Learning the Durham team lesson

Co-op Education

The search for sustainability will be endless. That’s because it deals with the dynamics of change and — Need I say it? — change is always with us.

And central to the search is the ability to cope with complexity. That’s because the kind of change we’re talking about is an intricately woven web of causes and effects. Often a huge web. So broad, with so many threads, that no one person alone, and no institution alone, can come up with all the answers.

So, it is the ability to collaborate that is important. The ability to work with others in a spirit of inquiry that can take advantage of a myriad of skills and perceptions.

This is not a job for just the brightest and the fastest. In fact, as experience has shown, they can be desperately wrong. It requires an openness to people from all walks of life, and all levels of ability, because each of us has valuable strengths to contribute.

It was with these thoughts hovering in the back of my mind that I read, earlier this year, about the designation of the school system in Durham County as the best in the world. Durham, with Whitby as its county seat, is just east of Toronto.

It was selected by the Carl Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany which established search commissions throughout the world to find school systems which represented « the best framework for the desired development of schools.’’

Among the finalists, in addition to the Durham Board of Education, were school systems from Scotland, The Netherlands, Hungary, Switzerland, and New Zealand.

Each year, the Bertelsmann Foundation chooses a different subject in its search for excellence. It publishes its findings in Germany in hopes of stimulating interest and emulation. It chose education as its focus for the 1996 search.

Durham won because of its achievements in co-operative education. What its schools are offering students is a process for problem solving. To my mind, that’s far more important than knowledge in any one specific subject. And that’s because it provides a framework for using knowledge of all kinds.

The cornerstones of the process are:
•           a sense that everyone sinks or swims together  — in other words, a recognition of interdependence;
•           an ability to collaborate with others;
•           being accountable for fulfilling a role in collaboration;
•           skill in taking stock of performance.

All of these cornerstones are social skills. They are recognized as that in Durham, and they are taught as that. Given the nature of our society, which prizes competition, individuality, and personal success, these are not skills easily come by or naturally developed.

To help students develop them, Durham stresses participatory learning where students learn by doing in groups.

As the board says in one of its documents that explains co-operative learning, « As opposed to classrooms where teacher talk absorbs up to 80 per cent of the talking,… students do most of the talking…. They talk among themselves about their work. They learn how to express their ideas to others. The amount of information that is retained and transferred is higher (than under conventional teaching systems).’’

As a result, in the mere span of eight years, the Durham school system has gone from being one of the worst in Ontario in terms of student achievement tests, to one of the best.

Team approaches to issues are nothing new. Companies such as General Motors have adopted them in parts of their operations. But the Durham board is building its entire educational system around it. And that’s unusual.

Durham began using it as a means of collecting and sharing information differently, and in the beginning, didn’t realize how valuable it could be as a process for dealing with complexity. « It was a major spinoff realization,’’ says Beverley Freedman, superintendent of educational programs at the board. « It allows you to come at problems with an enormously expanded capacity.’’

The spinoff for sustainability is it emphasizes the need to swim together, or sink. As Freedman says, « We need a collaborative approach because we’re back to the concept of the commons. Unless we are collectively responsible, each individual takes advantage.’’

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