decide and what they do in the classroom.

The value of autonomy and distributed leadership of learning

The ability to make decisions about instruction through perceived and actual autonomy and distributed leadership of learning impacts the quality of instruction and learning.

Autonomy is not about isolation or closing the classroom door and being left alone to ‘do your own thing.’ This does not facilitate coherence for our students. Rather we refer to autonomy as agency, the teacher as having ownership over design of learning in his or her classroom in collaboration with other teachers. It also includes a stance of inquiry, to being a professional inquirer, always learning how to create conditions for learning for a diverse group of students; how to employ a range of strategies to enhance learner agency and ownership of learning; how to conduct multiple entry points to learning, multiple tracks of conceptual, contextual and disciplinary learning; how to design ways to make visible what students know, understand, and can do.

Professional community focused on learning, collaboration, and professional agency are three dimension of high implementation schools (for examples, see Bryk et al., 2010; Little, 1990; Darling-Hammond and Richardson, 2009; Torres, 2014). These studies spotlight the finding that schools with high-impact instruction have intentional focus on instructional improvement through a stance of inquiry, through developing collaborative norms, and by allowing teachers the ownership of leading innovative practices and refining curriculum with openness to provide peer-feedback to lessons through professional structures such as instructional rounds.

An important implication for us is that focusing a school around learning is not facilitated through algorithms or behaviorist structures of if-then causality. To reduce teaching and learning to a causal, behaviorist simplification of carrots and sticks likens education to the old paradigm of processing children in batches through a factory model (Sir Ken Robinson, 2010).

The sobering truth is that we cannot force people, adults and children, to learn. They must decide this themselves. So it is our work to design and create the conditions in our schools in which there will emerge and sustain a focus on learning; there is dedicated time and space for collaborating around learning; and there is agency and ownership to improve and refine practice.


Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Easton, J. Q., & Luppescu, S. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Collet, V. S. (2012). The gradual increase of responsibility model: Coaching for teacher change. Literacy Research and Instruction, 51(1), 27-47.

Hadar, L., & Brody, D. (2010). From isolation to symphonic harmony: Building a professional development community among teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26, 1641-1651.

Little, J. W. (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers’ professional relations. Teachers College Record, 91, 509-536.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. NY: Doubleday.

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., Lucas, T., Smith, B., Dutton, J., & Kleiner, A. (2000). Schools that learn: A fifth discipline fieldbook for educators, parents and everyone who cares about education. New York, NY: Doubleday Dell.

Torres, A. C. (2014). “Are we architects or construction workers?” Re-examining teacher autonomy and turnover in charter schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22, 124.

Featured Photo by Cody Hiscox on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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