The Collaboration Curse

numberpuzzle

Number Puzzle: a deep learning environment needs to be created and nurtured.

I originally started this site as a way of sharing some of the expertise that I believe I had gained over many years of being at the chalkface. It’s a hard earned expertise. Expertise gained from being open to new ideas and thinking – from within education and beyond, from being empathetic to the learners in my classroom, from encouraging myself to respond authentically to my own creative thinking and from being prepared to trial ideas in the face of opposition and resistance.

It recently occurred to me that I may be witnessing a case of “wilful blindness” within the education system. Strong words? Let me clarify.

I believe that this expertise has allowed me to create a supercharged learning environment that benefits all the children in my class. The other reason I started this site was born out of frustration of not being able to get my professional colleagues to see the results that I was seeing or to respond positively to my efforts; that my expertise was not being valued. It recently occurred to me that I may be witnessing a case of “wilful blindness” within the education system. Strong words? Let me clarify.

As a whole, for most children, our education system appears to work pretty well. Unsurprisingly, it seems to work better for those children on the higher end of the social equity ladder. For the rest, it has more of a lottery feel to it. But even for the students doing well enough, there is a deeper story to tell. Appearances can be deceptive. That’s because, in reality, any child with a pulse is going to achieve some level of learning throughout a school year.

It’s an issue relevant to all organisations and all aspects of society, not just education. It’s a human problem.

For many of my first years as a teacher, I felt that the children in my class were learning despite or, in spite of my efforts. My biggest hope was that I wasn’t doing them any harm. As it turns out, Hattie’s research shows that it’s pretty hard for a teacher to stop a child from learning. Whew! But teachers and schools taking credit for learning that would be taking place anyway? – that’s a biggie. That’s the belief system I am keen to challenge; that needs to be challenged. It’s an honest and earnest endeavour.

This should not be read as a criticism of teachers, but as a critique of a system. It’s an issue relevant to all organisations and all aspects of society, not just education. It’s a human problem. I wonder how many people chose to not know what was happening to children under the care of the Catholic Church. I wonder how many people chose not to know that children were being kept in seclusion rooms. I wonder how many people still believe that putting children in seclusion rooms is an appropriate practice. And this is in the face of evidence that tells us that controlling children in this way is unethical and ineffective.

…the reality of collaboration is much more complex. Collaboration is a process, not a place.

Defence against my claim of “willful blindness” within our education system will probably focus on the fact that it operates as an open, democratic, fair and equitable system. On the surface, everything is as you would want it. As well as that, schools are run by professionals. They are required to keep up to date with the latest research and technologies and be open to and willing to share new ideas and thinking. Collaboration is encouraged. Which is a good thing. The research tells us that collaboration is where it’s at. That’s because people in organisations can achieve things collectively that they cannot achieve individually. Collaboration can provide that spark that will light the fire of progress. It makes sense.

Well, that’s the theory. Because the reality of collaboration is much more complex. First of all, the openness that collaboration is supposed to foster is not going to be enough to drive change if all parties can’t agree that there is a need for change or improvement. I see the problems and the need for change. I speak to other teachers who recognise it. But that’s where it ends. They won’t say anything. They remind ‘blind’ out of fear, or in the belief that some things can not be changed. There may also be a genuine inability to see the need for change. This could be due to ignorance. Imagine if the entry standard for teachers entering the profession was raised to that required for law or medicine.

Effective collaboration requires seeking out people who are different to ourselves, who have a different way of thinking.

Secondly, collaboration will only be as effective as the working environment allows. I recognise that sharing my ideas and experience can be a source of cognitive dissonance. But isn’t that the point of it all? A conflict of ideas is a key component to creating change and progressing ideas. Having my ideas dismissed because they don’t fit with the thinking of the group is not collaboration. Collaboration does not take place in an echo chamber. Effective collaboration requires seeking out people who are different to ourselves, who have a different way of thinking. A level of professional conflict needs to be tolerated.

Thirdly, collaboration needs to viewed as a set of skills that needs to be learned and taught. Creating opportunities to work together in an ‘open’ way has wonderful potential but it is just the first step in the journey. Truth and knowledge on their own are insufficient to bring about change. That won’t happen until the skills and moral courage to use it are developed fully. To get to this point, organisations will need to make huge cultural shifts. School leaders need to step up.

Finally, the real role and value of collaboration needs to be fully understood and agreed to. The current interpretation of collaboration in an education setting is focused on open-plan classrooms. Needless to say, requiring teachers to work in open-plan spaces with more children is not a guarantee of effective collaboration. To expect so has to be seen as incredibly naive, if the first three points already raised have not been addressed satisfactorily. Until then, it is a case of the proverbial cart being put before the horse. It should be also be noted that according to Hattie’s research, it is collaboration, not the teaching space that has the highest positive impact on learning. And as far as I can see, an open plan space is not a definition of collaboration. Collaboration is a process, not a place.

