Under steam from Hattie’s assertion that ‘teachers make the difference’ (2003) there has been a focus of moving teacher professional development (PD) away from ‘sit and get’ learning (Barry, 2013) towards collaboration. AITSL consider collaboration and mentoring a critical apart of achieving ‘Highly Accomplished’ status, and promote ‘Collaboration’ (AITSL, 2017a). DECD’s 2018 Performance and Development policy heavily promotes collaborative learning over formal training (DECD, 2018a). Even Hattie has placed ‘Collective Teacher Efficacy’ at the top of the list in his 2016 update on the influencers on student achievement (Figure 1).
I’m sure you’re feeling the Collaboration Buzz. AITSL and DECD want us doing it. But how is it really going?
The Research: Why Collaboration is the Buzz
Since the 80s, PD research has promoted a move ‘From Isolation to Colleagueship’ (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010). Social learning theories, where learning is viewed as a social activity inherently attached to context, suggest that a teacher’s professional network is fundamental for their role (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010) (Hur & Brush, 2014), and continuous support and collaboration among teachers is key to successful teacher PD (Moore & Chae, 2007).
The answer seems to be to ‘deprivatise’ the classroom, that is, make what you do public. Working in isolation is considered ‘an inadequate way of performing teacher’s work’ (Van Waes, et al., 2016). We need to observe, listen, discuss and interact with our peers to gain expertise; attending conferences in isolation without sharing your learning is considered ineffectual. Collaboration is apparently the answer for many modern education challenges, including ‘digital native’ students with ‘increasing economic disparities’ (Barry, 2013), and emotional burnout (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010).
The Policies: What We’re Meant to be Doing
AITSL – The Ideal
In the ‘Essential Guide to Professional Learning: Collaboration’, AITSL argues the benefits of collaboration well (AITSL, 2017a). Collaboration promotes ‘change beyond individual classrooms, resulting in whole school improvement (p. 2), ‘higher levels of job satisfaction’ (p. 3), and ‘improves student outcomes’. schools that effectively collaborate ‘create a base of pedagogical knowledge that is distributed among teachers within a school, as opposed to being held by individual teachers’ (p. 2).
The role of leaders in promoting a collaborative professional learning culture is heavily emphasised (p. 4). Leaders should be aiming to ‘change the culture’, build trust, and develop a ‘positive learning atmosphere’ for staff. Emotional support and trust seem to be the critical elements: delegation of responsibilities is encouraged to ‘increas[e] teacher trust and buy-in for any change initiative’.
DECD – The Practical
Similarly DECD’s ‘Performance and Development’ policy (DECD, 2018a) and ‘Guideline’ (DECD, 2018b) heavily promote collaboration. However, unlike AITSL, this policy is ‘firmer’ and focuses more on ‘organisational needs’ and teacher ‘accountability’, discrediting the priorities of individual teachers. ‘Individual aspiration’ must be aligned with the ‘future needs of the department’; employees are ‘accountable for their contribution to outcomes for children and young people’; the ‘deprivatisation’ of classrooms, rather than in aid of improving teacher practice, is promoted as a way to ‘enable employees to embrace professional accountability’ through ‘openness to performance feedback.’ As part of a ‘primary commitment’ to ‘improve outcomes for children and young people’, employees have a responsibility to align their PD to ‘improvement priorities’ of their site and the department. Employee wellbeing is only nominally identified, but employees must also focus on ‘improving behaviour’: leaders must support ‘constructive behaviours’ which ‘align’ to ‘organisational values’ (p. 6), and must identify behaviours which ‘help or hinder’ performance.
The move towards collaborative PD is emphasised by the unsettling ‘70/20/10 formula’ (DECD, 2018b, p. 10) which suggests 70% of learning at work takes place ‘on the job’ through trial and error; 20% through practices such as observations, reading and mentoring; and only 10% through formal training (see Figure 2).
Like the AITSL guideline, the role of leaders is clearly defined, but with emphasis on management: leaders should coach employees through ‘meaningful and regular performance conversations’, ‘maintaining written records’, and conducting observations and reviews. A small nod is made to ‘recognising and celebrating employee’s contributions’, but leader responsibility primarily involves ensuring employees follow process.
Instead, much of the responsibility for PD lies on teachers. It is their responsibility to ‘participate positively and actively in agency performance development processes’, identify areas of development which contribute to ‘organisational goals’, seek and receive feedback ‘openly’, ‘critically reflect’, and ‘share learning and practice with others’.
The Reality: What’s Really Happening
I asked various colleagues, via an open survey posted to Facebook communities ‘Teachers of Adelaide’ and SAETA, what is really going on in terms of collaboration in South Australian schools. Of 27 respondents, 11 were Primary, 8 Secondary, 7 Leadership with a range of experience.
