Effective collaboration requires teachers to get their heads out of the sand and see what others are doing while relying on expertise to keep the sand out of their heads.
When teachers are stressed and overworked, it’s tempting for them to hunker down and bury their heads in the sand, choosing to seclude themselves in their own classrooms rather than take the time to look around and see what their colleagues might be doing. But of course, unless they observe and seek out help from those colleagues, they’ll likely never encounter new ideas about instruction or let go of tired old classroom practices. That is, unless they get their heads out of the sand, they’ll never get the sand out of their heads.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, and building on Dan Lortie’s classic 1975 study Schoolteacher, educational researchers began to give serious attention to professional collaboration in schools, exploring its value in contrast to traditions of teacher individualism and isolation. On average, they found, professional collaboration led to superior results in student achievement (Nias, Southworth, & Yeomans, 1989; Rosenholtz, 1989; Schleifer, Rinehart, & Yanisch, 2017; Talbert & McLaughlin, 1994). Further, strong links between professional collaboration and teacher effectiveness have continued to be observed over time and across various contexts, as confirmed by large-scale studies around the world (e.g., Day et al., 2007; Leana, 2011). For example, in its surveys of Teaching and Learning in Schools (TALIS), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded that professional collaboration tends to yield positive outcomes for student learning and achievement and for teacher motivation and retention (OECD, 2014; see also Papay & Kraft, 2017).
But not all collaboration is equally effective. Notably, Judith Warren Little (1990) has described a continuum of approaches, ranging from weak forms of teacher collaboration (involving, for example, nothing more than just the sharing of stories) to stronger ones involving joint efforts to analyze and solve significant problems of practice. Similarly, Andy Hargreaves and Ruth Dawe (1990) have pointed out that collaborative practices that have been mandated in a top-down fashion, or that seem “contrived,” can easily backfire, causing teachers to collaborate even less than before — indeed, this may help explain why many U.S. teachers say they dislike their professional development programs, including those meant to be “collaborative” in nature (Jacob & McGovern, 2015).
So the question is, what can be done to maximize the effectiveness of teachers’ collaborative experiences and minimize their flaws?
School and district leaders who want to improve collaboration have no shortage of options. Since the 1990s, professional learning specialists have created a number of approaches — such as data teams, professional learning communities, critical friends circles, and learning walks — designed to make professional collaboration more deliberate and effective. But which design should you choose? And how do you make sure it will fit your school’s unique circumstances and culture? The answer is to pay attention to two things: the solidarity of the group and the solidity or substance of its ideas and methods.
Solidarity without solidity
While we were writing this article, one of us visited an elementary school in Europe. Outside, on the stone steps of their outdoor theater, the grade 2 children joyfully sang their school song, featuring lyrics about belonging and togetherness. Inside, we met with the principal, who had been at the school for almost all of her career, along with some of her staff. The teachers said they loved the school and added that few colleagues had ever left their jobs. They supported each other, talked about the children and their teaching, and took an interest in each other’s lives. It was a perfect collaborative culture characterized by great solidarity — not the kind we associate with teachers unions (although that is important) but the sense of togetherness expressed in mutual support and the feeling that everyone is in the same boat and doing their best.
About a year ago, these educators decided to push this collaboration deeper by giving each other feedback, including ideas about how to improve. They began by observing each other’s classes, awarding a star for one thing that went well, along with two question marks about something to work on.
“How did that go down?” we asked.
“It was dreadful,” they replied.
The conversations disrupted the staff’s friendships rather than strengthening them. The teachers struggled to move their school culture, marked by strong personal relationships, to a deeper level, where tough questions can be asked, mistakes acknowledged, and alternatives provided in a way that is based on solid expertise concerning how to collaborate and what to collaborate about. Effective collaboration needs specific designs, protocols, structures, and processes to guide conversations so that peers can improve their practice without jeopardizing existing relationships. It needs solid expertise about curriculum, teaching, and learning, too.
Educators should be wary of a trend toward the “death of expertise,” in which no member of the group is expected to stand out as an authority.
Consider an example from a study one of us has been involved in (Hargreaves et al., 2018). Like a lot of school systems, Ontario, in Canada, has been focused of late on improving students’ learning and achievement in mathematics. Collaborative inquiry was a key component of the system’s earlier success in improving literacy instruction, so teachers and administrators decided to employ the same method once more. However, while elementary educators usually feel they already know a lot about literacy, many of them (particularly in North America) lack confidence in mathematics. This created problems because many of the collaborative inquiry groups included nobody with real expertise in the subject area.
