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The Long and Winding Road Toward Collaboration

By Michael Simpson and Gregory A. Hedger
The Long and Winding Road Toward Collaboration

On a recent Friday evening, the faculty of Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA), in Venezuela, came together in celebration. They were celebrating the progress made over the past four years down the long and winding road toward collaborative practices. This article is something of a reflection on the road we’ve traveled, and the practices and ideas that have paved our way.
Our journey had already taken many twists and turns before we found the road upon which we are now traveling.
Our vision crystallized following participation in the second of two Adaptive Schools workshops led by Dr. Robert Garmston. Adaptive Schools is about schools developing collaborative practices to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow (Garmston, Wellman, Dolcemascolo & McKanders 2013). Dr. Garmston visited our school twice over as many years with around 80 faculty attending his workshops. This meant every teacher received training and could discuss collaboration using a common language.
In addition, we tapped a small group of excited individuals to receive additional training and become our own in-house Adaptive Schools trainers. This has put us in a position where we can now provide ongoing workshops throughout the year for all faculty, and introductory workshops at the start of each year for new faculty, avoiding the challenge to continuity created by the faculty turnover we see in international schools. This group of excited individuals also created an Adaptive Schools Committee to work with other teachers and model collaborative practices in meetings and the classroom.
At the end of the second workshop, our superintendent facilitated an activity designed to focus the participants’ attention on the four most important collaborative concepts and practices that the participants would like to develop in their professional teams and in the school in general. What resulted was a desire to develop a collaborative culture, engage in cognitive conflict, use the seven norms of collaboration, and be purposeful in our interactions.
The Adaptive Schools Committee then sought to articulate these ideals into a working vision of collaborative practice at ECA: “We will foster a collaborative culture that engages in cognitive conflict by focusing on the seven norms of collaboration and developing purposeful interactions.”
With this vision as a guide, we designed a graphic that is now displayed in every classroom and office at ECA. It builds on three Adaptive Schools focusing questions that have become the driving force of our collaborative conversations:
1. Who are we?
2. Why are we doing this?
3. Why are we doing this, this way? (Garmston et al. 2013, p. 22)
These questions allow us to develop our own collaborative culture based on what we have decided is important to us, and on having purposeful and meaningful practices.
Fostering a collaborative culture takes time and is an ongoing process. Collaboration is our theme this year, but true collaborative practice does not develop through workshops on collaborative practice alone. It develops through work itself. Faculty have created professional goals they collaboratively work on. Core curriculum essential agreements have been developed around collaboration. Faculty meetings are now held in classrooms, allowing teachers celebrate their colleagues’ successes and to see something new without having to plan for it, and collaborative planning occurs to ensure that the needs of all learners are met.
In addition, many teachers have begun incorporating collaborative practices into teaching strategies. Finally, we celebrate collaborative practice because we value it, and what we value inevitably will become part of our culture.
Differences of opinion improve team effectiveness and produce better decisions, increased commitment, greater cohesiveness, more empathy, and heightened understanding. This can be summarized as cognitive conflict. It is important for us to engage in cognitive conflict to make good decisions to which we commit and that we implement fully (Garmston). To encourage the sharing of different opinions, we launched an Innovation Through Collaboration Schoology Group as a forum in which colleagues can share ideas and begin discussions around educational matters of interest to them and to ECA.
The seven norms of collaboration also provide the tools for engaging cognitive conflict without allowing it to degenerate into personalized, affective conflict. All of our teachers are familiar with the importance of the seven norms of pausing, paraphrasing, posing questions, putting ideas on the table, providing data, paying attention to self and others, and presuming positive intentions, and the importance of these principles to collaborative discussions (Garmston).
Collaborative meetings can often be maligned as a distraction from actual work. For teachers to value and benefit from collaborative meetings, all interactions must be purposeful. We have developed common, collaborative meeting agenda templates to which all group members can contribute. We have also built schedules around opportunities to collaborate. These structural developments further our purpose and enable organized interactions. In these meetings, we find that reflecting on the focusing questions provides a framework allowing us to quickly undertake substantive, collaborative work.
Reference: Garmston, R., Wellman, B., Dolcemascolo, M., & McKanders, C. (2013). Adaptive Schools Foundation Seminar Learning Guide. Highlands Ranch, CO: Adaptive Schools Seminars.

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03/22/2016 - Jen Kang
I like the term "group of excited individuals"!



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