The necessity of VET teachers’ engagement in team learning
Secondary vocational education and training, here abbreviated as VET, has a central position in the Dutch education system. It is the second largest education sector and qualifies large numbers of students for many professions. To ensure the smooth transition of students to the labour market, VET colleges have implemented competence-based education (CBE) programmes, which are designed to develop relevant professional competencies.
VET colleges continuously work on the quality of their CBE programmes by designing and redesigning curricula and implementing new courses and qualification profiles, so that the CBE programmes continue to meet government and labour market demands. This challenging task is to a large extent the responsibility of teacher teams and requires intensive collaboration between teachers. Teachers for instance collectively need to integrate different courses into new interdisciplinary courses or revise existing courses.
Teachers’ engagement in team learning processes is regarded as a crucial factor in accomplishing this challenging task. Team learning is defined as teachers’ collective engagement in processes that contribute to building and maintaining mutually shared cognition, leading to increased team performance. This implies that, by engaging in team learning, teachers can achieve a mutually shared cognition on which aspects of their CBE programmes require improvements and on actions they need to take to achieve these improvements.
Team learning is however not always self-evident in teacher teams, because not all formal teacher teams can be characterised as real teams that consist of interdependent individuals who share responsibilities and see themselves and are seen by others as an intact social entity. This is because teachers traditionally have a high degree of autonomy, tend to retain their privacy and autonomy, are not used to frequent collaboration and interaction, and find it difficult to make time for interactions with colleagues.
The focus of this dissertation: stimulating teachers’ engagement in team learning
Because engagement in team learning is not always self-evident, this dissertation examines to what extent and how VET colleges can stimulate teachers’ engagement in team learning. The focus lies on three organisational characteristics that may stimulate team learning: the presence of team-oriented human resource management (HRM), team leaders’ leadership style, and available opportunities for distributed leadership. This focus on organisational characteristics is needed, because previous research on team learning has largely overlooked the possible influence of the organisation in which teams are embedded.
The first characteristic, team-oriented HRM, refers to a set of HR practices that aim to increase teams’ abilities, motivation and opportunities to perform in desired ways, such as engaging in team learning, with the goal to increase team performance. Regarding the second characteristic, team leaders’ leadership style, this dissertation focuses on the empowerment component of transformational leadership as a possible stimulation for teachers’ engagement in team learning. This empowerment component implies that team leaders try to increase teachers’ participation in their team by giving them increased responsibilities and trying to move them beyond their self-interest. The third characteristic, opportunities for distributed leadership, implies that leadership tasks are distributed among those who are best equipped, skilled or positioned to lead in a certain situation, regardless of whether they are in formal leadership positions. Distributed leadership is believed to increase interdependence among team members, and may therefore stimulate engagement in team learning.
To examine the relationships between these three organisational characteristics and teachers’ engagement in team learning, the following central research question was formulated:
To what extent and how does the organisational context, in terms of team-oriented HRM, team leaders’ leadership style, and opportunities for distributed leadership, stimulate teachers’ engagement in team learning?
Central findings per chapter
To answer the central research question, four studies were conducted. The results of these studies are presented in Chapters 2 to 5. Chapter 2 examines the extent to which there is a positive relationship between team-oriented HRM and teachers’ team performance (operationalised as team efficiency and team innovation), via teachers’ affective team commitment and engagement in team learning (operationalised here as information processing). Four team-oriented HR practices were examined: recruitment, team development, team evaluation and teamwork facilitation. The relationship was assessed using multilevel structural equation modelling (MSEM) with complex structure analysis, using data from 704 teachers working in 70 teams. It was found that recruitment, team evaluation and teamwork facilitation were positively related to team efficiency and innovation via teachers’ affective team commitment and engagement in team learning. Apart from this indirect relationship, teamwork facilitation was also directly positively related to team performance. It is notable however that the HR practice of team development was only directly and positively associated with team innovation and not with team efficiency. Overall, these findings suggest that, when VET colleges implement team-oriented HRM to increase the teams’ abilities, motivation and opportunity for teamwork and team learning, teachers feel more connected to the team and engage more in team learning, with increased team performance as a result.
