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Collaboration, or a cosy chat?

For many years now we have talked about the power of collaboration for school and professional development. We hear a lot of talk about this and professional dialogue and conversations. But, should collaboration be viewed as more than this? My contention is that it should be, after all you know what they say about talk and its value? It's cheap. There is no doubt that talk is crucial to social cohesion and communication, but it is my belief that collaboration needs to be more than this.

Collaboration is a crucial aspect of human and professional development and learning. In my view, talk only becomes truly collaborative when it is focused on a common purpose, otherwise it's just a chat. True collaboration should be about the desire to work together to achieve improved outcomes, that would be impossible to deliver whilst working alone. Collaboration should challenge the status quo and provide the vehicle for innovation and development at all levels. Collaboration needs to be an active process, not something that promotes inertia.

In 'What's Worth Fighting For In Headship', written by Michael Fullan and published in 2008, school leaders were identified as key in developing collaborative cultures for working and development in schools. In 2008 Fullan wrote, 'We have known for a quarter of a century that focused collaborative cultures generate greater student learning.' He recognised how such collaborative cultures were being deliberately created at that time under the label of professional learning communities, or PLCs. These have continued developing and evolving right up to the current time and have been further refined by the work of Helen Timperley, Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Andy Hargreaves and others, including Fullan himself. Collaboration is very much seen as the strategy for sindividual, school and system development.

In 'What's Worth Fighting For In Headship' Fullan also recognised that there was an issue with new concepts like PLCs, as they were at that time. This is that new terms tend to travel a lot quicker than the deep understanding of what they actually entail, and what the research they are based on says. This leads to 'mutations' of new concepts as people rush to 'tick that box' before they actually understand the often complex concepts properly. So, people hear the need to collaborate, and hear that PLCs are the way to do this, then they rush into implementation mode, without due thought or preparation, which would give them the best chance to actually work like they should. This can lead to lots of schools believing they collaborate and have collaborative cultures, but actually nothing much has changed and no-one has sought to link this to improvement in outcomes for learners. What you may see is perhaps lots of time given over to professional dialogue, or talk, but with little focus on what this dialogue is supposed to be about. Such 'collaboration' can soon descend into cosy chats that actually have little positive impacts for learners.

For collaboration to have the greatest impacts on schools and learners, it needs to be focused. There has to be a common purpose for those who are collaborating. All need to be clear as to what it is they are trying to achieve, and should then be using the collective knowledge and experience of the collaborators to achieve a solution, and to move forward. All will be clear about expectations and how they will know if they have been successful. They will understand the complexity of initiating and embedding sustainable change and improvement and will be able to deal with unexpected results and consequences, whilst still having the main aims at the forefront of their thinking and practice. When these conditions are met, everyone benefits. Learners, practitioners, schools and systems. True collaboration is a dynamic and organic process

Our own experiences with practitioner enquiry reflect all of the above. What started out as individual practitioners looking closely and systematically at aspects of their own practice, and learning, in their own classrooms, soon promoted more focused collaboration between all, with benefits for all. We would like to think that we had a culture that promoted collaboration before we embarked on our journey with practitioner enquiry, some seven years ago. But, one of the things practitioner enquiry did do, is give us a common focus around learning and teaching for our professional dialogue and collaborations, both formal and informal. We also developed a common language and common understandings, as we shared successes and failures, and shared learning from each.

I really believe that collaboration and collaborative cultures are the only way to promote deep and sustainable change and development. I still worry that too many in the system still see a version of 'collaboration' that is top down and very much a one way system. True collaboration sees all partners as equal and able to contribute towards the collective good and aims. I have repeated Ken Blanchard's  management mantra many times, 'None of us is bright as all of us.' If we truly believe this to be the case then we need a collaborative culture that is democratic, listens to all voices, and accepts that all can contribute to common aims and solutions to issues.

Michelle Jones tweeted a quote the other day which said, 'Collaboration is not about gluing together existing egos. It's about the ideas that never existed until everyone entered the room.' Says it all, really.

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