HealthSeptember 22, 2021

Working in silos: What are they in nursing education and how to avoid them

By: Christie Cavallo, MSN, RN, EdDc, CNE, CNEcl
If you live in the Southern part of the United States, silos are a common sight. They are tall, cylindrical figures standing all alone at the edge of a field of cattle or amid a crop of corn.

Their purpose is to stand alone - untouched and sealed tightly - and hold the grain that will become seed for next year’s crop. This works well for farming, but unfortunately, faculty working in silos is not working as well in nursing education and should be avoided.

Merriam-Webster (2021) defines a silo as “an isolated grouping or department that functions apart from others especially in a way seen as hindering communication and cooperation.” Clark et al (2011) notes that lack of communication, collaboration, and mutual curriculum planning is considered incivility (ouch!). So, what do silos look like in nursing education?

Working in silos in nursing education can look like:

  1. planning your course outline alone
  2. not answering questions asked by other faculty about what is being taught in your course
  3. unwillingness to allow other faculty to attend your class
  4. changing your course outline without letting other faculty know
  5. creating rules about tests, test questions, class participation, etc., that applies to only your course
  6. not participating during faculty meetings when planning curricula.

The opportunity for collaborative planning

Students benefit when faculty work together to plan their courses. Constructivism is a learning theory that states that students learn by building on previous knowledge and is how adult learners learn. So, if in any given semester, faculty are all teaching about pain on the same week, for example, and know exactly what is being taught then students can build on the knowledge on Friday based on what they learned Monday in class.

This also works semester to semester. If in the first semester you are teaching about hypertension, then the next semester they can learn about complications of hypertension such as stroke or renal failure and it resonates with them as to why. The students know if the faculty are all working together or not. It’s very evident if two faculty are teaching the same thing or if one is teaching content that is very complex, and the students have nothing to attach it to.

What are some practical steps we can take in nursing education to stop working in silos and start working together to reach our ultimate goal - to produce a nurse that typifies our program’s outcomes?

It requires change. Lewin’s Change Theory is the perfect model to inform this type of radical rethinking about our role in co-creating curriculum. He theorized a three-stage model of change with steps known as unfreezing-change-refreezing that requires prior learning to be rejected and replaced. Our “prior learning” as nurses is that we can and should do our work alone. Focusing on the first stage, unfreezing is the process that involves finding a method of making it possible for people to let go of an old pattern that was somehow counterproductive.

Here are some practical methods to avoid our silos in nursing education.

Make it a priority to collaborate with faculty

An African proverb that we need to hang on our office walls states, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” We want to go far in nursing education, so we must make it a priority to work together. Items that are a priority wind up on our calendars, on our meeting agendas, and on our lips. Have the conversation with your director or dean today to add this to your meeting agenda.

Create easier ways to collaborate

One thing the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is we don’t have to be in the same room physically to have a meeting and that we can use asynchronous technology to work together! Create a live Google Doc or Dropbox for everyone to place their course outline into and then when people make changes everyone can see and will be notified. If you don’t know how to do that, contact your information technology department. There is no reason we are too busy to see or add to a document online. You will be surprised how many people are teaching the same material about seizures or that diverticulosis has been completely left out!

Mentor collaboration with new faculty

We are all having new faculty join our places of work. They may come from a practice background as a nurse that did not see a lot of collaboration among nurses in their facility. Make collaboration an important part of mentoring others. Assign or be a mentor that contributes to curriculum meetings, works well with others, and addresses uncivil behaviors when they see them.

Changes that are worthwhile like this one, take purposeful actions. Working together for the purpose of helping your students learn will not happen by accident. Collaboration among nursing faculty in planning course curricula is worth it. Start today and leave the silos in the field!

Learn How Lippincott Supports Nurse Faculty
Christie Cavallo, MSN, RN, EdDc, CNE, CNEcl
Expert Insights Contributor for Wolters Kluwer, Nursing Education
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