Chapter 3 explores in greater depth how team leaders’ individual enactment of the four team-oriented HR practices influence teachers’ perceptions of these HR practices and their responses in terms of team learning. One Dutch VET college was selected in which a team-oriented HRM system was present and where the enactment was devolved to team leaders. Interviews with four team leaders and group interviews with eleven teachers of these four teams were conducted. Results show that, to effectively stimulate teachers’ engagement in team learning, two things about team leaders’ enactment seem important. First, there needs to be alignment between how team leaders enact team-oriented HRM and how teachers perceive their team leaders’ enactment, which implies that teachers must interpret the team-oriented HR practices as intended by the team leader. Second, there needs to be a fit between team leaders’ enactment and the team’s needs, tasks and challenges, which implies that team leaders must adapt their enactment to the specific needs of a team and their team’s situation. Team leaders who took this into account and adapted their behaviour to their team’s tasks and challenges were for instance directive when their teams needed direction, and empowering when teachers were ready to take on responsibility for fulfilling their tasks. Consequently, their teachers engaged more in team learning than teachers of teams in which this fit and team leaders’ adaptation were largely absent.
The goal of Chapter 4 was to examine to what extent a positive relationship exists between a team leader’s transformational leadership style and teachers’ engagement in team learning. Underlying mechanisms in this relationship were assessed by including the possible mediations of teachers’ opportunities to participate in decision-making, their affective team commitment, perceived task interdependence, and team member proactivity. The relationships were assessed using MSEM with complex structure analysis, using data from 992 teachers working in 92 teams. The findings suggest that a transformational empowering leadership style of team leaders directly stimulates the team learning processes of information acquisition and information processing, as well as indirectly stimulating information acquisition, boundary crossing and information processing via the included underlying mechanisms. The mediating role of teachers’ opportunity to participate in decision-making seems to be important here, because the findings suggest that it increases teachers’ affective team commitment and perceived task interdependence. Consequently, more committed and interdependent teachers were more proactive in searching for solutions to improve their team’s functioning, and therefore engaged more in all team learning processes.
Chapter 5 explores how team leaders create opportunities and constraints for distributed leadership in teacher design teams (TDTs), and how teachers use these opportunities to establish leader-follower relationships by engaging in team learning. One Dutch VET college was selected in which teachers who collaborated in TDTs were given opportunities for distributed leadership. Interviews and group interviews with three team leaders and thirteen members of five TDTs were conducted. The results show that team leaders incrementally gave increased responsibilities to TDT members. These TDT members engaged in team learning processes (information sharing and constructive conflict) to establish versatile leader-follower relationships in their TDTs, which changed in accordance with their different tasks. Moreover, teachers with informal leader roles initiated team learning (information processing) with the entire team to work on educational innovations together.
Overall, the results that are presented in Chapters 2 to 5 suggest that the organisational context of VET colleges plays an important role in stimulating teachers’ engagement in team learning. This implies that not only teachers, but also their VET colleges are responsible for teachers’ engagement in team learning. By creating a supportive environment through team-oriented HRM, transformational leadership and opportunities for distributed leadership, teachers seem to feel and act more as part a real team, with higher engagement in team learning as a consequence.