In our visits, a number of district coaches and consultants didn’t realize that this might undermine their efforts. “Nobody’s an expert at anything,” they claimed, “and we’re just here to learn and grow and be the best that we can be.” But, in fact, authoritative knowledge has an indispensable role to play in teacher collaboration. Educators should be wary of a trend toward the “death of expertise,” in which no member of the group is expected to stand out as an authority, or in which everybody is assumed to have equally valid experience and knowledge (Nichols, 2017). Not only does this negate the hard-won expertise that some teachers have acquired, but it leaves the larger group adrift, without anybody to ground the inquiry process in solid research and knowledge.
Solidity without solidarity
If solidarity can benefit from more solidity, the converse is true as well. For example, imagine what’s likely to happen when a principal comes across an interesting new approach to fostering collaboration . . . and then tells teachers that they will be required to implement it.
According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group (2014), professional learning communities (PLCs) were one of the most disliked forms of professional development among surveyed teachers, even though providers and administrators were highly supportive of the approach. A given PLC model may seem to offer a promising blueprint for collective inquiry and shared decision making. But if teachers see it as (just another) reform imposed on them from above, then they’ll likely experience it as such. The protocols and terminology may be new, but they’ll grumble about being forced, yet again, to go through the motions of meeting with each other, agreeing on group norms, defining shared goals, and so on.
All too often, PLCs and other efforts to promote collaboration come across as contrived collegiality (Hargreaves, 1994). The research base may be solid, but unless the work is grounded in a strong culture of solidarity among teachers and between them and their administrators, the PLC will be a waste of time.
The meaning of collaborative professionalism
Collaborative professional relationships that positively influence student learning need better tools and deeper trust, clearer structures and stronger cultures, expertise and enthusiasm, knowing what to do and how to be with each other — both solidity and solidarity. Such collaborative professionalism requires what Judith Warren Little (1990) calls “joint work,” featuring rigor, dialogue, expertise, and open and honest feedback.
Over the last several years, we have studied and contributed to five examples of collaborative professionalism, located in five different parts of the world (Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2017, 2018):
- Collaborative curriculum planning in a network of rural schools (Pacific Northwest, United States)
- Lesson study (Hong Kong)
- Cooperative learning and working (Norway)
- Collaborative pedagogical transformation (Colombia), and
- Teacher-led professional learning communities (Ontario, Canada).
Although these designs differ from one another in various ways, each of them demonstrates what it means to combine a solid, rigorous approach to school improvement with efforts to cultivate solidarity among members of collaborative teams. Further, each represents an effort to pursue this sort of work at scale and over a sustained period of time. The collaborative designs we’ve examined are not limited to brief experiments at individual schools with special resources (extra investment, handpicked staff, or charismatic leadership). Rather, they are multisite initiatives that have been underway for many years.
Collaborative professional relationships need better tools and deeper trust, clearer structures and stronger cultures, expertise and enthusiasm, knowing what to do and how to be with each other.
Specifically, we documented how 30 rural schools across the Pacific Northwest created a thriving network of their own design; how government policy in Hong Kong supported three-year cycles of funding for school innovation over more than a decade; how school system leaders in Norway, Hong Kong, and Ontario made conscious decisions to focus patiently on key initiatives rather than inundating schools with multiple and contradictory reforms; how Ontario has provided meaningful support for collaborative inquiry throughout a system that includes more than 5,000 schools, and how Columbia’s initiative to create peace and democracy through education has spread across 25,000 schools within that country and beyond. Further, we learned that when they began this work, these schools and systems did not expect to see immediate results. Rather, they built and scaled up their models gradually — for example, it took five years to cocreate a thriving network in the Pacific Northwest, and school and system leaders worked patiently for almost a decade to refine their approaches in Ontario, Hong Kong, and Norway.
Below, we describe two of these examples in more detail.
Collaborative curriculum planning across rural schools
In the Pacific Northwest, we have worked for almost five years in partnership with Education Northwest, a regional education center, to help build a network linking more than 30 rural and remote schools. Serving many different kinds of communities (some of them facing high poverty, unemployment, and a declining population), their teachers are often the only teachers of their subject or grade level in their schools, and so they have little chance to interact with and learn from similar teachers. As one of them pointed out, “It’s hard to collaborate with yourself!”
Informed by examples of other networks from around the world, the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement (NW RISE) network was founded by the participating states and schools. The network’s major activity is to convene job-alike groups of educators (e.g., kindergarten teachers, principals, or math teachers), bringing them together to plan new curriculum units and instructional activities, with an emphasis on increasing students’ engagement with their learning and their communities. Participants chose this design, and they resolutely defend it as the core and most productive activity at their twice-yearly meetings.
