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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Collaboration Can Be a Colossal Waste of Time

By Peter DeWitt — January 08, 2016 5 min read
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The role of the leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of the leader is to create an environment in which great ideas happen.” Simon Sinek

It seems like an interesting question, doesn’t it? Why should we collaborate? Yes, many will say to share ideas or strengthen those ideas that are already out there. Some may even say we should collaborate to learn from one another? Considering this is a blog about education, we also sort of know that the ideas we are collaborating on are centered around student learning.

But it’s not that easy, is it? This idea of collaboration...

The other day an educator named Lissa Tweeted out one of my blogs on 9 ideas that teachers and leaders should try in the new year. A teacher, who shall remain nameless, Tweeted back, “My resolution: stop taking advice on what we should do by ppl who don’t & never will teach!”

Clearly, she was referring to me.

Lissa responded that I (meaning Peter) have taught and that the “power of Twitter is in learning from people who might not have the same opinions as us.” I loved that response, and that philosophy is why this blog is called Finding Common Ground. Usually the focus of the blog is to get people to come together, but unfortunately I too have been guilty of burning a few bridges instead of building them.

Over the last few years we seem to have become more and more divided in education...(and yes, politics as well).

There is the anti-reform side, the reform side and everyone else in between. There was a time a few years ago that I identified a lot with the anti-reform side because of changes I didn’t like happening in my home state of NY, but I realized that I was usually somewhere in the middle. I did not think the Common Core was as evil as it was made out to be (except for when it was tied to state exams and evaluation before schools were prepared), and I loved the process of evidence-based observations (minus the point scales), as well as the reasoning behind the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).

The issue is that in any given school there are people who fall in all three places. Some believe in reform, others dislike everything about it, and some see the points of both sides. How do we get all of those stakeholders, including the teacher with the new year’s resolution from above, to collaborate instead of argue or dismiss the ideas of others?

If we spent our energy on collaborating together as much as we spend our time on arguing and dismissing, we would probably have solved many of our issues. But not everyone understands what collaboration actually means. Unfortunately, too many people want collaboration to mean that they are right and everyone should follow suit...it’s not about learning from others...it’s about learning from them (in their eyes)!

According to Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn’s new book Coherence: The Right Drivers in Action for Schools, Districts, and Systems (Corwin Press) collaboration when viewed through the lens of collective teacher efficacy can have an effect size of 1.57 (Hattie). If you want to read an more about collective-teacher efficacy, please click here for a dissertation by Rachel Eells.

Unfortunately, what we know about Hattie’s work (Peter is a Visible Learning trainer who works with Hattie) is that how we approach these influences is what adds or negates from their effect. Collaboration for the sake of saying we collaborate isn’t helpful. In Coherence, Fullan and Quinn write, “Collaboration as an end in itself is a waste of time. Groups are powerful, which means they can be powerfully wrong. Getting deeper without the discipline and specificity of collective deliberation can be a grand waste of time.”

Questions to ask to ensure that this type of collaboration doesn’t happen:

  • Where has this been used before?
  • What research do you have to support it?
  • How will this be better than what has already been used?

What makes collaboration a waste of time is when a leader or group of teachers walk into a collaborative situation with the end result in mind. If we walk into a meeting with one idea and walk out with the same one, why bother having the meeting? That’s not collaboration...it’s consensus.

As I began to travel more and more for my new role as someone who facilitates workshops and provides keynotes, I began seeing why collaboration falls flat. Some of the reasons are:

  • Leaders already have the final decision set before they collaborate with a team
  • The collaboration is more about the adults than about the students (Hattie)
  • The adults have low expectations for their students and have the “Our kids are different mindset,” and are not easily dissuaded from that mindset.
  • The group consists of too many of the “Yeah but” people. They are the ones who often shoot down ideas by starting with, “Yeah, but.” They don’t want to collaborate as much as they want to undermine and destroy.

In the End
In order to truly collaborate we need to have a wide range of stakeholders who have different mindsets, but are willing to learn from the process and one another. We also need to start the first meeting by establishing protocols and possibly even taking time to do the Compass Personality Test Activity to get a sense of how different the stakeholders may think. We also need to make sure, in the spirit of Simon Sinek, “Why” we are doing what we are doing.

When we get together to collaborate it’s alright to have some beginning thoughts on where to go, but we can’t be so rigid in our thinking that we are only collaborating in order to build consensus to get what we want before we ever walked in the door.

There is no doubt that we all bring a lot of baggage, especially given that many of us have seen budget cuts, school consolidations and closings, new initiatives we don’t believe in, as well as teacher and leader lay-offs. That’s a lot to carry on our shoulders from one year to the next. Add in the fact that stakeholders only believe that collaboration means ultimately agreeing with leadership, and the whole process is doomed from the start.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Diannehope14.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.