Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Meaning of Collaboration: Power, Security and Control

Sixty five years ago collaboration was a dirty word.  Collaborators were traitors, like the Vichy French or Vidkum Quisling, who materially assisted the Nazi repression.  Suddenly in the 21st century collaboration is all the rage in labor-management relations.  How can union leaders avoid becoming little quislings and selling the rank and file down the road? 
In a word, expectations.  A willingness to collaborate with management doesn’t mean we are lowering our standards.  In fact, it means we are raising them.  In the modern collaborative labor management relationship, the end goals of the mutual enterprise must be placed first by all parties.
In education, this means fantastic student learning is the most important outcome.  Any adult interest that does not in some small way promote this outcome is excluded from the conversation.  Student learning becomes a gateway to the discussion.  In a broad sense, the adults trade their power for influence over student learning.
In a more fine grained sense, the equation looks like this: labor gives up security, management gives up control.  In exchange, teachers gain control of their professional lives, and administration gains the flexibility to manage for maximum student benefit. 
To understand why this is important, we need to bring it down to the classroom level.  Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham speaks of the conundrum that while progressive teaching techniques are universally regarded in the profession as the best way to educate, some 90% of the time educators actually use lectures, worksheets, etc – techniques that are the diametric opposite of the things we supposedly value.
Willingham attributes this to the fact that educators, like all human beings, have cognitive limits.  This doesn’t mean we’re stupid, it simply means we can’t know everything.  Cooperative group work, Responsive Classroom, project based learning, service learning, and similar techniques are cognitively demanding – in short, exhausting.
This is an interesting argument, but I believe there is another reason that teachers eschew progressive techniques in the classroom.  These techniques are deeply collaborative in nature; they rely on rich and delicate social relations.  There is this expectation that teachers will create these deeply collaborative classroom environments, because this is considered the best way to teach.
How can such classroom environments thrive in school systems which are hierarchical, in which top-down decision making is the rule, and in which adversarial labor-management relationships are the norm?  These are systems in which administrators micromanage classroom practice from afar, yet lack the information to make grounded decisions.  Teachers become subject to arbitrary and nonsensical administrative fiat, which dis-empowers them, abrogates their professional judgment, and demoralizes them.  How can people working under the thumb of these quasi-military command hierarchies reasonably be expected to educate students in progressive ways?
That teachers manage this feat at all in the face of systems designed to defeat them is a testament to  the collective excellence of the profession.
In order to guarantee the best possible educational experience and outcomes for students, there needs to be symmetry of expectations up and down the hierarchical food chain.  If you want collaboration at the classroom level, it has to be present throughout the system.  This is where a collaborative labor management relationship can turbocharge education.
In a true collaborative relationship, administrators drive down the decision making to level of implementation, where the information actually exists to make decent decisions.  In so doing they build the overall decision making capacity of the organization.  They are facilitators of the professional work and strive to empower the professionals in their care.  This is giving up control.
Peer assistance and review systems (PARS) are often found where collaboration has taken root.  PARS is designed to take the arbitrariness out of personnel decisions by creating a professional consensus in the community.  When the consensus leads to non-renewal  of non-performing individuals, the process is expedited.  This is giving up security.
Contrast this with the current cat and mouse scenario in so many places where adversarial relations rule.  Labor and management play a game of chicken, each side playing legalistic levers to see what it can get away with.  Adversarial relationships add no value to the student experience – in fact they degrade it.
Collaboration in 2011 means something considerably different than it did in 1946.  It means much higher expectations for all: a democratically empowered workforce willing to take a chance on its own professionalism facilitated by an enlightened administration willing to trade desultory power games for influence over student learning.  All of this paid for by political leaders with a genuine interest in excellent policy.
But that’s another blog.
What examples can you imagine, of teachers giving up security and administration giving up control, which would promote excellent student learning?


  1. Steve, I am sure you already know about the early childhood model in use in Reggio Emilia. It is a fine example of teachers having time and support built into the system for planning, exploring ideas,and supporting learning within a collaborative model. I think you have hit the nail on the head here in this blog... we have to provide collaboration and peer support and assessment in the system, if teachers are to use this type of learning model in their classrooms. These systems must be bargained for and maintained on the union level. And lastly, teachers must learn and grow and be supported in the same manner in which they would like to see their students learn and grow and be supported. Well said, sir.

