In Conflict Over Collaboration?
A Friendly Exchange between:
Dr. Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor & Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
At times, it is interesting to wander the hallways of University Hall in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University to hear folks talk -- especially faculty members, as they share perspectives on K-12 education.
One might hear a debate over the merits and “realness” of on-line learning experiences. Another might hear how quickly (or not) a school can change its organizational culture.
One overheard conversation recently occurred between Assistant Professor Ryan Donlan and his boss, Department Chair Steve Gruenert, regarding the notion of “Collaboration in K-12 Education.” Dr. Donlan ascribes to the perspective of “I’m OK; You’re OK,” as he envisions human relationships. Dr. Gruenert, at times begs to differ.
Let’s listen in on part of their conversation, as transcribed this week for the Leadershop.
Ryan - You know, Steve, collaboration in K-12 schools is sorely in need of an upgrade. We continue to run schools in an egg-crate design, with isolated workspaces reminiscent of a manufacturing era where everyone had an isolated job to do. Purportedly, this benefits children, but I just don’t think so anymore. We need more collaboration in K-12 schools today.
Steve -- Collaboration is simply a few lazy people sucking the life out of those who have the personal ethic to get the job done. Too often people enjoy having meetings just for the sake of meeting. Thus, there is no real motivation to solve the problem, as we will no longer have a reason to meet. However, in emergency situations the notion of coming together to help others is not the point I argue against. Those ad hoc moments can save lives and build friendships. What we discuss here is the notion of telling teachers they have to meet on a regular basis in hopes that something synergistic drops on the floor.
Ryan -- I agree that K-12 has its share of orchestrated get-togethers, yet what’s the harm? Collaboration is natural to the human condition. We’re hardwired for it. In fact if you think about it, since the time of hunter-gathers, humans were at a serious disadvantage individually compared to other forms of life in how they would survive. In order to obtain food, they needed to band together. In order to protect themselves, they needed to do the same. We formed compacts for shelter, communal safety, and other basic necessities so that we could survive as a species. Even in later millennia, collaboration was needed in guaranteeing the foundational aspects of our lives, such as food production, electricity generation, clean water, and the development of medicines. Human beings cannot survive in isolation. They are hardwired for collaboration.
Yet beyond the notion of survival, collaboration fulfills a basic human need in the majority of all of us. Most have a social orientation through which we live our lives. We depend upon others keep us energized. More than ever, we are connected. Why should we approach the world of school any differently than that of the outside? School is simply a microcosm of the society in which we live.
Steve – Collaboration is an unnatural act. The whole notion of having to convince educators to do it suggests that it may not be best practice. There exist many books and rich consultants who make a living going door to door selling Professional Learning Communities as the solution. Educators have learned to trust their intuition as each new innovation imposes a new paradigm into the real world of teaching. If it really worked, we’d be doing it already; we would not need evangelism.
Ryan -- I do agree, Steve, that we spend too much time selling what we should be doing, but aren’t the organizational structures we have imposed upon ourselves the real enemies here? We’re not talking with each other because we can’t see each other when the kids are in session. We establish working hours that end, shortly after the kids go home. It doesn’t make anything “unnatural” … rather, it simply makes things unworkable.
Let me share another benefit of collaboration, as I see it?
We are now in a world where work can be taken to worker. Our children must function in a competitive, global marketplace. In order to demonstrate the necessary skills to obtain personally meaningful lives, they will need to be able to work together. Yet, while we may expect this of them in schools, are we modeling? After all, vicarious learning experiences are oftentimes touted, anecdotally, as meaningful.
How can we expect students to understand what it takes to work with others if we only talk the talk, and not walk the walk? As any effective teacher shares, if we are able to demonstrate what we are expecting students to do, they will find relevance. Collaboration provides us this opportunity for modeling, while we are working as K-12 professionals to make decisions, address challenges, and deliver the highest quality education with the best use of tax dollars. Collaboration, in full view of our most precious resource, makes better learning possible.
Steve -- Which suggests we should get rid of individual grades for students and create “team grading” policies; everyone loves those small-group activities in school. How will we know the needs of an individual when all the data is group level? Do we create IEPs for small groups, or for individuals? It seems the success of distance education – providing learning experiences without the benefit of the group in person – can show how teaching and learning can happen in asynchronous isolation.
In the real world, it is every person for him-or-herself. Your diagnosis from the doctor will be about you, and only you. We pay individual taxes because we are individuals. To force a group mentality on those of us who are successfully independent is nothing short of socialism. And I imagine that St. Peter will not look for groups to get into heaven, each name will be listed separately.
Life is not a team sport. However, if we pay attention to the times when a group does collaborate; terms like Groupthink (individuals surrender their own beliefs to the group, thinking it will be a more efficient way to do business), and Risky Shift (when positioned in a group, individuals will take greater risks hoping the anonymity saves them from blame) enter the mind. Cults and lynch mobs are the most efficient forms of collaboration. When has the term “Union Mentality” ever been a compliment?
Ryan – Then let me try this one on you for size. I don’t think one can argue that collaboration results in better decision making. After all, two heads are better than one … three even better. Because of the various ways that each of us can approach the problems we face, collaboration allows us to capitalize on everyone’s “best” approach, selecting those that enhance decision-making. Of course, this takes deft leadership to facilitate, but I think it’s safe in assuming that we at ISU work with those who can arguably be defined as “the best.”
I don’t really see, Steve, how any perceived downsides to collaboration can offset the bottom line: Better decisions are made.
Steve -- Think so? Imagine the following scenario:
Let’s take the following 26 hypothetical faculty or staff members with their I.Q.’s listed:
A (110), B (112), C (107), D (121), E (119), F (111), G (105), H (117), I (128), J (108), K (110), L (112), M (107), N (121), O (119), P (111), Q (105), R (117), S (128), T (108), U (110), V (102), W (137), X (125), Y (109), and Z (117).
With a quick calculation, we get a mean of around 114, a high I.Q. of 137, and a low I.Q. of 102. That said, we’re left with a question: “What is the ‘I.Q.’ of the group? How can we not say it is closer to the mean than the highest?
Collaboration can make half of us dumber.
Regardless of how the group works, the purpose of collaboration is to let each individual participate and feel as though he or she has made a contribution. Thus, the lowest I.Q. is given the same space as the highest. If we think about cults or lynch mobs, it is rarely the decision of the smartest person in the group to carry on. This coming together compromises the fidelity of the group’s capacity to let the best lead the way. This consensus creates a weak link in a chain that was never needed.
The highest I.Q. is usually squelched by a charismatic, egocentric prima donna - a forceful personality that has emerged as a leader, simply because we decided to collaborate.
The best leaders are never the smartest people in the group. But they know who is, and will find a way to get that person’s untainted opinion – usually in the parking lot after everyone else has gone home.
Dr. Ryan Donlan and Dr. Steve Gruenert are not finished with their conversation and may be seen caucusing with doctoral students on any given Wednesday on campus or during other evenings while on the road. If you would like to weigh-in on their thoughts, or better yet, give some Twitter love to whomever you agree with here, please feel free to do so. We don’t believe these guys are going to come together any time soon without your help.