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Disruption through collaboration..?

Here are some of my personal reflections of the response to our findings in a recent piece of work.  This research originally examined if and how collaboration has disrupted practice.  It was submitted to the CORE Education Research and Inquiry Symposium at ULearn 2016.  Lynley Schofield and myself are postgrad facilitators at The Mind Lab by Unitec and were intrigued by the disruptive potential of cross sector collaboration.  The Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital and Collaborative learning) is a disruptive enabler, designed to bring teachers together to take part in constructive discourse and tangible collaboration through applied assessments.  As we have developed and refined the course over 2 years and with 1700 educators we have enabled more collaborative assessments and discussion time, and heard less deficit theorising with educators blaming other teachers for their perceived shortcomings in learners from other schools.

Photo: Lynley Schofield
We wanted to follow up this hunch that inter-school collaboration has the potential to disrupt practice with some research which looked into the main factors that support or inhibit such collaboration?  How does such collaboration impact on their perceptions of other schools, and to what extent do teachers perceive that the impact of such collaboration is disruptive to teaching practice?

The slides above summarise our findings in a digestible way as well exploring the methodology, limitations, recommendations and further questions, and this will be released as a published paper soon but the most valuable part of the experience for us was the discussion after we had presented our research.

The format for the Research and Inquiry Symposium follows a theme - ours was collaboration and disruption, each researcher is given 20 minutes to present their research and then there is a group discussion facilitated by the host, in this case it was the handsome and approachable Alex Hotere-Barnes.  It was a relaxed environment and everyone had the opportunity to speak and ask questions (although I'm sure our discussions could have continued for a long time - and many of them did into the break!)

Selfie with Alex Hotere-Barnes

An interesting part of our methodology was to follow up with teachers who indicated that they would be happy talking on camera about how they thought about inter-school collaboration - it was a second dip into the data collection stage, and allowed us to check our perceptions and assumptions from the first round of data collection, we managed to squeeze 2 of these participant led videos into our short presentation and it was extremely valuable to enable the teachers to tell their stories straight to the audience.  The trends that were identified in the first round of research were around time (how it can hinder or help collaboration, and potentially save time in the long run), and mindset (many teachers spoke of growth and fixed mindsets inhibiting collaboration), we asked the participants to explain their thoughts on thoughts on those two themes without any further guidance from us

The videos unpacked the huge tension of time, it was seen to be an investment to use time wisely to build trust and more importantly empathy.  Positive outcomes from having that time well spent, depended on an organised structure, levels of accountability and the emphasis on making connections.  We have worked through the design thinking process with a wide range of groups at the Mind Lab we see this method as a constructive use of time to contribute to these points.  Essentially time equals trust, if the time is framed in a way to create positive connections.  I often think back to a negative example of this through the traditional 'whole staff meeting' 3-4:30pm, where the practice usually is to read off a sheet of notes that everyone else has printed in front of them, usually someone asks a question when you are about to leave that could have been asked at any other time, and not everyone in the room is involved in the outcome or the answer to the question - this is an investment in time that erodes trust - I always think in those meetings how we could be using the time more constructively, how about we just sat down as a staff group and played a game of Monopoly or Scrabble to build trust?

Rebecca Sweeney has worked on building collaborative capacity in education extensively and has some brilliant resources here (I really like the podcasts) so it was amazing to have her presence in the session.  Rebecca tweeted the point that when time is listed as a problem there are usually issues around priorities, systems and processes - which made me think; what can an individual teacher do about this without influence at a systems level, or do we all have influence over the priorities, systems and processes that define how we spend the time in our lives - which leads to the second avenue we explored around mindset, and the idea that likeminded individuals had to collaborate together for it to work.

One of the intriguing outcomes from the original responses was that teachers believed that collaboration had to happen between like minded individuals - after delving into this a bit deeper with the participants in our study it suggested that collaboration is best with diverse groups.  This was one of the points that was discussed after the session with the group - some people in the room mentioned that collaboration only works with like-minded individuals, but I think here we need to revisit what collaboration is, and it goes beyond working together - when you are collaborating it is ok to disagree and challenge the status quo, does this always happen with likeminded individuals?

I thought about this point a bit more later on in the day, in education many of us may not be like minded at surface level (which I think is a good thing), but perhaps we need to see through this when collaborating and enable ourselves to work together not as likeminded individuals but 'like-passioned' individuals, and our passion is to enrich the lives of young people through learning and growth, as we move into a more collaborative professional environment we need to remind ourselves of this idea more often.


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