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The power of three: Collaborative teaching in Social Sciences at Burnside High School

Burnside High’s collaborative teaching trios arose from a conversation in which teachers in the Social Sciences faculty reflected on the question:

“Are we preparing our students in the best way possible for their future?”

They concluded that despite achieving good learning outcomes for their students, they believed they could do better and that they needed to disrupt their status quo in order to do so.

Discussions continued by researching how others schools had established collaborative teaching, consulting with external experts, and then investigating how they could design and deliver a collaborative teaching and learning programme that was more effective for their students. In 2015, this led to them prototyping the ‘power of three’ with two groups of three Year 9 classes, in which three teachers worked together to plan and deliver learning. Today, this and other models of planning and teaching collaboratively are spread more widely across the school.


In order to better prepare students for their future pathways, members of the Burnside High School’s Social Sciences faculty wanted to:

  • increase student agency within their junior Social Sciences programme;
  • focus on making learning more student–centred;
  • develop self–managing learners;
  • deepen learning by doing less, better; and
  • develop more future focussed skills and capabilities in their students.

Design and prototyping

Participating teachers drew on relevant evidence–based research to consider how they could further develop the effectiveness of their teaching and learning practices. Conversations were held with teachers in other schools who were trialling collaborative teaching, as well as discussions with the school’s senior leadership. This ensured a link with the school–wide vision for learning, of which Collaboration is a key principle. The opportunity to prototype flexible and open physical spaces would also be able to inform the school’s rebuild programme.

In 2015, two groups of three Year 9 Social Studies classes were timetabled so that it was possible for six teachers who volunteered to trial collaborative teaching and to work together as trios. The formal aspects of teaching were planned based on teacher strengths, and the teacher with the interest and expertise led the learning while the others moved around to support individual or small groups of students.

After trialling different spaces around the school, participating teachers concluded that teaching in a single cell environment limited the effectiveness of some of the approaches – more flexibility and space was needed. At the end of the year, building modifications within the Social Sciences block enlarged three teaching spaces and a corridor to become a much larger shared teaching space with breakout and quiet areas. Teachers used a scaffolding model to group students to encourage them to become more self–managing. This meant that they provided different levels of activities that related to a student’s ability to independently manage their learning. Professional development for staff was run in–house during school–wide professional learning time.

Extending and embedding

The following year, the model was extended to include four trios of Social Studies teachers, who taught two groups of three Year 9 classes and two groups of three Year 10 classes. Students were not specifically selected, nor did they necessarily graduate from the Year 9 collaborative classes – it depended on the allocations of those teachers who volunteered to teach collaboratively.

One of the challenges was transitioning students from traditional single–celled, teacher–directed learning towards a more student–centred model, where choice and voice often directed what the students learned, how they learned, where they learned, who they learned from, and how they then presented evidence of their learning.

Collaborative planning time for the teachers was built in around a common timetabled non–contact time as well as using part of the whole school professional development time. Once a term there was a full day for collaborative trios to review, reflect, learn and plan next steps. Each term, staff and student voice was gathered to help inform planning.

Next steps

The Social Science faculty has maintained a focus on Year 9 and Year 10, although there have been opportunities for senior students to work with the juniors within the Social Sciences faculty in a tuakana teina role. Professional learning for the whole school is now focussed on collaborative practices.

One of the key challenges for the Social Sciences faculty has been how to spread this collaborative practice more widely to include new staff. This is more of a challenge for staff newly employed from other schools, who have not been part of the developmental steps the school has gone through. The next steps will be investigating more formal professional learning and development to continue to upskill new and existing staff on working in a flexible and collaborative way.

Feedback and conclusion

The move towards an innovative way to meet the needs of their students in preparing them for their futures has resulted in students who are more engaged and enjoy their learning more. They have choices about their learning and a choice of which teacher to work with. One student who had been in a traditional, single cell teaching environment in Year 9 and then experienced the collaborative environment in Year 10 remarked:
“In Year 9 I felt like I did a lot more work. But in Year 10 I did a lot more thinking.”

For the teachers, there is a greater opportunity for collegial professional conversations about students and their learning. There is a high degree of camaraderie among the staff who have chosen to teach collaboratively as part of their ‘Power of Three’ development and they find they are more open–minded about change without a fear of failure.

Teachers who are part of this change find that they have more time to get to know their students instead of the traditional ‘stand and deliver’ model of teaching they had before. They believe that the biggest advantage is that they are becoming more effective teachers because they are challenged to improve their practice by their trio members; and they advise others to “just give it a go”.

Further readings and resources