The classroom can be such an island for teachers as they close the door and do the work of teaching their students within the four walls of their classroom. For that reason, collaboration remains a difficult idea for some teachers to embrace, especially in the advent of accountability and comparing data from one classroom to another. Not often is there a collective effort of “our students” with a belief that both my students and your students can succeed without risking a loss to one of us.
Some say we learn best from and with others; therefore, teachers should not problem solve alone; they should solicit the help of their colleagues. Certain teachers mistake collaboration as delegation. One teacher writes the reading lesson plans, one writes the math plans, and so on. Plans are then emailed or copied for each member of the team. The team believes they are collaborating. Educational consultant Ken Williams once said in a webinar, “Put one in my mailbox is not collaboration!” Although the work leading up to that sharing could possibly be categorized as collaboration if teachers are addressing a problem of practice and working together, dissemination of material is not collaboration. Rick Dufour (2003) says we should narrowly define teacher collaboration as “the systematic process in which we work together to analyze and impact professional practice in order to improve our individual and collective results.” Collaboration in education should look like a team producing a product that does not have a single author, but the work of all involved.
According to Dennis Sparks (2013) teachers working together and collaborating can create synergy that benefits students most. In his article on teacher teams, he referenced the work of Rush-Henrietta Central School District in Rochester, NY, which followed Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002). They created a rubric with four characteristics: clarity of purpose, accountability, team structure, and trust. Each of these characteristics is rated on a continuum of: starting, developing, deepening, and sustaining. If these four ideals were in place and approaching sustainability, the team was likely to carry out it’s goals and achieve at high levels. Unlike what was previous thought of group process as a linear system, groups work in a cyclical fashion. As groups are reconfigured and members are reassigned, these characteristics and phases are revisited and change the dynamics of the group.
J. Richard Hackman says the research is clear that teams underperform even in the right conditions (Couto, 2009). He credits lack of coordination and motivation for the failure of many teams (groups). Just as Lencioni credited the team structure and forming as critical attributes to the success of the team, Hackman found that if a team does not have time to settle in, it is difficult to get the work off the ground. This can be troubling when considering how often school groups can change due to new hires, retirements, promotions and/or transfers.
Another important point made by Hackman is that the deviant, one who questions and may stray from the original plan, is a powerful player in a group and can cause growth and creativity. This brave soul who steps out of the norm and says, “wait a minute” may be someone who pushes the thinking of others and allows for innovation instead of mediocrity. Most groups will discourage this risky move and crave the congeniality and continuity of the way things typically go.
In theory, one might think that collaboration would always produce better results than independent work; however, the conditions and participants are critical to a successful collaboration (David, 2009). Also, some individuals simply work better alone rather than collaborating with others, especially in a forced situation. Not only do we ask our teachers to collaborate with one another, but also our students should collaborate with others as this will prepare them for the workforce and help them become college and career ready. This works nicely sometimes, under certain conditions, with certain individuals in certain group settings.
Couto, D. (2009). Why teams don’t work. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work/ar/1
David, J. (2009). What research says about collaborative inquiry. Educational Leadership, 66, (4). 87-88.
Dufour, R. (2003). ‘Collaboration lite’ puts student achievement on a starvation diet. Journal of Staff Development. 24, (3), Retrieved from http://cusd.capousd.org/edusupport/Articles/DuFour%20Collaboration%20Lite.pdf
Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Sparks, D. (2013). Strong teams, strong schools. Journal of Staff Development. 34, (2). 28-30.