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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Collaboration Isn’t New, But It Doesn’t Mean You’re Doing It Right

By Peter DeWitt — April 02, 2017 5 min read
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Collaboration. It’s at the tipping point of becoming a buzz word people hate to hear. Perhaps for some of you it already has hit that status. The reason why it becomes a buzz word is that we are put into collaborative groups where the decision we are working on has already been made. We really don’t have a voice in the process. We were window dressing to make it all look good.

Too many collaborative experiences have been manipulated by the man behind the curtain.

I’ve written a few books on collaboration, and I was surprised to find that in many cases it doesn’t work. Kuhn (2015) found that, “More productive collaborations have been identified as those in which participants directly engage one another’s thinking. They listen and respond to what their peers say.”

Unfortunately, too many collaborative moments are spent in the land of nice where people don’t challenge each other’s thinking. Or worse, they’re not supposed to engage as much as they’re supposed to be compliant. Kuhn found that “In less successful collaborations, participants are more likely to work in parallel and ignore or dismiss the other person’s contributions.”

That doesn’t sound very collaborative.

It happens to our students too. U.K. researcher Rob Coe found that around 80% of the time students are in collaborative settings, like partnership or group work, they are actually doing individual work 75-80% of that time. We’re better at collaborative seating than we are at collaborative learning.

What Does Collaboration Look Like?
Collaboration needs at least one person who will keep others engaged. They need to be someone who will keep asking the question, “Why are we coming to this conclusion” and they need to be the person who will know when it’s time to help the group move on.

Collaboration shouldn’t be something we start without a lot of work at the forefront. Collaboration should be around a problem of practice (POP) that is being researched. As Simon Sinek always says, “It starts with why.” Why is this the POP that is most important?

When I was doing my doctoral work the POP I investigated was “How well do school leaders safeguard LGBT students?” At the time of my research, and to this day, not all leaders do that very well. It was an important POP for me to investigate. Before I could collect evidence I had to understand what it was that I was trying to find.

Do your collaborative experiences start with the same question?

When groups find a high quality problem of practice, they can then explore the learning. Jenni Donohoo has a great method of researching a POP and she calls it Collaborative Inquiry. Check out her work here.

As a school principal who flipped faculty meetings (read more here) I would spend time sending out the article, blog or video we were going to use as a resource, and send a list of 4 questions along with the resource to help focus our staff. That same idea of resources and questions can be used for any sized group. As a staff we had to begin with what we wanted to learn about and why before we could dive into deep collaboration. As the principal I understood that the idea I walked into the collaborative experience with was not going to be the one I walked out with. If it was, why even do the collaboration?

When setting up collaborative groups there needs to some level of expectation of how the group will operate. When I taught elementary school I would work with students to create class protocols together. Keep in mind I taught first grade so if first graders can do this, I believe adults can.

Collaborative groups should have a set list of questions (maybe around five) that will help guide them through the process to make sure they are focused on the POP. The questions should be focused on the learning intention and success criteria the group set for themselves before they started the process. Viviane Robinson has done a great deal of research around this idea. Her best question is, “Do we have the capacity to accomplish the improvement we are working on?

One last item to remember is the topic of feedback. If feedback will play a central role in the collaborative experience, make sure the type of feedback is established. We talk about feedback a great deal but we need to talk more about how we receive feedback. Stone and Heen have done amazing work around this topic. Stakeholders in each group have to come to a consensus on what kind of feedback they will be giving. Is it appreciation, coaching or evaluative? Read more about Stone and Heen here.

Collaborative Groups
There are many types of collaborative groups, all of which are happening in schools. Some examples are:

Critical Friends - 2 or 3 colleagues can work together on their POP. They collect evidence through observation, co-teaching, research and surveys. Just the way instructional coaches and instructional leaders should do when they go through observation cycles. These small groups can help build the individual self-efficacy (.63) of the people working in them.

Groups of 4 or more - When I was growing up my mom always told me that I had to be careful in groups of three because one person may stick out and be double-teamed by the other two. Everyone should have a voice, and when they do have a voice it helps build self-efficacy.

Faculty - There are numerous ways to collaborate with our faculty. Actually, the faculty meeting is probably one of the most important structures we have in our schools. Over the past six months while running workshops of longer than 90 minutes, I have started using the World Café model which you can read more about here. If you click on the link you will learn that each table has a table host and one of their jobs is to make sure that everyone engages in conversation. And as you can imagine, high quality questions play a central role. This builds both self-efficacy (.63) and collective efficacy (1.57).

School Climate Matters
The difficult part about collaboration is that everything we did leading up to the moment we collaborate matters to how we move forward. If people lacked a voice in the processes that took place before they will feel less likely that this collaborative experience will be any different.

School climate matters to how well people collaborate. If they feel as though they have had a voice in previous experiences then they will be more likely to invest the time in the one they’re presently in. If they work in a school where risk-taking and challenging each other’s thinking is fostered, the people within the school will be more authentic in the new collaborative experience. If not, then collaboration will only lead to more compliance, and we have had far too much compliance in education over the last few decades.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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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.