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The cost of collaboration

In a recent blog post, I touched on “…professional transformation. That moment when a teacher realises the benefits of a shift in practice and will never go back.” (Watanabe-Crockett, 2019, p.3). I also promised resources for a future-focused practice, launching with ‘collaboration’.

Photo credit: Monkey Business

But first, a word on ‘transformation’ and why it’s important. Wagner (2012) has been describing the skills that students need to be successful in their future careers, and we have been hearing about them across all sectors for decades; that is, collaboration, communication, acting ethically, problem solving, and critical and creative thinking and so on. What Wagner warned us about back in 2008, however, was the growing gap between these skills and what is actually being taught in schools. And it’s still growing.

A study of US College students in 2011 revealed that after two years of coursework, approximately half of the students were no more skilful than when they commenced and that more than one third of fourth-years demonstrated no gain at all. Statistics in the US also show that College graduates earn a lot more than their high school counterparts. So, importantly, Wagner (2012) asks the poignant question, “…are [College graduates] more skilled or … [has] the credential become a simple way to weed through the forest of resumes?” (p. x). I think we all know the answer.

In Australia, we also recognise the shift in thinking from producing ‘university ready’ students to those who have the raft of human skills required to flourish in their post-school lives. The sense of urgency, however, is felt globally, especially with the current commotion about #ai. In their book, That used to be us, Friedman & Mandelbaum (2011) warn that only innovators and entrepreneurs will be immune to automation or offshore outsourcing in this new wave of technological change and the emerging economies that come with it.

However, what we’re hearing and seeing is that educational systems, policy makers and tertiary providers “have absolutely no idea what kind of instruction is required to produce students who can think creatively and critically, communicate effectively, and collaborate versus merely scoring well on a test.” (Wagner, 2012, p. xi)

This is where innovation comes in. Whilst there is a plethora of definitions of the term (and I won’t go into an analysis of them here), it’s just important to know that most definitions concur that innovation involves problem finding and solving and asking the right questions at the right time. However, Wagner (2012) has completely enticed me with his ‘Seven Survival Skills’ that address The Global Achievement Gap and this is at the heart of innovation:

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence

3. Agility and adaptability

4. Initiative and entrepreneurship

5. Accessing and analysing information

6. Effective oral and written communication

7. Curiosity and imagination.

Interestingly, Tim Brown, in his HBR article, ‘Design Thinking’ highlights five characteristics of ‘design thinkers’ and you can probably see the connection with Wagner’s survival skills above:

1. Empathy

2. Integrative thinking

3. Optimism

4. Experimentalism

5. Collaboration

I think we can all begin to see how these characteristics are also an interplay of an individual’s psychological capital, essential for robust wellbeing. For Australian educators, we can also see how ACARA’s General Capabilities, and Melbourne Assessment frameworks offer a multitude of opportunities to foster all of these skills alongside our curriculum content.

Let me show you how with a deep dive into ‘Collaboration’, a skill which is ever present in every framework that purports to support 21st Century learners. I am now reminded by a comment made by the esteemed Dr Michael McDowell during numerous presentations, “Whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning.” This notion is also supported by Profess John Hattie in his revelations about the impact of too much teacher talk.

If collaboration is “essential to everything that we do” (Wagner, 2012, p.15) and “the most important competenc[y] we can nurture in today’s …. classroom[s] (McKenzie (2021, p. 156), then why are we still being led to understand that this skill is lacking in our school graduates?

I suggest that it may be a result of confusion between cooperation and collaboration. John Spencer (2016) has arguably provided the greatest comparison which certainly provides clarity and it is worth sharing his insights with your students as well as your colleagues.

Clearly, both have a place in our classrooms but creating an environment where trust and vulnerability are the norm takes a small shift in practice, and patience. This is really exciting because as we are all too aware, many policy makers, researchers and keynote speakers often focus on what is wrong with education (and I am part of the coterie). However, I also concur with Watanabe-Crockett (2019) who asserts that “The constant dialogue on why with so little discussion of how fatigues me, and I also believe most educators are weary of hearing what they are [apparently] doing wrong (p. 1).

So how do we foster authentic and impactful collaboration in our classrooms? Watanabe-Crocket (2019) suggests that collaboration is one of five essential fluencies that all spring from the world outside the school gates – they are borne of vast industry applications and readily implemented alongside school curricula.

Collaboration Fluency (Watanabe-Crockett, 2019, pp. 80-81)

The Five Es of collaboration:

1. Establish:

a. Who are the group members?

b. What are each member’s area/s of expertise?

c. Define roles and responsibilities

d. Establish the information needs of the group

e. What are communication norms and performance expectations?

f. What is the challenge?

2. Envision

a. What is the challenge or goal and how will it be met?

b. Define the problem

c. Specify information needs and sources of information

d. Develop a criteria for evaluating the outcome

3. Engineer

a. What is the plan?

b. Design a workable plan that specifies steps from current to desired place

c. Set milestones/timelines

d. Prioritise team members reliance upon each other whilst also developing individual skills to enable meaningful contribution

4. Execute

a. Team members work on assigned tasks

b. Identify desired format for presentation of solutions

5. Examine

a. Reflect on how the group met (or didn’t) the challenge and goals

b. Identify area/s for improvement

c. Feedback protocols* for future endeavours

*Note – feedback should be occurring within and between groups early and often

This process-oriented framework supports learners by providing prompts and supports that encourage meaningful collaboration. I have used this myself with staff in a professional learning setting and a former colleague recently utilised it with her middle years students who focused on collaboration as the driving force when solving problems concerning preservation of international cultural icons. The possibilities are endless. What’s important here is that the students are doing the heavy lifting and leading the conversations. The framework is eminently practical and confronts the notion of a global skills shortage in the human capabilities.

One small shift for student collaboration, one giant leap for engagement and ownership.

Author note: #humangenerated

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