Between meetings, the job-alike groups use Schoology (a learning management system), Skype, Google Hangouts, and e-mail to keep in touch and check in on their collective progress. The language arts group, for example, has designed curriculum units to enable high school students to improve their argumentative writing about issues such as the use of drones in agriculture and the military, or the use of 1:1 technology in schools. Moreover, not only do the teachers collaborate, but students across the schools also give each other feedback, using a peer-editing rubric, on essays that they post on Schoology.
As one teacher explained, the network offered her solidarity: “It’s been nice just to work with other people who have the same frustrations,” she said. But there was solidity to the collaboration, too, as knowledgeable peers regularly offered new ideas and insights about instruction that challenged her beliefs and practices. “I’ve been so isolated as a teacher. I just have gotten used to being my own boss and doing what I want and making my decisions,” she observed. “And then I have to come here and hear ideas that don’t necessarily go with mine and learn to be flexible and see others’ perspectives.”
It’s important to note, though, that the network wasn’t so productive and well designed from the start. It evolved over time, moving in zigzag fashion rather than in a straight line. In the early days, for example, the language arts group was content just to share unit resources; it took months before they began to cocreate units and debate those units’ strengths and weaknesses. The math group, too, progressed at a snail’s pace for a time, spending months trading examples of simple classroom problems before the conversation leaped forward in sophistication, with participants working together to design challenging activities in which students had to solve equations to open metal boxes with chains and combination locks. Meanwhile, the administrators’ group got off to the fast start one might expect from those whose work requires big-picture thinking — until someone pointed out that they were focusing on how to get other people to collaborate rather than on what they should collaborate about among themselves. Their fast start, they realized, had been a false start. After retreating for a while to the safer ground of talking about high school football, they plunged into a serious effort to rethink the purpose of classroom observations and redesign their observation protocols and tools.
In this case, the network’s design has been tailored to fit the given participants, their interests, and their needs, but it has also been informed by research into effective professional collaboration, which requires both social solidarity and a solid commitment to working together to identify and solve important educational problems. It took time for this network to mature, though. Teachers collaborated superficially before they began to work together more deeply, and their professional relationships evolved gradually, in fits and starts.
Is this network sustainable? That’s always difficult to predict, but it’s a good sign that participants have raised this question themselves. As federal resources become harder to procure, they aren’t waiting around for a magic money tree to appear. Less than halfway into their five-year project, they had already begun discussing ways to allocate existing funds to provide continuing support for their work.
Fanling Secondary School in Hong Kong is one of a network of 20 schools in the government system that has adapted a process of teacher inquiry, feedback, and collaboration from a 100-year-old tradition known as lesson study in Japan and open class at Fanling.
Fanling’s teachers are committed to a complex design for teaching and learning known as self-regulated learning. This approach divides a typical 50-minute lesson into multiple steps involving teacher presentation, whole-class question-and-answer, work in pairs, collaboration in groups of four, editing of each other’s comments, and presentations of results to the whole class. Twice a year, around 100 visitors to the school observe classes in groups of 10 or so at a time and then give feedback to the teachers. Some of this feedback can be very critical, pointing to issues like the small number of students teachers called on during the lesson or whether the fast pace of the lesson prevented deeper thinking. But even teachers who used to be upset by such feedback welcome it at Fanling. Why?
First, some observers are specifically directed to give critical feedback — it’s part of their role, not their personality. Second, there are clear norms that feedback must be respectful and considerate of the teacher’s situation. Last, although one teacher presents the lesson, the whole teacher team has previously prepared, taught, reviewed, and refined it, meaning that it does not belong to one of them, but to all of them.
Lesson study, as implemented at Fanling, looks like another bit of genius design that schools are sometimes eager to adopt. But once again, success with the solidity of the design depends on solidarity among teachers. Too often, administrators take an innovative collaborative design and try to graft it onto their schools without also establishing strong relationships with and among their teachers. At Fanling, though, relationship building has been a focus throughout. As one teacher, a 12-year veteran of the school, recalled, “[At first] there wasn’t much interaction between students and teachers,” or among teachers themselves. But over many years, the principal has made it a priority to build a more collaborative culture, one where teachers not only work in task-focused teams but also choose to eat together at lunchtime, for example, taking the opportunity to have informal discussions about their teaching, outside of the more formal lesson study process.
Relationships and rigor bring results
Leaders tend to invest in building relationships, on the one hand, or using precise methods to structure and guide collaborative work, on the other. But collaborative professionalism is about integrating relationships and rigor. This principle applies to our other cases, too:
- In a Norwegian school where teachers worked together intensively to analyze student data and plan instruction, teachers also chose to reserve time every day for hiking and other informal activities with students outside in nature, even in the depths of winter.
- A teacher-led learning community in northern Canada engaged Indigenous students in learning using hockey coaches’ insights into teamwork, leadership, and perseverance. The principals felt able to step aside because teachers had learned to collaborate effectively over many years beforehand.
