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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

Why Collaboration Doesn’t Work

By Peter DeWitt — July 24, 2016 5 min read
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Collaboration. We want our students to do it, but as adults we don’t always want to be a part of it. Collaboration is at risk, or it may have happened in some districts already, of becoming the next 4 letter word in education.

There are many aspects to collaboration that are inspiring. We learn from people who have a different mindset from us. New ideas are explored and we come out feeling invigorated by the synergy of the group, and it reminds us of our high school and college days when we were part of a team that accomplished big things.

For full disclosure, I usually enjoy collaboration. Running workshops and working with teachers, leaders or students can be an awesome experience. I walk into each one hoping to learn something positive and valuable that I can bring with me to the next experience.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen. There are times when the group doesn’t work well together or they stay in the land of nice where they don’t offer real, honest feedback to everyone. Other times it’s because they’re afraid to speak up because they may get in trouble long after I leave the workshop...yes, that has happened.

Perhaps it’s because I attended the annual Visible Learning Conference in Washington D.C. this week, which had me reflecting on last year’s Visible Learning Conference, but I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration. Last year, I sat in the front row listening to John Hattie (someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer) talk about how the growth mindset doesn’t work, which you can read more about here. I wrote the blog as John talked, sent it to him after, and posted it the next day.

The reason why that has me thinking about collaboration in the same way I thought about the growth mindset a year ago, is that there are people who say they collaborate when they really don’t; just like there are people who say they focus on the growth mindset, when they really live with a fixed one.

Why Collaboration Doesn’t Work?
It’s important to realize that collaboration with a partner or group can be highly beneficial and get us to raise our own bar to a higher level. But there are many times when it doesn’t work, and we need not blame collaboration for it. We need to look at the process and the people who are involved, because that is where the issue may lie.

The following are some of the reasons why collaboration may not be working for you:
Why collaborate? - Why are we collaborating in the first place? If we can’t answer that, then we shouldn’t move on. Questions that should be asked around collaboration...

What is the benefit?

What will this lead to?

Process lacks clarity - If the process is not established with the group at the first meeting, the whole collaborative effort may be at risk of failing. Besides just the individual roles we all must play in a collaborative group, people need to know why they are collaborating in the first place. Additionally, we also need to understand that we don’t get fully what we want but perhaps we find a better want during the process. How will this process foster growth? If those questions can’t be answered, leaders should forget the process and just move forward with the decision.

Yes” People - If staff, teachers or parents believe the group chosen are just the “yes” people who will give the answer that the leaders want, then the collaborative process is flawed from the very beginning. This is where teacher leadership and instructional coaching is flawed as well. If the people chosen are just the ones who have an invisible “Welcome” sign stamped on their forehead, and will be the ones who don’t offer input but charge ahead with whatever the leader wants, they will lack credibility with those in the trenches. Additionally, one of the issues with compliance rather that authentic engagement is that many people join a group to feel wanted and don’t always feel as though they can give their honest answers. They leave that input for when they get home and vent to their partner or spouse.

Decision is already made- This is a pet peeve of many teachers and parents. The final decision has already been made but leaders and school officials go through the fishbowl exercise (or dog and pony show) knowing full-well what they want to do already, but have the group think tank to act as though they care about input. Not everyone may catch onto this from the beginning but those who do find this very frustrating and resentment builds during the process.

No” People - There are many reasons why there are no people on staff. Perhaps they have been frustrated with the process in the past and don’t want to set themselves up again. Other times no people are those who don’t believe their job title should force them into collaboration. No people can be very toxic to any collaborative experience, but there must be some time questioning how they got to be no people in the first place. Perhaps it’s due to a low level of self-efficacy.

School climate - We often talk about collaboration and yet can’t figure out why it doesn’t work or why people don’t want to collaborate. First and foremost it begins with the school climate. School climate isn’t just one more thing to think of because it is actually the plate that everything else sits on. Without a supportive and inclusive school climate collaboration will not reach it’s full potential.

In the End
There are times when decisions have already been made and we have to figure out how best to make it all work...which should lead to collaboration. However, at some point we also have to trust our judgment, and that the conversations have been exhausted, and it’s time to move on.

Hattie talks a lot about the Goldilocks Principle, which works well where collaboration is concerned. We can’t be too soft, we can’t be too hard, but we do have to find the right balance in it all. If we consider what it is we want to collaborate on, the process to take, the people involved, and how it all fits into our context, collaboration can be very powerful.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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.