Persistence, patience and a determination not to be blind or silent will be my guiding light.

Furthermore, I utilize the process of collaboration in my classroom on a regular basis and can identify the impact it has on the children’s learning readily. The children in my class will collaborate as a result of my guidance and sometimes as a matter of choice. I value the control I have on my teaching space. Everything in my room and every activity I undertake is as a result of deliberate decisions and actions developed from years of experience. That deliberateness has another purpose too. It provides me with opportunities to develop high quality relationships with each student. That in turn, allows me to have meaningful learning conversations with the students. Those moments are precious and are responsible for creating that supercharged learning that I refer to.

A deep learning environment needs to be created and nurtured. That precious commodity could be undermined so easily. Working with a teacher who does not appreciate that, or who is unwilling to see the merit of that approach will only dilute and frustrate the learning experience. Bigger is not always better. And in the case of a better learning environment, I believe that creating an intimate learning environment should be the goal.

So, “where to from here?” I ask myself. “Is there a place for someone like me within the education system?” It feels as though I am at a crossroad. The issue for me is no longer just about developing expertise as a teacher. For me to feel any satisfaction as a teacher, it feels as though I need to move beyond that and start developing expertise as a change agent. I will need to develop skills around convincing colleagues and parents and bureaucrats to look more critically at what effective learning is, and how it can be best delivered. That’s an entirely different proposition to simply delivering the curriculum. But I think I always knew that.

One of the things that I am giving consideration to is to try and enhance my academic credibility. I could do that by quantifying the learning that I am seeing. That would take time and effort and it could be worthwhile. But I’m not entirely convinced that it will be enough. There is a stereotype around people who act as ‘whistleblowers’. The perception of people who challenge the status quo is that they should not be trusted; that eventually they will be punished/crushed for their radical ideas. But actually, I take heart from the research. It reveals that whistleblowers tend to be very loyal to the organisation/institution and care a lot about it.

I don’t like conflict but if I am going to continue to be a teacher and do what I think is the right thing, I will have to accept that tension and conflict will be a part of that process. Rather than trying to avoid it, I will need to focus on making a stronger case and being better at arguing it. By taking on the critics and collecting evidence, I can develop my argument and make it stronger.

Persistence, patience and a determination not to be blind or silent will be my guiding light. As Margaret Heffernan says, “we enjoy so many freedoms today – but freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t use it.” If you agree with this sentiment, I encourage you to act on it by sharing this blog post far and wide.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Inspiration for this blog post come Margaret Heffernan’s work which can be found at the following links.

Heffernan – Dare to Disagree – Is conflict good for progress?

Heffernan – Dangers of willful blindness

 

 

8 thoughts on “The Collaboration Curse

  1. Pingback: And into the vacuum rode “bikeability”. | Wheeled Pedestrian Cycling

    • Hi Meria, Good question.
      I believe my manifesto provides guidelines for collaboration. https://easeeducation.co.nz/10-easy-pieces/ I set the scene and the children respond. In fact, they buy in really quickly when they realise that I value their thinking and empathy over everything else. Collaboration is not an abstract thing. I am interested in creating a learning environment that provides for deep learning and sets high social and behaviour expectations (within the bounds of the children’s developmental level – refer Piaget). It’s about building a strong class culture. I find myself repeating the phrase – “thanks for being a good friend”.
      Once that culture is established, I can start to utilise collaboration for academic learning. This is directed by me initially but becomes self managing eventually. So for example in reading, I will ask the developed readers to read to the developing readers. To give them reading mileage. I will then start to ask them to seek out help from their buddies when they need it. Over time the children learn to be curious and find out the answer or seek help because they know I won’t just automatically tell them. They start to become independent learners. And that’s when the turbo boosters come into play. Their learning grows enormously because they are self directing and totally engaged and empowered. Some children start the year like this. Some need to be taught. via modelling. But it happens and it’s fantastic.

      Like

    • Thanks a lot. The thing is, finally, after all these years of trial and error, I am confident that what I have been witnessing, as a result of my efforts, is not an aberration. That means that I am becoming more confident to argue my point. I am no longer just satisfied to see only the children in my class thriving. I want to see children of all ages get a fair deal. Naive? Yep. But, maybe, just maybe???? Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Even if naive, I have no doubt in your efforts you will make a difference to many people and even if you only make a difference to one I believe it’s worth it. Fx your confidence reaches even more

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: It’s about the learning experiences on offer that is critical, not the age that children start their formal education. | Ease Education

  3. Pingback: Open Plan Classrooms – what’s the verdict? | Ease Education

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