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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

Collaborative Professionalism. We Can’t Do It Alone.

By Peter DeWitt — June 20, 2018 6 min read
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No profession can serve people effectively if its members do not share and exchange knowledge about their expertise or about the clients, patients, or students they have in common. Andy Hargreaves & Michael T. O’Connor

A few weeks ago I posted a blog asking whether people are blithely unaware of how educational research impacts them. In the blog I compared educators knowledge of educational research to a scene in the Devil Wears Prada. Yes, it was the first time I used Devil Wears Prada to highlight our need to understand educational research.

One of the reasons why this idea was explored is not to talk down to educators. It was actually quite the opposite. I believe we need to find a way to balance our gut feeling barometer that we often use to decide if something works in our classrooms and schools, and take a look at what the research says may work best. I know that’s difficult given our day to day interactions with colleagues, students and families, but if we don’t, we will continue to operate in a way that may not be working.

One of the places we should begin is through collaboration because we have too many issues in school such as students who experience trauma, district initiatives, school building goals, family engagement, and of course, student learning. We need to collaborate in order to learn from others and put best practices in place.

What is Collaborative Professionalism?
At its best, collaboration inspires collective efficacy where group members challenge each other’s thinking during a time when they explore a problem of practice. At its worse, collaboration means compliant seat time where the adults sit in a room together, and meaningful work doesn’t really get accomplished because those individuals in the room don’t challenge each other’s thinking.

In Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All, Andy Hargreaves and Michael T. O’Connor explore collaboration from multiple levels. In the book the authors write,

We’ve looked at whether and why elementary teachers use their time outside the classroom in individual or collaborative ways. We’ve analyzed how high school teachers tend to collaborate in separate subgroups, often defined by their subject departments. We’ve investigated what factors create positive and negative emotions in teachers’ relationships with their colleagues.

In this important book, Hargreaves and O’Connor explore what we should stop doing during our collaboration time, like focusing too much on “data dashboards and digits.” The authors explore what we should continue doing, such as making the move to deeper collaborative professionalism which “occurs when the formal and informal, long-term and short-term aspects of collaborative activity become increasingly complex and integrated as a way of life and not only a set of activities or events.” They also focus on what we should start doing, which is involving students in the collaborative process where they can create and share their own ideas, not just follow the ideas of their teachers.

For full disclosure, I am the series editor for this book by Hargreaves and O’Connor. Not only am I a big fan of Andy and Michael as people, but I respect their research on collaborative professionalism because many schools engage in collaboration, but they still don’t get the biggest bang for their buck. We can change that through collaborative leadership where leaders engage in some of the collaboration, and understanding collaborative professionalism, which is a topic Hargreaves has explored for many years.

In the book, which is filled with practical guidance, Hargreaves and O’Connor give multiple international examples based in research. It’s easy for some educators to look at examples from other countries and have the “Our kids are different” attitude. Hargreaves and O’Connor understand this dilemma and offer universal international examples that we can use regardless of our own context. The examples provided give us insight into what works for one group, and allows us to open our minds around our own context, and think of ways these examples can work for us.

Ten Tenets of Collaborative Professionalism
At the end of the book, Hargreaves and O’Connor offer readers ten tenets that they can use to move forward in building collaborative professionalism. Those tenets are listed below but covered in much more detail in the book. They are:


  • Collective Autonomy- educators should have more “independence from top-down bureaucratic authority.”
  • Collective Efficacy- Together we can make a difference.
  • Collaborative Inquiry- teachers routinely explore problems, issues, or differences of practice together in order to improve or transform what they are doing.
  • Collective Responsibility- “is about people’s mutual obligation to help each other.”
  • Collective Initiative- “In collaborative professionalism, there are fewer initiatives, but there is more initiative. Teachers step forward, and the system encourages it or, at the very least, does not impede it.”
  • Mutual Dialogue- Talk about the work and challenge each other’s thinking.
  • Joint Work- “joint work connects people and binds them together to construct something bigger than themselves.”
  • Common Meaning and Purpose- This happens when teachers get together and are allowed to explore ideas that are bigger than test scores.
  • Collaborating with Students- “In the very deepest forms of collaborative professionalism, as we discovered, students are actively engaged with their teachers in constructing change together. In this respect, student voice is the extreme end of student engagement.”
  • Big Picture Thinking for All- So often teachers and students are left out of the big picture, and this topic is usually left to the school leaders. Hargreaves and O’Connor believe that’s flawed thinking. Everyone should be allowed to see the big picture.

In the End
In so many schools, teachers are meeting with each other. As we dig down deeper though, we find that fewer of these collaborative efforts include the ten tenets that Hargreaves and O’Connor write about in Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All.

This book is a short form book, which means that it is jam-packed with research and practical ideas that we can easily read and digest today, and use with colleagues to put into practice tomorrow.

And one of the most important things for me is that Andy Hargreaves always seems to have “gotten it.” When I was a principal speaking out against some of the worst accountability measures I had ever seen, Andy was right there providing the research to why the accountability measures wouldn’t work. He deeply understands the world of teachers and leaders, as does Michael T. O’ Connor, and they provide a balanced approach between our own self-responsibility as educators, and what they have seen work in classrooms and schools.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.

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