Based on the findings of Chapters 2 to 5, three central findings of this dissertation are discussed in Chapter 6. First, it is concluded that a symbiotic relationship exists between team-oriented HRM and team leaders’ behaviour in stimulating teachers’ engagement in team learning: team leaders need team-oriented HR practices to stimulate their teachers to engage in team learning, but at the same time influence the effectiveness of these HR practices through their enactment of these practices. Second, team leaders’ ambidextrous leadership style is suggested to be crucial for stimulating teachers’ engagement in team learning. This implies that both a transactional leadership style and transformational leadership style contribute to stimulating teachers’ engagement in team learning, and that it depends on the team’s needs, tasks and challenges which leadership style is needed. Third, team empowerment and opportunities for distributed leadership are concluded to be potential catalysts for engagement in team learning. Empowerment and distributed leadership only seem to be catalysts when teacher teams are ready to take their additional responsibilities and when teachers know why and how they need to take these responsibilities. Team leaders play an important role in meeting these conditions: they can stimulate, coach and monitor teachers in taking their responsibilities and incrementally increase their team’s responsibilities.
Given these central findings, it is concluded that it is impossible for VET colleges to take a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to stimulate teachers’ engagement in team learning, because teacher teams have different needs and operate in diverse situations that require different supportive approaches. Therefore, to stimulate teachers’ engagement in team learning, VET colleges should adopt a tailor-made approach that is characterised by a flexible team-oriented HRM system, flexible leadership and team empowerment.
Theoretical contributions and implications for future research
Several theoretical contributions and implications for future research are discussed in Chapter 6. The contributions and implications that are related to the found relationships between team-oriented HRM, transformational leadership and distributed leadership on the one hand and engagement in team learning on the other hand are summarised here.
A significant contribution made by this dissertation is that the gap between team learning literature and HRM literature is bridged by providing insights into the relationship between team-oriented HRM and engagement in team learning and into the role that team leaders play in this relationship. Moreover, recommendations are given for future research on HRM in the educational context. Because research on HRM in the educational context is still relatively limited, it is suggested that insights from this dissertation and from HRM literature in other work contexts should be incorporated in future studies: multiple HR practices should be studied simultaneously and the role of line managers or team leaders should be taken into account to improve our understanding of the effectiveness of team-oriented HRM in the educational context.
Another contribution is that insights are provided into how team leaders’ transactional leadership style may affect teachers’ engagement in team learning by unravelling underlying mechanisms. Because the results suggest that unidentified underlying mechanisms may also be at play, it is recommended that future research aims to expose these mechanisms. In addition, it is recommended to examine more in-depth how transformational leaders can incrementally empower teams to stimulate engagement in team learning.
The final contribution mentioned here is that this dissertation also bridges the gap between team learning literature and distributed leadership literature. The results regarding the relationship between distributed leadership and team learning suggest a reciprocal relationship and possibly a gain spiral. Future research is needed to obtain a better understanding of this reciprocity.
Because this dissertation suggests that VET colleges play a central role in stimulating teachers’ engagement in team learning, it is recommended in Chapter 6 that these colleges should invest in the development of a supportive environment for teams. Four recommondations are given that may contribute to the development of this enviroment. First, it is suggested that VET colleges invest in the continued development of a consistent and visible team-oriented HRM system, so that teachers know that they are expected to act as part of a real team and to engage in team learning. Second, because line managers or team leaders play a crucial role in the implementation of a consistent and visible team-oriented HRM system, it is recommended that VET colleges monitor and evaluate team leaders’ enactment of HR practices. Monitoring and evaulation enables VET colleges to gain insights into effective enactments and to intervene when enactments are ineffective. Inverventions could include the development of competence profiles of team leaders, the deployment of coaches for team leaders, the establishment of peer coaching meetings for team leaders, and the inclusion of HRM enactment in team leaders’ professionalisation trajectories. Third, similar interventions are suggested for developing the necessary competencies of team leaders for correctly assessing their team’s needs, tasks and challenges, and for adapting their leadership style in accordance with their assessment. Fourth, it is recommended that team leaders use an incremental approach to empower teacher teams, because teachers need time to learn why and how to take extra responsibilities and to establish leader-follower relationships. In this way, teachers are given the time to get accustomed to their extra responsibilities and to learn how to behave as informal leaders, with more engagement in team learning as a consequence.