Collaboration should be flexible and differentiated
I’m a bit disappointed in myself today. I was meditating on the inservice on Friday morning. I offered an opinion to my assembled colleagues that lacked thought and contradicted my own beliefs on collaboration in the classroom. I wish desperately I could have a do over.
We were asked to respond to eight areas of concern about the process used in our learning improvement teams over the previous two years. The sharing activity involved quickly circulating around the gym and posting thoughts. We read previous group’s sticky notes and add our own. I had selected a bold black gel pen for the activity, apparently the only person without a modest blue ink. The session presenters certainly knew who made those black comments, but that is okay. I own my words.
As best as I can recall, I was responding to a concern about dealing with colleagues who were unwilling to collaborate in their assigned teams. Perhaps these teachers did not agree with the proscribed process, the goal of uniformity, or collaboration itself. Their unwillingness to cooperate makes the team dysfunctional. These sorts of reasons motivated my response. I asserted that the other team members should address this with the person, and inevitably the school based administrator should intervene. “All learning is connected!” I emphasized. The implication being, that participation and collaboration with an assigned group is not a choice. We must all, “Do the work.”
What I overlooked in my quick response were those colleagues who were having problems with the process for other reasons. Perhaps they remained confused by the process. There might be significant trust issues arising from past experience or current relationships within the team. A colleague might be at the point in their career where unfamiliar strategies are unacceptable risks. We all like to work to our strengths, and most of us believe that benefits the students more. Finally, I need to stress that collaboration does not work well for everyone.
My shared opinion really did not address this. It also included the knee-jerk response that the heavy hand of administration needed to come down on someone so collaboration could happen. That is not a very nuanced response.
I find there is a constant tension in my practice about group work. Do I assign groups or allow students to select their own partners? Mostly I assign groups randomly, or by some critical criteria. The argument is to present young people with opportunities to exchange strengths with unfamiliar people and avoid encouraging cliques or exclusion. I would still argue we should do this in our classrooms.
Part of the tension in group work is whether to require collaboration, or offer it as an option. I believe passionately that we need to see all our learning as connected to other people’s learning. This connectedness is inherent in learning, whether a teacher attempts to limit the connection to a textbook and single adult, multiplies the connection through peers, or untethers learning from the classroom. The tension for me lies in whether we should empower students to make their own choices about connections.
Put more concretely, if a student says she wants to switch groups, or prefers to do the work by herself, do I enforce compliance or accommodate? I have come to see this as a subjective decision. It is situational and requires professional judgement. Increasingly, I do allow shifts in grouping or students to opt out; just as I also allow collaborations when my plan was for individual effort.
If I transferred this practice to Learning Improvement Teams, I would advocate more flexibility in composition and a recognition that perhaps not everyone needs to be in a group. Some people, for varied reasons, will not fit. Judgements need to be made about this in conversation with the participants. In a different context, collaboration might make sense.
I know exactly why I referenced the ultimate authority of the school based administrators in my comment. That is the teacher’s lizard brain reacting to conflict. If we are not getting along, bring in the adult. We like our students to resolve problems themselves, but we intervene frequently. They rely on us to do so, and so teachers, in their turn, rely on administrators to clean things up. There are many reasons why a collaborative team might become dysfunctional. I think my comment should have emphasized that the team should be able to work out its own solutions.