COLLABORATION ISN’T A BUZZWORD
Updated: Nov 1
DON’T TRIVIALIZE IT. IT'S NOT THE SAME AS COOPERATION
If you were a principal or superintendent in the 1950s through the 1970s, your bookshelf likely included Kimball Wiles’ Supervision for Better Schools: The Role of the Official Leader in Program Development. Wiles’ work was among the most cited in his era. It was among the first publications for education leaders that incorporated the frontier work in the group dynamics and human relations fields, heretofore absent from the leader’s playbook.
In his preface, Wiles wrote, “You can use this book to supplement or to contradict your own experience. If it is at variance with your conclusions, I hope it will lead you to re-examine your own analysis. Groups will be able to use it as a hypothesis to test against their experience and through their work together.”
The word collaboration hadn’t entered the K-12 education lexicon in the 1950s when Wiles published his seminal work. Collaboration of playwrights and musicians was common, as was the term collaborationist, though it was a term used mostly disparagingly, often to describe persons plotting for one reason or another. The earliest use of the word collaboration that I found in the education literature was in the title of an article published in Higher Education Quarterly in 1950. It’s time has since come. Collaboration is the polar opposite of isolation, probably the most dominant of organizational traits in education.
Collaboration means much more than working together as a group. I think of collaboration as cooperation squared. When we cooperate, problems get addressed. When we collaborate, problems get solved, often in unexpected and novel ways that exceed everyone’s expectations. In The Construction of Shared Knowledge in Collaborative Problem Solving, Stephanie Teasley from the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, and Jeremy Roschelle from the School of Education at UC Berkeley, describe the difference between cooperation and collaboration:
Cooperation is accomplished by the division of labor among participants as an activity where each person is responsible for solving a portion of the problem.
Collaboration is a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem.
Collaboration isn’t a buzzword. It’s not a fad or a trend. It’s essential as a 21st Century operational tool. Education has a way of trivializing such words. Once they move into the world of education jargon they take on a life of their own. The word collaboration has historically been used to describe important acts and events such as dramatic collaborations among literary giants, or heads of state, or captains of industry. There are 95,753 books, articles, or other documents with “collaboration” in the title, dating back to 1790. When I included education as a subject, the search yielded 6,767 results dating back to 1930 in Australia. It wasn’t until 1970 that it first appeared related specifically to the act of collaborating at a school site: Collaboration in school guidance: a creative approach to pupil personnel work (Sarvis, M.A. 1970).
At about the same time, an article in Educational Leadership titled, Educating Teachers for Collaboration, was written by Robert Strom (1971). He wrote, “The phenomenal growth of knowledge has made it impossible for educators to fully know even their specialty. Thus, it is imperative that priority be given to learning how to collaborate. There is strong support for the position that collaboration should be operationalized between principals, supervisors, colleagues or other "help- agents" and individual teachers." Strom added::
"Operationalized collaboration includes conditions that provide a milieu in which mutual understanding, trust, and support exist between members of the school organization. It also provides an arena in which authentic and creative behavior can be expressed. There is also evidence to support a contention that the collaborative process could provide an opportunity for stimulation, enjoyment, originality, and growth in dyadic creativity.”
Shortly thereafter, a study titled Teacher collaboration for the improvement of instruction using an electronic feedback system was published (Steere, J., 1973). The purpose of this investigation was to determine the effects of utilizing an Electronic Feedback System (a wireless microphone- transmitter and receiver-earphone combination) to provide instantaneous feedback to student teachers during the instructional process, to examine relationships between selfhood structure and acceptance of collaborative feedback, and to develop and evaluate criteria, processes and procedures, materials, and electronic devices to implement the research. The author identified the inability of people with diverse skills, perceptions, and abilities to work together for the accomplishment of common goals and objectives and subsequently the reasons many contemporary innovations have failed.
I think you get the idea. Collaboration is not a new idea. But it is a misunderstood concept. Simply working together as a group is not collaboration. Collaboration as an idea has always had a grand purpose in mind. A higher purpose. The purpose that attracted us all to the profession in the first place.
I think of teachers collaborating with a purpose no less important than the reasons literary giants, heads of state, or captains of industry arranged to collaborate: to do something memorable.
Teachers who engage in collaborative practices with their colleagues are more likely to teach this critical 21st Century skill to their students.