- In Colombia, teachers in underserved rural communities tutor each other in methods that give student voice a central role in building peace and democracy in their schools and their country. These strategies have been developed in 25,000 schools over 40 years.
It’s easy to adopt a new model of teacher collaboration. But to bring that model to life, teachers must empower themselves and their colleagues to improve school and classroom practice together over time in relationships that are free from fear or threat. This is the heart of what Peter DeWitt (2016) calls collaborative leadership.
At the same time, leaders may be hesitant to adopt a new collaborative model at all, out of fear that this might inadvertently provoke conflict, envy, or resentment among teachers who already seem to be getting along harmoniously enough. But well-designed models include tools meant to reduce such conflicts. For example, critical friends protocols specifically encourage participants to listen nonjudgmentally when colleagues introduce problems of practice (Shirley & MacDonald, 2009). Similarly, collaborative models can provide a protected space where educators can present their work to colleagues without being made to feel they are bragging — for example, the U.S. National Writing Project designates an “author’s chair” that participants use when sharing successful practices (Lieberman & Wood, 2003).
Some teachers still want to do everything alone. Others are willing to share but lack the expertise needed to help each other improve instruction. And many school administrators are quick to exploit the idea of teamwork, requiring contrived collaborations that serve no purpose other than to burnish their own reputation for forward-thinking leadership.
But if they aim to improve teaching and learning over the long term, then educators will have to get their heads out of the sand and acknowledge that sustainable improvement requires both solidarity among colleagues and a solid grounding in research, expertise, and well-designed tools and protocols. One of K-12 education’s big challenges over the last 20 years has been to increase the frequency and quantity of professional collaboration in schools. The next big challenge is to improve the quality of that work, moving it in the direction of collaborative professionalism.
Boston Consulting Group. (2014). Teachers know best: Teachers’ views on professional development. Seattle, WA: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Day, C., Stobart, G., Sammons, P., Kington, A., & Gu, Q. (2007). Teachers matter: Connecting lives, work and effectiveness. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.
DeWitt, P.M. (2016). Collaborative leadership: Six influences that matter most.Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing teachers, changing times: Teachers’ work and culture in the postmodern age.New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Hargreaves, A. & Dawe, R. (1990). Paths of professional development: Contrived collegiality, collaborative culture, and the case of peer coaching. Teaching and Teacher Education, 6 (3), 227-241.
Hargreaves, A. & O’Connor, M.T. (2017). Collaborative professionalism. Monograph prepared for the World Innovation Summit for Education, Qatar, Qatar Foundation. www.wise-qatar.org/2017-wise-research-collaborative-professionalism
Hargreaves, A. & O’Connor, M.T. (2018). Collaborative professionalism: When teaching together means learning for all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Hargreaves, A., Shirley,D., Wangia, S., Bacon, C., & D’Angelo, M. (2018). Leading from the middle: Spreading learning, well-being, and identity across Ontario. Toronto, Canada: Council of Ontario Directors of Education Press.
Jacob, A. & McGovern, K. (2015). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development. New York, NY: The New Teacher Project.
Leana, C.R. (2011, Fall). The missing link in scool reform. Stanford
Lewis, C. (2002). Does lesson study have a future in the United States? Nagoya Journal of Education and Human Development, 1,1-23.
Lieberman, A. & Wood, D. (2003).Inside the National Writing Project: Connecting network learning and classroom teaching. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Little, J.W. (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers’ professional relations. Teachers College Record, 91 (4), 509-536.
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Nias, J., Southworth, G., & Yeomans, R. (1989). Staff relationships in the primary school: A study of organisational cultures. London, England: Cassell.
Nichols, T. (2017). The death of expertise: The campaign against established knowledge and why it matters. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (2014). TALIS 2013 results: An international perspective on teaching and learning,Paris: OECD Publishing, Paris.
Papay, J.P. & Kraft, M.A. (2017). Developing workplaces where teachers stay, improve, and succeed: Recent evidence on the importance of school climate for teacher success. In E. Quintero (Ed.), Teaching in context: The social side of education reform(p. 15-36). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educ
Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teachers’ workplace: The social organization of schools. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Schleifer, D., Rinehart, C., & Yanisch, T. (2017). Teacher collaboration in perspective: A guide to researh.New York, NY: Public Agenda.
Shirley, D. & MacDonald, E. (2009). The mindful teacher. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Talbert, J.E., & McLaughlin, M.W. (1994). Teacher professionalism in local school contexts. American Journal of Education, 102(2), 123-153.
Citation: Hargreaves, A. & O’Connor, M.T. (2018). Solidarity with solidity: The case for collaborative professionalism. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (1), 20-24.