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?