• Allan J. Mucerino

NAME THE ELEPHANT

Collaboration and Adaptive Schools


Bob Garmston, co-developer of Cognitive Coaching and Adaptive Schools, opened a 2009 Journal of Staff Development article on collaborative culture, titled, Please Do Disturb: 3 Ways to Stir Up Groups and Increase Their Effectiveness, by describing collaborative teams through the lens of complexity theory borrowing from the work of Marcial Losada, who pioneered work on applications of nonlinear dynamics. He compared collaborative teams to weather systems and national economies, inasmuch as collaborative teams are composed of independent but interrelated elements making up a whole. They are organized by nonlinear feedback mechanisms that are continuously responding to other elements in the system. Understanding their dynamics is not possible using linear logic; instead, we need to use sophisticated nonlinear mathematical models.

We now know exactly how high-functioning collaborative teams operate. Yet, there remain many schools and districts that are not doing everything in their power and beyond to ensure that all collaborative teams are functioning at a high level. It's indefensible that schools and districts are messing around with structure, procedures and other formal attributes of the system instead of on the internal substance of reform.


High-functioning collaborative teams build capacity for systemic solutions, an element of an effective driver, according to Fullan. High-functioning collaborative teams work directly on changing the culture of school systems (values, norms, skills, practices, relationships). The evidence that collaborative teams of educators who work interdependently to achieve common goals significantly improve student achievement is conclusive and indisputable.

Arguably, most collaborative teams still function at less than optimal levels.

Why? Good question. The primary reason is that everyone isn’t a believer in systems thinking. After all, it's a business model. Many educators have resisted the intrusion of business into school management. Other reasons are linked to institutional isomorphism and a system immutable to change. Business models have been more successful when they borrow heavily from science or have been repackaged as an education innovation. Examples of the former and latter include Adaptive Schools and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).

The foundation of PLCs is based on the fundamental principle of systems thinking and its distinction as a learning organization, compared to the traditional authoritarian organization.

The longstanding model of teacher supervision is an example of the traditional education authoritarian organization, with its intense focus on the individual, discounting the conditions and constraints of the systems within which the individual works. Thankfully we are beyond the notion that improving the effectiveness of an individual teacher will improve the organization.

As William Deming observed, "Put a good person in a bad system and the system will win every time."

The Deming Cycle is among the lenses my first-year doctoral candidates will study this semester when we explore education change models. We will also study Cooperrider's Appreciative Inquiry framework, Schon's and Argyris’ Single/Double loop learning framework, and Senge's model of a learning organization. All four frameworks look at the organization as a system.


Before looking at the elements of highly successful collaborative teams, let's agree to scratch the following flawed and failed attempts to improve student achievement through improved instruction:

  • School districts typically create elaborate teacher supervision plans in the hope that superiors can evaluate subordinates into better performance.

  • An intense focus on the individual, discounting the conditions and constraints of the systems within which they work.

  • Financial incentives to pursue random graduate courses or attend disconnected and isolated workshops.

Back to Garmston’s article. Its purpose was to explore three elements educators should create in order to increase the productivity of collaborative teams. Using the Adaptive Schools framework for high-functioning collaborative groups, collaborative teams should adopt norms of collaboration, ensure a broad perspective is present for planning, and name elephants.

The key is to disturb the habitual patterns of communication, thus setting into motion two principles of nonlinear systems: (1) Everything affects everything else; and (2) Tiny events cause major disturbances.

Element 1: Norms of collaboration. In high-performing teams, the ratio of positive communication to negative communication is in the 5 to 1 range. Garmston & Wellman have identified ratios as low as 1 to 20 for low-performing teams. High-performing teams balanced inquiry and advocacy well too. Low-performing teams advocated more than inquired, at a rate of 3 to 1.


The norms are based on seven deceptively simple skills:

  1. Pausing

  2. Paraphrasing

  3. Inquiring

  4. Probing

  5. Put ideas on the table

  6. Pay attention to self and others

  7. Presume positive intention

Element 2: Ensure a broad perspective for planning is present. Is the group demographically diverse and composed of people with a variety of perspectives? If not, it’s important during the planning phase to find perspectives not present. Perhaps an administrator, coach, or other member of the school team can provide the missing perspective(s). It’s also important that there is a divergent-convergent rhythm present to balance uninhibited exploration and critical organization and refinement.


Element 3: Naming elephants. The proverbial elephant in the boardroom. Naming the elephant disturbs a system of unstated agreement not to talk about that which is hard to talk about. Referred to as courageous conversations, talking about uncomfortable issues is difficult but has the power to unleash productive interactions and lead to highly effective communication. The elephant walk is a common Adaptive School practice to identify hidden perceptions. As team members walk around interacting with one another focused on discussing what elephants they might be aware of, the team can address the tensions and improve group performance and satisfaction. Often times it is a team member with a negative attitude or an intimidator. The team must openly identify the counterproductive behavior.

The “elephants” are usually either problems or polarities.

Elephants as problems:

  • Intimidator(s) on team

  • Working around an intimidating employee(s)

  • Working with an individual(s) with a negative attitude

  • Working around an inadequate employee(s)

Elephants as polarities:

  • Novice versus experienced staff members

  • Working within district systems that need fixing

Instructional teams, and the schools and districts that support them, have the same two primary goals: high student achievement and happy employees. Effective schools, districts, and site-level teams acknowledge this goal agreement...and if that's not the case than it's the elephant in the boardroom. Good time to take a walk.