Teachers collaborating in a Center for Teaching workshop

In reading a variety of unrelated articles and books recently a common theme emerged that struck me as important, but not necessarily novel.  Collaboration and cooperation are two extremely powerful ideas that directly impact on our ability to think creatively, and thus innovate.  Here are some of the readings have gone into my recent thinking about the impact of working in a collaborative environment.

My recent thinking about collaboration and cooperation takes me back to my work with schools and educators.  We hear so much about the value of having students work collaboratively, an important 21st Century skill.  Yet in schools, we seem to struggle with creating an environment where our teachers collaborate on lesson plans, assessments, and other important school matters, as well as a schedule that supports a collaborative culture.  If we value and expect teachers to create these types of learning environments for students, we need to create them for teachers.

To begin with, I was fascinated by the results from the MET Life survey on teacher satisfaction in their school communities.  Anthony Armstrong summarizes the results in his article in The Leading Teacher, a publication from Learning Forward.  In the article, he writes:

In 2009, 59% of teachers were very satisfied with their jobs. In 2011, that number dropped to 44%, according to The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy,  (MetLife, 2011, p. 13).

Armstrong points out that while working conditions within schools were important, such as schools that value safety, schools with adequate resources, and schools that allow teachers time to prepare lessons, a study conducted at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education found that the three most important characteristics in schools that generated high levels of teacher satisfaction were:

  1. Collegial relationships, or the extent to which teachers report having productive working relationships with their colleagues;
  2. The principal’s leadership, or the extent to which teachers report that their school leaders are supportive and create school environments conducive to learning;
  3. School culture, or the extent to which school environments are characterized by mutual trust, respect, openness, and commitment to student achievement.   (Johnson, Kraft, & Papay, 2012, p. 25)

Armstrong references Taryl Hansen, director of teacher leadership for the Arizona K12 Center, who believes that a safe learning environment is important because teachers can be vulnerable as they reflective on what they learn about their teaching.

When they step into a collaborative circle of highly qualified colleagues with whom they can challenge themselves, they hold a proverbial mirror up to their practice and can be vulnerable enough to tackle their own misconceptions about themselves and their students. In order to think about ways they can improve and feel good about their strengths, they need to be vulnerable enough to share with people things about their practice they need to change.

Creating and supporting a collaborative faculty culture happens when we encourage collegial relationships between our faculty and build a school culture that rests on a foundation of trust, respect and openness.  Schools that have developed into a professional learning community exemplify these qualities.  (See the Professional Learning Communities at Work, by Richard Dufour and Robert Eakers)

According to 2009’s The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Collaborating for Student Success, teachers with high job satisfaction were more likely to work in schools with higher levels of collaboration (MetLife, 2009, p. 39).  The results of this comprehensive survey further support our thinking in education that schools need to create, implement, and nurture collaborative spaces for faculty to work side-by-side on their lessons, assessments, and other school-related business.

Teachers at PBL Workshop collaborating on designing a 2nd Grade Project

There is considerable conversation about the value of online learning as a means to engage the learner.  Schools are expending enormous resources to design, deliver, and market online learning experiences for students and teachers.  (See the article in the New York Times, July 24, 2012, Berkeley to Join the Free Online Learning Partnership EdX).  In addition to higher education developing these comprehensive sites that offer users online courses in a variety of topics, independent secondary (Global Online Academy) and public schools are offering students online courses that can be used to supplement some graduation requirements.  In some cases, like the Florida Virtual School or North Caroline Virtual School, students can use an e-learning platform to get a diploma.  Almost every professional development organization is exploring these online communities for learning.

However, Mark Edmundson takes a different point-of-view on this idea, especially as it relates to the value of collaboration and cooperation in a learning environment.  In his July 20, 2012 New York Times article, The Trouble with Online Communication, he writes,

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.

He goes on to write,

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates. You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will. Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

Envisioning learning as a “collaboration between teacher and student” places a huge premium on learners being in a face-to-face relationship as they create “a vital community of learning.”  Having participated in many webinars and online courses, I would strongly agree with Edmundson’s assessment.  His view hinges on the importance of face-to-face collaboration in an authentic learning environment.

Critics will certainly point to the value of Web 2.0 collaborative platforms that connect people across the globe.  I have had some quality learning experiences participating on Web platforms, but none as memorable, enduring or valuable as a quality, face-to-face collaboration with colleagues. The key words for me are memorable and enduring.

In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson reviews the history and evolution of how good ideas germinate and grow.  He identifies characteristics that creative individuals and communities possess that lead to innovation.  He weaves a connection between the evolution of city dwelling with an explosion of innovation.  As people adapted to life in cities, new forms of collaboration in these densely populated configurations arose.  He writes,

When you share a common civic culture with thousands of other people, good ideas have a tendency to flow from mind to mind, even when their creators try to keep them secret.  (page 53, Kindle edition)

We have moved from solo, amateur innovation to the rising power of networks and commerce.  The most dramatic change lies along the horizontal axis, in a mass migration from individual breakthroughs to the creative insights of the group.  (page 229, Kindle edition)

He points out that,

a majority of breakthrough ideas emerge in a collaborative environment.  (page 229, Kindle edition)

non-institutional forms for collaboration that have developed around the open-source community.  (page 235, Kindle edition)

Martin Nowak, in his Scientific American article entitled, Why We Help: The Evolution of Cooperation, traces the evolution of cooperation from amoebas to humans.  He points out that in humans cooperation has evolved into a very sophisticated social dance that has resulted in systemic innovation.  Because humans have full-blown language, we have the ability to communicate, collaborate, and share knowledge, design and ways of knowing that lead to creative solutions to complex problems.

Nowak makes a great point that cooperation is “intrinsically unstable.”  We go through periods of intense cooperation and collaboration that culminate in productive outcomes.  However, failing miserably in our efforts to cooperate we often find ourselves in dire situations that lead to few productive outcomes.  And yet, we rise up and find a way to reconnect, addressing the issues before us.  Nowak writes,

Cycles of cooperation and defection are visible in the ups and downs of human history, the oscillations of political and financial systems.  Where we humans are in this cycle right now is uncertain, but clearly we could be doing a better job of working together to solve the world’s most pressing problems.  (page 39)

Schools can play a significant role in educating its students to learn and live in a more cooperative and collaborative space.  However, if we are to be successful in this work, we have to create structures in schools that allow teachers to cooperate and collaborate with each other.  We must be excellent role models for our students by leaving the cocoon of the classroom with four walls and moving into a space where teachers openly share their knowledge, ideas, and experiences in service to the learning of their students.