Scaling culture: Cooperation and trust “are significantly more pronounced in workplace organisations that rely on teamwork”

Interested? Read on.

I’ve read and written about value of teaching teams to foster deeper learning in purposefully designed multi-cohort learning spaces. I’ve even devoted years of PhD study to this. The advantages of this strategy include authentic learning across a variety of pedagogical approaches, the potential for creating a student-centred learning culture, and tapping into teachers’ strengths and passions.

Even with these merits, I still find that teachers struggle with the idea of working in teams, the preference for the paradigm of one — one class, one teacher, one classroom (Wright, 2017) — can so easily emerge by default, especially when this ‘team-thing’ gets a bit ‘spikey’.

(Knock, 2019)

Having recently read The Voltage Effect: How to make good ideas great and great ideas scale (List, 2022), I have begun to see a positive, yet perhaps unintended outcome of this that can shape the broader culture. List referenced a study where

I was curious about this study, so I decided to find it.

Gneezy and Leibbrandt, along with List, undertook research in small traditional fishing societies in Brazil, one working in the sea and the other, the lake. Sea fishermen worked in teams; lake fisherman worked individually. The study found that cooperation, generosity and trust “are significantly more pronounced in workplace organisations that rely on teamwork” (Gneezy et al., 2016 p.1857). While their work was similar, the different workplace organisation resulted in a different (and scalable) culture.

The complexity of the sea fishermen’s work was evident, “The choppy waves and strong currents. . . multiple crew members. . . large fish. . . blue depths. . . require heavy fishing poles and other instruments that demand the hands and strength of several people” (List, 2022, p.201). For the single fisherman, these were not necessarily their reality.

Each context had developed their own set of cultural mores, which was explored. “One is highly collectivist and relies on cooperative labour; the other is individualist, with little collaboration” (p.202). While they share an identical goal, these two communities differ in their workplace culture.

How might this relate to the work of teachers?

The two ways of working were similar but with different workplace organisation. Each required technology, a ‘vessel’, and particular ways of working which were consistent with the environment, the sea and the lake. In parallel, multi-cohort spaces are designed for teams of teachers, while the bounded classroom is set up for the ‘paradigm of one’.

The benefit highlighted here, however, moved beyond an assessment of practice in each context (i.e. both successfully caught fish), toward the impact on culture. The team-based culture, reflected in the work organisation of the sea fisherman, became scalable (emphasis below is mine),

This study can serve as an encouragement for schools to persevere with team-based organisation in the teacher workplace. Given sufficient time to embed, it can impact the culture, where collaboration, and the subsequent highly-collectivist attributes, such as trust, generosity and cooperation can take root.

Therefore, if your school desires a culture that reflects the values commonly associated with teachers working as a team, then my encouragement is to persist with the strategy. Over time, it has the potential to scale across the school. The catalyst for teachers working as teams in multi-modal learning environments may have been a response to a future-focused vision to student learning, but can also have knock-on effects to re-shaping your culture.

Gneezy, U. Leibbrandy, A. & List, J. (2016), Ode to the Sea: Workplace organisation and norms of cooperation, The Economic Journal, 126(Sept)

Knock, A. (2019). Empowering teaching teams: An essential factor in the success of innovative learning environments. In W. Imms, & M. Mahat, M. (Eds.). (2019). What are teachers doing (well) when transitioning from traditional classrooms to innovative learning environments? Proceedings of international symposia for graduate and early career researchers in Australasia, Europe and North America (pp. 121–126).

List, L. (2022), The Voltage Effect: How to make good ideas great and great ideas scale. Penguin.

Wright, N. (2017). Disrupting the ‘paradigm of one’: Restructuring structures to integrate learning in a modern learning environment. Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice, 32(1), 48–61.



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