Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Collaboration is not a time, it's a mindset.

Although it has always been true, the need for collaboration has become an increasingly vital aspect of supporting student learning in schools today. PLC’s (as defined by DuFour and Marzano ) cannot function effectively without a collaborative spirit: collaboratively created goals, collaboratively collected data and analysis, and collaboratively problem-solved. For educators, the term “collaboration” truly means different things and without getting into all those visions, the one aspect that seems to get in the way of “collaboration” is time.  “If we were just given time to collaborate, we would do it more.” is often echoed across the educational landscape.  While no one will argue that time is not a factor, there are ways to utilize technology to create efficiency before and during the collaborative process.  
In our school district we have various district provided tools that should support the collaborative mindset. Being a Google Apps for Education district provides synchronous collaboration primarily through Google Docs as well as Google+, and Google Hangouts. . As part of the Blended Schools consortium, we also have access to a wide range of collaborative tools in Blackboard such as BBim (instant messaging) and BB Collaborate which provides a powerful real time virtual classroom with whiteboards, screen sharing, and break out rooms.  Teachers have access to Skype, unfiltered access to Twitter, and in the coming months, an upgrade to Microsoft’s newest cloud based services: Office 365 for education. Even in a district who does not make these resources readily available, throw in the ability to use wiki’s, youtube and other video sharing sites, and participating in learning communities and you have opportunities for collaboration not only across schools but across continents and oceans as well. We exist in a time where collaboration is  more possible now  than ever before and it can transcend physical location...and time.
In a local school or district, collaboration is often referred to as a “time” when in reality, it needs to be  a mindset. As educators, we shouldn’t wait for “time”  provided for us to collaborate when we have access to so many different tools to begin and support the process. School and district leadership who value collaboration acknowledge the significance and importance of face to face collaboration and schedule it as often as possible.  These opportunities need to be more available than just two or three times a year. And while having dedicated time daily would be ideal, the realities and economics of public education in America just won’t support this on a large scale. The truth is, as educators we need to accept that a collaborative mindset requires us to recognize that frequent face to face collaboration with all members of a PLC is not likely or even realistic.
A wise principal in my district (@debglock) once asked “What can we do on a professional development day (non-instructional day)  that we can’t do any other way? What can we do during a faculty meeting that we can’t do any other way?”  I love these questions because they imply that we need to maximize the usefulness and impact of the precious time we spend face to face.   This question applies to teacher collaboration as well. “What can we do in our face to face collaboration that can’t be done in another way?”  Thinking like this requires commitment, perseverance, transparency, patience,  honesty, trust,  flexibility and a willingness to learn and communicate in different (and sometimes better) ways.  Interestingly, these are the same kinds of skills we wish our students to exemplify.
If we are being honest with one another, we don’t always maximize our face to face time either. We spend it complaining, gossiping, and in task avoidance. We aren’t always willing to listen to one another’s ideas and core beliefs. We aren’t always willing to admit our own failures.  We aren’t always willing to engage in the hard conversations that hold one another accountable to the goal or the process. We aren’t always willing to help our colleagues come to their own new learnings. We often take the conversations that happen behind closed doors and judgmentally share them with other colleagues.  In other words, we aren’t always the best collaborators. We say we want more collaboration, but what would we do with it if we were given the opportunity?
The collaborative mindset is less about the tools we use to accomplish our goals and more about the desire to do whatever it takes to help students learn. The good news is, all of this is in our control. All of us can commit to one another to maximize the face to face time engaging in the deep and meaningful conversations. We can all take on the necessary roles to function as an effective and collaborative PLC. We can be honest and establish and support trusting relationships with one another. We can be transparent about our goals,  process, and results while also maintaining and rewarding the confidence of our colleagues and their opinions.  We can be open to trying new means of communicating, sharing, and working through digital tools that help keep the process and conversation ongoing between face to face meetings. Collaboration is an ongoing  conversation. It is not a time. It is a mindset.

This post is cross posted on the Digital Learning Environment's website blog.

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