Building cohesion…

“Cohesion is the powerful social glue that turns us from human beings into people. It is the glue that binds us to every element of our social context. When there is strong healthy cohesion in school communities, we feel connected to those around us; we’re on the same page with them. We feel we belong, that we are part of the team, with shared values and a shared sense of what is normal.”

Helen Street: CONTEXTUAL WELLBEING (Slightly adapted)

How might we build cohesion?

With ‘building cohesion’ as our 2020 focus, we started the year with a whole school workshop in which over 120 educators across disciplines and campuses connected and interconnected through a range of activities. Noticing and naming the ways they built cohesion, each time they changed groups during the morning, heightened awareness and highlighted transferable possibilities.

In groups, teachers shared a highlight from the holidays and something they hope for this year. Next we asked each person to consider and share a time when they felt a sense of belonging and identify common characteristics.

  • Caring relationships
  • Shared experiences
  • Shared values
  • Storytelling
  • Active listening
  • Deeper conversations
  • Sense of connection
  • Common purpose
  • Choice and ownership
  • Appreciation of each other
  • Mutual trust
  • Collaboration
  • Authenticity
  • Personal growth
  • Non judgemental acceptance.
  • Openness and support
  • Playfulness

Co-developing this shared understanding of how it feels to belong will help us reflect on the extent to which these things are evident in our classrooms and in our learning community, and to recognise possibilities for improvement.

How might we build cohesion in our classrooms?

Many of us have already read and engaged with the content of the book ‘Contextual Wellbeing’ as a springboard for such reflections. Providing quotes such as those below helped provoke thinking and encourage a flow of ideas.

With any wellbeing program… teachers have to be careful not to counteract their positive impact with unnecessary class competition and inequitable teaching the rest of the time. As soon as students are pitted against each other with tests, awards or ability grouping, cohesion and positive relationships suffer. It is the power of ‘show over tell’: explicit teaching of social and emotional competencies has to be backed up with real life contextual wellbeing.

Teachers are under continual pressure to make headway with a dauntingly large curriculum, so it is a big ask that they regularly find time for gluing the class together. But that time willingly spent on building cohesion will save an enormous amount of wasted time and energy throughout the rest of the year. A happy class is a cohesive class is a productive class.

Norms and rules are not the same thing. It does not matter what rules apply to the classroom, it is the established norms that guide the behaviour of those who feel they belong. Rules are written down and made explicit whereas norms are established through the repetition of certain behaviours and reinforced with every element of social context. Norms are the true behavioural guides within any group.

Norms develop through repeating desired behaviours, and contextual support, not through repeated verbal reminders. The more a class follows the rules in their daily activities, the more likely the rules will become norms. It also follows that the more the rules are broken, the more ‘not following the rules’ will become the normal way to behave.

Rewards and punishments may bring a disruptive child to the river of compliance, but only cohesion will keep them drinking. Instead of ‘paying’ disconnected kids to behave, or threatening them if they don’t, we need to help them connect to a world where positive behaviour is normal.

How might we further extend the idea of building cohesion?

Teachers then engaged with a series of broader questions which emerged from our self study, addressing how we might build cohesion beyond our classrooms, in our curriculum, in our community and in our culture. Building cohesion in all these areas will be the theme and the through-line of our action plan as we move forward.

And what better way to build cohesion than to have a whole school inquiry, involving the entire learning community?

Central idea: Building community creates a sense of belonging.

Some of the lines of inquiry at different year levels include:

  • how we build community through play
  • how we learn together as a community
  • the connection between place and community
  • opportunities and challenges in building community
  • parents as part of our learning community
  • how we build relationships within our community
  • diversity and commonality in our community
  • the impact of restorative action on community
  • how we co-construct our community
  • the interplay between individuals and community
  • the power of cohesion

What are some of the ways you build cohesion in your school or context?

The biography of a central idea…

Building community creates a sense of belonging.

This is the ‘central idea’ that will form the basis of our whole school inquiry in 2020. As teachers work on building cohesion, learners will inquire into different aspects of this conceptual idea. I’m hopeful to facilitate a parent inquiry group too.

Each IB PYP unit of inquiry is based on a meaningful, transferable, conceptual idea that offers possibilities for trans-disciplinary inquiry. Sometimes a central idea comes easily, once we know our conceptual lenses. Sometimes it’s the result of sustained collaborative play with words. Sometimes we know a central idea isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we can do. On occasion, we know it isn’t perfect but we don’t mind, because it expresses the right message and we care more about the sentiment than the rules.

This particular central idea has a story…

Part of the story was written by Helen Street, the author of Contextual Wellbeing, a book which has resonated for many of us in our learning community. So much of what she says is common sense, once you think about it. Much of it builds on ideas we’ve been thinking about for years. We’ve had early morning book discussions and planned meetings and parent sessions around some of the ideas. Some of our Year 6 students have read parts of the book and were grateful for an opportunity to connect virtually and chat with Helen last week.

