Module 1: Collaboration and Conflict: Section 1

The following is section 1 of 4 from Module 1 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict,” a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University. These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.


A capacity essential to the successful implementation of IDEA is the ability of people with diverse experience and perspective to collaborate to mutual purpose.  This is particularly true with the development of an IEP/IFSP.  The original designers of this process believed that children are best served when parents, educators, service  providers and agencies work together to provide coordinated systems of care.

Collaboration is easy when we happen to interpret a situation the same way and draw similar conclusions regarding appropriate courses of action. It becomes much more complex when we experience inevitable conflict while jointly attempting to address complex issues.  Peter Senge states:

In great teams, conflict becomes productive.  The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own.

In this module you and your team will:

  • Explore the purpose of collaboration in the pursuit of mutual purpose,
  • Understand the dynamics of conflict and its potential role as a barrier to collaboration,
  • See Collaboration as a process for supporting shared learning and decision-making around complex issues and objectives, and
  • Review the essential elements of an effective process of collaboration.

Collaboration and Mutual Purpose

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 challenges. 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 inJohnson 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.

Group discussion questions

As a group,use the following questions to increase your shared understanding of collaboration:

  •  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.

Continue working through Essential Skills for Conflict Engagement Module 1: Conflict and Collaboration

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