  2. hi Steve, I really enjoyed this post-- a compelling way of detailing the nuances that are required for collaboration to take hold in our schools and school districts. It really does seem like it comes down to timing... and figuring out some way for one 'side' to loosen its posture just enough for the other to do the same. Because shared success and a shared history, along with stable leadership, provides the ground for going for a little more each time. But when the conversation is so high-stakes political, and when leadership on both ends is rewarded more by hardening rather than building the elements of collaborative nuance into their positions, it makes the practice of true collaboration all the more difficult.

    And worthwhile. Thank you for your good thinking on the issue. Do you mind if I cross post on our own efforts in the Boston Public Schools re: labor-management collaboration at

  3. Erica, I know the Reggio model well - I co-teach twice a week with a pre-school teacher who started in that approach, but it would be fairer to say now that she is deeply Reggio informed. The Orff-Schulwerk music approach has several features in common with Reggio, as well as a fair amount of cross-fertilization, and yes I agree with you, that Reggio is a model that can only thrive in a deeply collaborative environment.

    I also agree that teachers must be treated the way we expect students to be treated and that the union potentially has an important role in bringing this about.

    James, I appreciate your "going for a little more each time" model. I'm grappling as a union president with an issue that could be an example of this, and the hardest thing is to let go and take that risk. I do not underestimate the difficulty of what I calling for here. Feel free to cross post - it is the ideas that count.

  4. Terrific big picture perspective as usual! How can we "break this down" at the school level so collaboration becomes more of a reality in places where it is not happening?

    What skills/attitudes and school structures are needed from the administrators? What skills/attitudes/expectations are required from the teachers?

    What are the concrete and practical examples we can point out in schools that are collaborative? (Teacher leadership teams for school decisions, etc)


  5. Patrick, I think a big piece is the ability to have professional conversations. A major disadvantage of binary satisfactory/unsatisfactory eval systems is that in the places these predominate we never developed the capacity to talk about how to improve. Even in in my district with the Danielson style 4 point rubric, the system remains binary, and anything less than 3 or 4 is regarded as a slight - ironically, a de facto binary eval system.

    One way forward I see is the National Board process. Those of us who have experienced this process have learned to think in more sophisticated terms that enable continuous improvement. In places where there are a critical mass of NBCTs, districts need to start leveraging the Gestalt shift in thinking that the NBPTS process enables. Too often it is treated as a credential.

  6. "...while progressive teaching techniques are universally regarded in the profession as the best way to educate..." Universally regarded?!?! In my experience, most teachers think those methods are total bs. It's the administrators (who often have little to no classroom experience themselves) who favor "progressive" methods. Here's what we ought to do. Create schools where the teachers decide the curriculum, hire and fire staff and control the budget. Replace tenure with "partnership" status that can be withdrawn by a 2/3 vote of the other partner teachers. No doubt there would be a few "progressive" schools but the majority would not. If 90% of teachers use traditional methods that's because they know such methods are far more effective. Not because they are lazy, tired, uninformed or cognitively limited. I have more faith in the judgement of my fellow teachers than a few biased researchers and the inexperienced bureaucrats who blindly follow them.

  7. Mike, thanks for writing! It is indeed useful to critique progressive methods. I was only explaining Willingham's problem statement - that there is a disconnect between mantra we recite about progressive education and what we actually do in the classroom. I think that is an interesting issue to explore. Cognitive limits do not mean that we are stupid, lazy, or uninformed just that human information processing ability is finite. I find in my own practice that the more student centered my techniques become, the more challenging my classroom becomes to manage - to the point of exhaustion.

    I'm a 20 year veteran general music teacher at the elementary level. Lecture and worksheets are a relatively small part of my practice. Interestingly, when I use lecture and worksheets, my students seem much more comfortable - they know how to handle that, having done it so many times. I personally believe in assessment of conceptual understanding through creative tasks - don't simply spew propositional knowledge of what dynamics are, but demonstrate effective use of dynamics in a composition or improvisation.

    These open ended, divergent (many correct answers) tasks are psychologically risky for students, and some of them behave accordingly. But the day I stop taking risks in my teaching is the day I retire.

    If I was teaching AP calculus or English comp in a tested grade, I might have a very different perspective.

    I think your vision of partnership is a deeply collaborative model. There are models of teacher led schools out there, for example the MSLA in Denver. There is also one in Portland ME and one in MN. I'm intrigued by the idea because in rural education we are suffer a dearth of administrative talent.

    Thank you for challenging me - eliciting a strong response is the best way I have of knowing I actually said something :)