As the ideas from the book began to take hold in our Year 6 community, students explored the notion of Ubuntu, an African concept which translates approximately as ‘I am because we are’, and the learning began to look less and less like traditional school and more of a transformative experience for learners and teachers alike. Seeing how the learning was unfolding, one of the teachers suggested an idea for a whole school inquiry for next year: ‘A community collaborates to create change’. Teachers of the lower grades suggested that a more appropriate version for the younger learners might be ‘Individuals collaborate to build community’.

Analysing the data gathered from teachers’ reflections for our self study, the Teaching and Learning team noticed a pattern. Many of the suggestions and wonderings revealed the idea of building cohesion as an opportunity for growth, be this in terms of encouraging connections between early years and primary, increasing flow of learning time, building a stronger sense of belonging or improving our partnerships with parents. Perhaps the whole school central idea might be ‘Cohesion empowers community’ or ‘Building cohesion strengthens community’, strong possibilities and yet, while we are not afraid to introduce difficult vocabulary to our youngest learners, not quite child friendly enough…

We gathered a group of teachers to work on reviewing our program of inquiry, representatives of every grade from preschool to Year 6. Our POI reflection began with people sharing their responses to this provocation: ‘My favourite unit of inquiry ever was… because…’ and we identified common themes. The best units were organically trans-disciplinary, based on real life learning, evolved as they unfolded, included authentic action, involved self discovery, allowed for the development of the whole child, were often led by the learners and focused on process, rather than content. Based on these themes, this group came up with further suggestions for our new central idea.

We knew what we wanted, but the wording that would capture the essence remained elusive. Various individuals and groups collaborated to play with the words and, as commitment to the idea became embedded (alongside yet another reading group discussing Contextual Wellbeing) there was a sense of being part of something bigger, of contributing to  the development of our learning community. What we were doing was a small example of what we wanted to achieve!

A group of students invited to the discussion spoke a lot about the idea of belonging needing to be in the central idea. They suggested ‘Belonging to a community helps us grow’ pointing out that the growth might refer to learning as individuals and as a community. It could refer to going out of our comfort zones or growing socially or academically.  If the focus is on community, belonging and cohesion, then the central idea should reflect that, they said. In their words: “Let’s be honest, the central idea is what we look at and what brings us together”.

A moment of jubilation followed, not just because we were excited by the insights of children and delighted by their valuable input, but because it felt so right. And then some doubt crept in… Might there be those for whom ‘belonging to a community’ could be perceived as passive? We had added the layer of belonging but lost the component of action. We needed an active verb in the central idea!

And finally, as a group of teachers pondered around the staffroom table one morning, one teacher sat quietly, seemingly answering his emails, while others conversed. And then, ‘How about this?’ he asked, ‘Building community creates a sense of belonging.’ Bingo!

It might not follow some of the so called rules for writing central ideas, but it fulfils our needs and we are excited by the possibilities. And its biography reflects the very thing we are aiming towards…

An open letter to parents…

Dear Parents

We know how much you love your children. Many of us are parents too and if we aren’t, you can rest assured that we wouldn’t be educators unless we cared deeply about children, so we know that many of the following things are important to you. Take a moment to consider which of these you most wish for…

  • My child succeeds without struggle
  • My child is above average at school
  • My child is admired by others
  • My child is well behaved and works hard to get good grades
  • My child excels in sporting competitions
  • My child produces impressive work at school
  • My child is extended by her teachers
  • My child’s class gets homework to help them do better at school
  • My child is popular with his peers
  • My child is always happy at school

Our teachers have been reading Contextual Wellbeing, by Helen Street, which is based on extensive research, and it turns out that the pressure induced by the items on this list, despite being instinctive desires of many parents, can actually undermine children’s wellbeing.

Now consider the list below…

  • My child is valued as an individual
  • My child  feels a sense of belonging
  • My child’s strengths matter more than his weaknesses
  • My child is intrinsically motivated
  • My child forms meaningful relationships
  • My child experiences personal growth
  • My child contributes to the community
  • My child loves learning
  • My child has ownership of her decisions and accepts the consequences
  • My child is allowed to fail and learn from his mistakes

We asked parents who attended our informal session last week to sort all these aspirations into two groups. Once they got going, it quickly became clear which would put pressure on their children and which would support them in becoming well adjusted, valued and valuable members of society, content within themselves. We ask you to think about it too…

‘Wellbeing is a state of health, happiness and positive engagement that arises from membership of an equitable, inclusive and cohesive environment’ (Helen Street 2016 )