Team Learning: To Be or Not to Be?

The pedagogical strategy of North Karelia Municipal Education and Training Consortium (at the time of this translation it has been named as Riveria) defines the principles and practices of our educational activities. The document includes those strategies that guide our staff members as coaches and enablers of learning. The principles include a mission to coach competencies. […]

The pedagogical strategy of North Karelia Municipal Education and Training Consortium (at the time of this translation it has been named as Riveria) defines the principles and practices of our educational activities. The document includes those strategies that guide our staff members as coaches and enablers of learning. The principles include a mission to coach competencies. In practice this means that we will use coaching approach in teaching.

Our coaching approach is founded on the following:

  • Supporting the students to make responsible choices
  • Presence
  • Doing together
  • Diverse ways of working and studying.

Also, at the same time as creating this strategy document, many of our colleges have started to train our educators to work as team coaches in the fields of team learning and team-based entrepreneurship (“teampreneurship”). In some colleges we have trained a few teachers and in some others we have trained all. In addition, some educators have participated to more longer-term trainings such as Team Mastery and The Wonder Coach.

The management team of The Consortium will also participate to a coaching program that has the following two main topics:

  1. Creating an organisational culture that uses team learning and deploys team coaching
  2. Understanding the team coaching approach and how to promote team learning in our organization.

We have already started (as of August 2017) to apply the team coaching and team learning methodology in the organization. However, we are now taking the first steps. The differences in the amount and quality of the application vary a lot from college to college. The interest in the approach is growing especially when the teachers have the opportunity to meet their colleagues who are already using it.

There has been concerns on whether the approach is an another “ism” or trendy education fashion. Teachers have posed questions on the benefits of using the approach and have also asked whether there are other pedagogical approaches we could use. So, there has been some resistance in taking the approach into use.

Whenever I meet resistance on trying something new, I encourage everyone to remember the quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi:

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

What is team learning?

We have defined team learning as follows in our Team Coach’s Guide:

”Team learning is co-operative, interactive and responsible learning method where all of the team members influence the learning. Each team member has the responsibility on both his or her own learning as well as on others. Team learning resembles the way work is done in the working life as co-operation, leadership and interaction competencies are needed in today’s work life. In team learning each team member has a responsibility to learn – the teachers are team coaches that enable and support the learning.”

Is should be noted that the traditional way of working in just groups in educational settings does not have the many elements of real teamwork.

The Guide also includes a long list of points that are in line with the Key Competencies of Lifelong Learning of European Union stated in the formal competency requirements of Finnish vocational colleges. These include, for example:

  • Shared learning goals
  • Commitment
  • Trust
  • Shared evaluation and development
  • Thinking and doing together
  • Learning wholes (not just parts) and deep understanding
  • The interaction between the learner and the team coach acts as a mirror that helps them to understand each other’s points of view
  • Dialogue and innovation.

It might be so that the hard core of team learning lies in thinking and doing together. Experiences and learnings are shared and thought over both alone and in groups. The learners are part of human networks and do all kinds of projects in it. The interactions are open.

Current educational paradigm states that one of the best ways of learning is to shared knowledge with others. Team learning is an approach that helps us to do that. Also, learning is most effective when it is “multi-channelled” and social. When people gather together and use all kinds of learning methods, they learn the best. The knowledge produced in such a process is comprehensive and many-sided.

In team learning approach, learning is interlinked to the learners’ personal goals and interests. This motivates everyone and creates passion to learn. I don’t think that teachers’ monologues or one-sides answers to students’ questions can be considered to be interaction or team learning and thus such a learning does not enhance the work life competencies.

Team learning is at its best when the learners alternate practical work done in projects and shared thinking. The learners are at the centre and the teacher does not have all the time to define what has to be learnt and how. Have we, the educators, ever paused to think that when we teach in traditional way, we are posing only our points of views to the learners? And when we make the learners do exams, we only emphasise those points that we – not the learners- think that are important. When the students think for themselves, they get motivated. There’s a fundamental difference in one-way teaching and team coaching!

Prerequisites for successful implementation of team learning

The perquisites for a college that produces good learning outputs include the following:

  • Changing the mind-set of teaching
  • The educators need to know how team coaching methodology works and plan how to implement the approach in their work
  • The educator working as a team coach must accept the fact that the students might know more than him or her
  • The college management must have the competency to lead the school in the implementation of the team coaching approach
  • The team coaching methodology must be implemented in many parts of the organisation, not just in one pocket
  • The college’s culture must be conductive to team learning
  • The physical learning environment must be conductive and appropriate to team learning activities.

All in all, the successful implementation of team coaching approach is a change from traditional teaching to methods that emphasise learning. The educators must know how to use the method and its tools – otherwise the whole approach might cause confusion in the students.

Can team learning be one of the solutions in tackling the challenges of vocational education?

The ideology and goals of team learning and team-based entrepreneurship are linked to team competencies and self-initiativeness of the students. I expect the method to increase the students’ learning motivation, help them learn much more and graduate with higher graduation rates (i.e. lower number of dropouts). The flexibility of studying will increase and the overall impact of team learning approach will also give the educational institution more possibilities to increase their efficiency.

In the near future, the following trends will be prevailing in the work life:

  • The need to work with others -> Team skills are needed
  • Work is mainly knowledge-intensive -> Creativity is needed
  • Hierarchies will flatten -> Self-management skills are needed
  • Work is done in multicultural settings -> Capabilities to work with diversity are needed
  • Work includes lots of technology but it is used by humans -> Both high-tech and high-touch skills are needed
  • Career paths are changing and sometimes unstable -> Entrepreneurial capabilities are needed

To be or not to be?

In the middle: Jari Jolkkonen and Kaisa Sissonen from Riveria, and the Tiimiakatemia certificate. On the left Johannes Partanen, on the right Hanna Walden.

I guess we are not on the wrong path in developing and implementing team learning approach. In other places – primary schools, vocational schools, applied sciences’ universities as well as academic universities – have also jumped to similar bandwagon. Educators from all level are being trained to team coaching competencies.

We’ve received some informal feedback on what team coaching in practice is from our educators. They say that it is challenging. The beginning is the most hardest: how should I start? However, support and help is available to educators. There are training programs as well as educators’ networks that can help individuals. And, if one is unsure whether team coaching approach is ok, he or she can always visit a college or other educational institution that is already using it.

Here are some comments from Lieksa Vocational College’s students on team learning:

“In team learning you can realize yourself and use your ingenuity. You learn to work in a team that might not be perfect. You learn to solve conflicts.”

”Dialogue in a team has been very important for me. I’ve gained confidence on speaking to others and doing presentations.”

“Really cool way of learning!”

“I’ve learnt leadership and presentation skills. Now it is much easier for me to tell my opinions to others.”

”Working with others, taking others in consideration and adapting to others’ ways of working has been educational for me.”

“Sometimes I didn’t like the whole ‘team thing’. The reason for this might be the fact that I had to learn a lot by myself and had to teach it to others.”

“At first team learning was a shock for me and I didn’t believe that one can learn with this approach.”

Jari Jolkkonen, Executive Vice President, Riveria, Finland

Mr. Jolkkonen was the rector of Lieksa Vocational College at the time of publishing this blog article in Finnish in August 2017.

Riveria Lieksa Vocational College is certified by Tiimiakatemia.

This blog article has been originally published in August 2017 in Finnish. Altought it is a few years old and there has been a lot of development in the field of team coaching approach at Riveria, it is very useful for both school managers and educators who wish to see a glimpse on how school managers reflect about implementing team coaching approach in the beginning.


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