In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve looks at the difference between teacher cooperation and teacher collaboration.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:14 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:42 When are teachers cooperating and when our teachers collaborating? This question came to my attention when reading an article by Zachary Herman, which I’ve added the link to the lead-in, that was published in educational leadership in July 2019. He titled the article “Cooperate or Collaborate.” His summary statement, closing the article, I think is a good place to start with seeing why it’s an important issue to address. “Schools must rely on both cooperation and collaboration to improve systems, solve problems and fix inequities. However, understanding how cooperation and collaboration can be different, both in their purpose, their approach and their relationship with conflict can help educators assess whether they’re approaching their teams with the right level of intention and focus.” Herman’s writing made connections for me in the work that I’ve been doing with professional learning communities when I’ve described the difference between what I called a PWC, a professional working community and a PLC, a professional learning community. In a PWC, teachers cooperate to get work done.
Steve: 02:34 Where in the PLC, the professional learning community, teachers are collaborating to learn how to get an increase in student learning outcome. How to achieve a goal that they currently aren’t achieving. It also made connections for me in the work that I’ve done with separating the difference between teachers working in franchises versus teachers working in teams. When teachers are working in a franchise, they cooperate to carry out tasks more effectively and more quickly, being served by that cooperation. Where when teachers are teaming, they’re taking a shared responsibility for each other’s students who now become our students. Where in franchise, people design things together but they implement them individually and don’t have that team responsibility. As I read through his work on cooperating and collaborating, I saw threads running through this work of PWCs, PLCs, franchising and teaming. Herman wrote, “cooperative teams are those that aim to achieve goals more efficiently and effectively, while collaborative teams explore and solve problems that individuals alone can’t.”
Steve: 04:23 That really matched my defining of the difference between the PWC and the PLC. In the PWC, we’re asking the question, “what’s the best way for us to get this done?” Where in the PLC, we’re asking “what do students need us to learn?” The professional learning community focus is on getting a different outcome in student achievement than we’re now getting. Thus, we need to learn something and that learning becomes the purpose of our collaboration. Some groups that I’ve worked with identified that they need time to be both PWCs and PLCs. And I’ve suggested that when they do that, they actually identify two different sections on their meeting agenda. Because the two activities of PWC and PLC require different behaviors on the parts of the members. So it’s important to know in which activity one is engaged.
Steve: 05:36 I worked with a school that had a room for PLC meetings. They had an oval table in the middle with whiteboards on both ends of the room and they handled their PWC agenda on one wall and then people actually turned in their chairs to face the other wall for their PLC meeting. Physically turning, signaled the time to shift membership behaviors. Herman pointed out that cooperative teams are most common in schools. Teachers share resources, coordinate joint efforts, work to improve processes and build standardization and quality. That also fits my description of a franchise. Plan and design together, but implement individually. Cooperation can be important in having teachers agree on what mastering a standard means for the eighth grade science teachers from two different middle schools to identify that students entering high school will have mastered the same standard. This work takes cooperation.
Steve: 06:56 However, there is often no understanding of what’s occurring in each other’s classrooms as these common plans are implemented. I had the opportunity to observe three fifth grade teachers each conduct a science lesson that they had designed at a grade level meeting. All the students completed the same group activity, but one teacher’s questioning and probing of her groups throughout the activity generated a much deeper level of engaged thinking and richer student learning as was shown in the products that the students produced. But when the teachers debrief the lesson, this difference in outcomes was not identified from a teaching practice. It was identified as the students in that teacher’s classroom being stronger or more interested. Without moving to collaboration and without becoming a team where teachers are taking shared responsibility for student learning outcomes, the important work that was done in the cooperative or franchised element doesn’t get to be maximized in its delivery for student learning.
Steve: 08:28 Herman’s words reinforce this for me. “While teachers who share resources may benefit from each other’s work, simply sharing lesson plans and materials likely won’t help teachers delve into issues like what sorts of learning experience will engage students who are struggling to reach or gain or how to build stronger relationships with students. These questions require deeper inquiry and more extensive problem solving. Again, for me, that means collaboration, it means professional learning, community, it means functioning as a team. Again, I’m reinforced in my thinking that to have functioning PLCs where collaboration is occurring, almost constantly requires a student work and student performance to be present. Actually, a need to understand student thinking. If you find that your PLCs are meeting and infrequently have student work present, it is likely that they are more engaged in cooperating, at its best, producing franchised results rather than team results.
Steve: 10:08 Reading Herman’s thoughts about how conflict is dealt with differently in cooperation versus collaboration, I’m thinking that very often some of the dissatisfaction that teachers report about their PLC experiences may be found in the confusion of some of the members approaching the activity as cooperative while other members are approaching it as collaborative. Herman described that cooperative teams make concessions and they attempt to quickly reach compromises to resolve any conflict so that the work that they’re out to achieve gets accomplished more quickly. Where collaborative teams may actually value the conflict because it fuels the team’s efforts. When we’re working to solve complex problems, we are likely to gain more by initially uncovering the differences in our thinking, likely to spark creativity and perhaps produce an innovative solution to a problem. If you’re facilitating a PLC or team meeting consider looking at the agenda and identifying items on the agenda that would best be approached with cooperation versus items that require collaboration. Perhaps spending some time at the onset of the meeting reaching consensus among the participants as to how various agenda items will be approached, would lead to more effective cooperation and collaboration, both. Thanks for listening in. I’d be anxious to hear your thoughts or experiences connected to your facilitation of cooperation and collaboration.
Steve [Outro]: 12:46 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.