The 3 Misconceptions of Collaboration
Every year Solution Tree hosts PLC Institutes attended by thousands of educators from all over the world and these events are often transformational experiences for the educators who attend. I speak from experience as I had my educational epiphany the first time I saw Dr. Rick DuFour speak about the PLC process 16 years ago.
The enthusiasm in the room is contagious as educators learn about how to build a collaborative culture focused on ensuring high levels of learning for all students. At the end of the events, educators return home, armed with new knowledge to pass on to their colleagues and a renewed sense of hope in the art of the possible. A guiding coalition is formed, teachers are placed in collaborative teams, and the work begins.
What could go wrong? Unfortunately, what often plays out is that the renewed enthusiasm is quickly eroded because educators charged with implementing the PLC process succumb to the misconceptions of collaboration.
Misconception: All Teachers Want To Collaborate
We assume this to be true because it makes logical sense. After all, a team of well-meaning intelligent people will naturally make better decisions and will produce better results than any one individual isolated teacher. Therefore, all teachers will want to be a part of a collaborative team.
Unfortunately, human beings aren't quite so logical. What we often find is that teachers don't want to collaborate, they want to be right. As a result, meetings often dissolve into the loudest voice or most dominant personality wins.
Years ago, I experienced this very thing when attempting to build a PLC culture in the second school I would principal. I was asked by one of my teams to chair a collaborative team meeting. They had expressed to me that they were having some difficulty making progress. I quickly agreed and set out to chair the best meeting ever. How hard could it be? I thought to myself. No sooner had the meeting started and I realized how naïve I had been and how greatly I'd underestimated the scale of dysfunction.
The team was comprised of two experienced teachers with dominant personalities and three teachers who were relatively new to the profession. Shortly after the meeting began I discovered why I was asked to chair. Unfolding in front of me, the two dominant personalities were disagreeing with each other while the other three watched the clock waiting for this nightmare to end.
Chairing this meeting was like playing whack-a-mole at the fair as I spent the whole time trying to regulate the disagreement between my two experienced teachers while the newbies sat in silence and observed the chaos. The entire experience was unbelievably frustrating and I left the meeting a little deflated wondering what I was going to do to rectify this situation.
I knew that I must have missed something when I organized the teams, so I went back and reread the chapter in Learning By Doing called “Building a Collaborative Culture of a Professional Learning Community.”
There I discovered my answer: I had failed to have my teams create team norms. Norms are the commitments teachers make to each other regarding how they will conduct their meetings. This was a step I had skipped because my previous school was quite small, with only eight teachers, and they all got along. Somehow, we managed to build a successful learning community without making collective behavioural commitments.
However, it was clear that I was not going to be so lucky in a school with 13 different teams. Interestingly enough, after this team created and adhered to their team norms they became the highest achieving team in the school. The two teachers still didn’t like each other, but the norms helped them focus on the work of the team instead of their own agendas.
Misconception: Teachers Know What To Collaborate About
I often have school principals question the need to have teams commit to answering the four questions when they collaborate. After all, teachers are professionals, they tell me, and professionals know what they need to do. I wish this were true.
Unfortunately, the reality is most teachers equate collaboration with sharing. When I present to rooms full of educators I joking tell them that our inability to effectively collaborate can be blamed on kindergarten teachers. After all, they are the wonderful people who taught us that sharing is a good thing. I usually follow that statement by telling them that sharing is the death of effective collaboration. As confusion fills the room I explain the difference between sharing and building shared knowledge.
The problem with sharing is that there is no requirement to change practice. If I sit at a table with a teacher who shares their “greatest lesson of all time” with me I will respond the same way that most human beings will. I will thank them for their kindness and let them know that I will use this when I get to that section of the curriculum. Upon returning to my classroom I will place it gently on the shelf never to be looked at again.
This response is extremely logical. After all, it is polite to show gratitude toward our colleague for caring enough to share their work, which is why we thank them. The reason we are unlikely to use the lesson is that we didn’t participate in its creation. The creative process greatly increases ownership and understanding. In other words, when we create, we naturally feel ownership for the product and as a result, we also have context for how to use it. Simply sharing ideas does not build a sense of accountability, and as a result, teacher practice is unlikely to change.
Building shared knowledge is the exact opposite. For a team to commit to a course of action all members must participate in the creation of a shared product and purpose. To build shared knowledge, a team of teachers would each bring their best thinking to the table to discuss and dissect each idea in a process of learning together. The product or course of action they decide on will represent new knowledge and a commitment to move forward as a team. Everyone will understand what is expected of them to accomplish their shared goal.
The importance of building shared knowledge is exactly why successful teams focus on the four questions of a PLC. To successfully answer these questions a team must work interdependently toward a common goal to which they will feel mutually accountable. Only when this level of cognition is achieved can a team hope to become highly effective.(Related Blog: Don’t Mistake Simple Sharing for Collective Action)
Misconception: Teams Are Committed To The Work of Improvement
A professional learning community is kind of like being pregnant: either you are or you’re not. I once had a principal tell me that their school was doing “PLC lite” which I understood to mean “PLC not at ALL”! The evidence I used to draw this conclusion came in a subsequent conversation where he told me that they hoped to have their LA essential outcomes completed this year. This sounded reasonable until he said they had been working on them for 4 years.
From time to time, I have been privileged enough to host educators from other parts of the country at my school because of my school’s inclusion on the allthingsplc.info website. During one such visit the principal told me that they had been a PLC for the past five years. My response to this statement was “Wow! You must have some excellent results.” To which she responded, “Well, we are really hoping they get better soon.” Both of these stories highlight the fact that neither school was truly becoming a PLC. (Related Blog: Is Your ‘Real’ PLC Getting Real Results?)
Both schools suffered from misconception number three: the belief that teacher teams are committed to the work of improvement. In reality, the vast number of failed initiatives we have subjected teachers to has led many teachers to develop a wait-it-out attitude. In other words, “this too shall pass.” Combating this attitude requires teachers to experience success through participation in the collaborative process. As Dr. DuFour says, the entire purpose of a collaborative team is to produce results. Results that change teacher practice and improve outcomes for both teachers and students. Teachers can only experience improved results if they become the most prolific learners in the school, which means they must do the work.
To ensure that the work gets done, a school’s guiding coalition must develop a sense of reciprocal accountability amongst all of the adults within the school. Reciprocal accountability means that everyone develops a sense of responsibility to not let anyone down by demonstrating commitment to doing the work necessary to move the school forward.
During the past eight years, my school’s guiding coalition has developed an internal system of accountability. All teacher teams use an agreed upon schoolwide template to describe the work their team will commit to (see a sample collaborative team plan template). In September, every team in our school uses this template to create a collaborative plan focused on ensuring high levels of learning for all students. In the first week of October, each team meets with the guiding coalition to discuss their plan, receive feedback and identify areas that they feel they need support from the guiding coalition. The conversation is a two-way street that flows out of a mutual commitment to continuous improvement. The teams understand that their responsibility is to create a plan that will actually produce evidence of increased student learning. While the guiding coalition accepts the role of creating the conditions for team success.
The collaborative team is the engine that drives the PLC process, but unfortunately, effective collaboration does not happen by chance. Rather, it is a byproduct of deliberate action. Understanding and addressing the three misconceptions of collaboration will definitely move a school closer to developing the collaborative culture necessary to become a PLC.