Multiple staff reported involvement in ‘coaching teams’, ‘priority groups’, ‘team meetings’, ‘hubs’, ‘Think Tanks’, and assessment moderation groups. Most reported a decrease in involvement in isolated PD. It seems a ‘collaborative culture’ is slow to be built in many sites: while 15 respondents reported enthusiastic and effective collaborative culture at their site, 10 reported that although collaboration processes were put in place at the site, barriers were preventing effectiveness. Only one respondent suggested their site was not collaborating at all: it looks collaboration is here and here to stay.
Most were enthusiastic about the idea of collaboration (‘so much potential!’)l collaboration challenges teachers ‘ego’ and allows access to ‘the vast experience that exists under our own roof.’ About 5 were generally positive, but were concerned about its implementation, especially in terms impacts on time and workload. Only 2 respondents were actively against collaboration, cynically suggesting that DECD is interested only in saving money.
Most of the barriers identified are reflected in AITSL’s Guidelines (2017a), cheerfully presented as a ‘snakes and ladder’ boardgame (see Figure 3):
The primary barrier, unsurprisingly, was time, with more than half complaining of limited access to shared time: most teachers ‘find it quicker and easier to just work alone with what they have’; it’s ‘another thing to do’, or it just ‘fills another meeting time slot’. This concurs with the literature regarding collaboration, where American (and similarly, Australian) education systems are criticised for not providing adequate non-contact time for shared planning, unlike ‘famous’ educational systems like Finland, Singapore and Japan (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010), (Mardis, et al., 2012).
Secondly, professional relationships and emotional wellbeing were identified as a major barrier: ‘staff egos’, cynical colleagues, colleagues with different priorities and motivations, uncommitted colleagues, anxious colleagues, a lack of trust in leadership, and colleagues who don’t ‘pull their weight’. AITSL’s guidelines also heavily emphasised ‘emotional support’ and ‘building trust’ as significant ‘ladders’ to collaboration. The literature concurs: again Hattie found Collaborative Teacher Efficacy – a group’s belief in their capability to achieve their goals – was critical in improving student achievement (Visible Learning, 2018); Downer pointed out that teachers with low self-efficacy were less responsive to reflection and mentoring (2009); that ‘emotion, cognition, and action are integrally connected’ (Moore & Chae, 2007). Hur & Brush found in their study of teacher collaboration that many turned to online communities for emotional support, as ‘on the internet, there isn’t a disapproving look; there is just advice’ (2014).
Finally, ‘mandation’ was also a major barrier. It seems where collaboration is heavily structured and ‘mandated’, enthusiasm for collaboration was low. Sites where leadership ‘set’ the PLC focus without consultation with teachers, enthusiasm and commitment to collaboration was low; one referred to these as ‘random groups that have to sit together on training days’. Others were critical of their mandated collaborative policies, highlighting that they felt discouraged to collaborate because their personal goals did not align with site priorities, or were forced to collaborate in areas which were irrelevant to their areas of interest. This is unfortunate as the literature suggests that mandating collaboration is a sure way to squash collegiality, as ‘putting too many requirements and restrictions on allowing teachers to grow the necessary relationships and shared work’ (Lieberman & Pointer Mace, 2010, p. 78), and that ‘structural incentives for joint work’ didn’t lead to stronger collaborative relationships (Van Waes, et al., 2016).
The Possibilities: What We Could Be Doing
It’s clear that building a collaborative culture is the way forward for improving student outcomes and whole-school teacher improvement. It seems that teachers on the whole are willing to (even enthusiastically) collaborate. Yet it seems that culture is slow to grow in our sites. So what can we do?
Clearly building a collaborative culture is hinged on leadership. Time, resources emotional support and ‘trust’ have been identified here as significant barriers to collaboration, and these are all things identified by the AITSL guidelines as under the control of leaders. Where leaders do not allocate significant shared time for collaboration, where staff have no input into the focus and structure of PLCs, or staff do not feel safe or supported, a collaborative culture is unlikely to develop (see Figure 4). Sadly, the DECD policy does not make that responsibility clear.
Another possibility, also confirmed by the literature, is to use technology for collaboration. Over half of the respondents used Facebook regularly for collaboration, seeking assistance and to discuss educational issues, and others recommended cloud services (e.g. Google Drive, OneNote, Dropbox). Twitter was also identified as the place to go for discussions about learning, a phenomenon occurring worldwide, according to Guardian journalist Erin Miller, who considers joining Twitter ‘one of the best career decisions I’ve made’ (2017). Similarly, many teachers pointed out that collaboration outside their site – such as in regional moderation groups, or discipline organisations and conferences – were also important. The APSTs (AITSL, 2017b) encourage involvement in the educational community under standards, where Standard 7.4 requires educators to ‘engage with professional teaching networks and broader communities’. Clearly, collaboration via technology and external to school sites encourages collaboration that benefits teacher PD and site improvement: perhaps these need to be reflected in DECD policy.
Finally: What about you?
How do you feel about the rising tide of collaboration? Are you encountering snakes and ladders preventing or enabling you to collaborate more effectively? Are you concerned about the downfall of formal training, the neglected ‘10%’ of learning? Let me know your thoughts below, complete the survey yourself, or send me an email: duffystirling @ gmail.com!
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