Improving Student Learning: Collaboration and Mutual Purpose

by | March 02, 2012 Categories:

When defining a concept, the first place you often go is the dictionary.  Collaboration is defined in this context as:

  •  to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor;
  • to cooperate with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected

The term, collaboration, is often used with little thought to its purpose or true value.   We are often expected to collaborate in diverse contexts and applications with people we may or may not know.  In some case we are even mandated to collaborate as a requirement for meeting policy or organizational expectations.  However, this expectation is rarely sufficient to raise our level of interaction consistent with the true intent and values of mutual gains collaboration.  At times our efforts at collaboration do produce increased learning and understanding, helping us to address our specific challenge(s).  However, too often we leave feeling frustrated, as our expectations for the time spent are not met.

So why collaborate?  Teams must address this question at a fundamental level in order to achieve the potential benefit.  In his book, Leading in a Culture of Change, Michael Fullan writes:

“It is one of life’s greatest ironies:  schools are in the business of teaching and  learning, yet they are terrible at learning from each other.  If they ever discover how to do this, their future is assured.

In the book, On Common Ground:  The Power of Professional Learning Communities, Mike Schmoker, reporting on the work of Judith Warren Little, writes:

“that true learning communities – like the one in Johnson City – are characterized  by disciplined, professional collaboration and ongoing assessment.  This is the   surest, most promising route to better school performance, and the reasons are  compelling”.

Roland Barth, in an article entitled “Relationships in the School House” describes four types of relationships observed while working with school.  They are; Parallel Play, Adversarial Relationships, Congeniality, and Collegiality.  In describing the characteristics of Collegiality he writes:

“Famous baseball player Casey Stengel once muttered, ‘Getting good players is  easy.  Getting them to play together is the hard part.’  Schools are full of good  players.  Collegiality is about getting them to play together, about growing a professional learning community,

When I visit a school and look for evidence of collegiality among teachers and  administrators – sign that educators are ‘playing together’ – the indicators I seek  are:

  • Educators talking with one another about practice.
  • Educators sharing their craft knowledge
  • Educators observing one another while they are engaged in practice
  • Educators rooting for one another’s success.”

There is no lack of evidence in the literature as to the value and importance of collaboration to learning improvement.  However, at a more fundamental level, why do we choose to collaborate?  The following describes the basic rationale for this choice:

  •  There is an issue about which we need to make a decision and in which we both/all share a stake in the outcome.
  • The choice we face is this; do we pursue an outcome for this issue independent of one another (in isolation) or interdependent with one another (in collaboration)?
  • We choose collaboration when we believe that the potential exists for both of us to achieve better outcomes by working together than either of the outcomes we could achieve by working independently.  This is referred to in the literature as achieving mutual gain or mutual benefit.

For discussion and reflection:

  •  As you reflect on these initial thoughts on collaboration, what stands out to you as most significant or resonates most deeply with you?
  • Describe a time when you collaborated effectively around some objective or initiative.  What most contributed to the success around this experience?
  • What did you contribute to this effort?  What did other contribute?
  • Identify current situation in which you are experiencing frustration in you efforts at collaboration.


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