Between Collaboration and Agency – developing pedagogic literacy

In the first post of this series I made the observation that ‘writing is a linear construct which is attempting to describe and explain a networked concept. Therefore, whilst we attempt to make links between ideas and posts, this cannot be exhaustive.’ I therefore thought it would be interesting not to focus on one of the levels of pedagogic literacy for this post, but to consider the tensions and links which exist in between two elements of the concept, the ‘individual’ and the ‘collaborative’. Shulman (1993) in identifying the presence of ‘pedagogic solitude’ calls for the development of communities of researcher-teachers who are willing to discuss, share and publish their work on pedagogy, resulting in his idea of ‘Teaching as Community Property’. But pedagogy at HE level is diverse, not only by discipline, but context and complexity.

The idea of developing dialogue and critically appraised pedagogic insights all within a community of pedagogues fit within the theoretical framework which Lave and Wenger (1991) call situated learning, central to the development of a Community of Practice (later to be developed further by Wenger (1998)). In Communities of Practice, mutual engagement, interaction and thinking together (Wenger 1998) are all important guiding concepts. These show themselves through mutual engagement in which collaboration is explained as ‘doing things together, talking, producing artifacts’ (Wenger, 2000: 227) to encourage and develop shared meaning which in turn can lead to a shared repertoire of pedagogy; here the social is the unit of analysis and the level at which learning is believed to occur.

Collaboration has become an increasingly popular tenet of professional development and learning. It has an obvious attraction as it gives, as Shulman suggests, a positive opportunity for sharing, critiquing and developing pedagogic ideas and approaches; it is at the heart of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. But is all collaboration positive? Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) position and contextualise collaboration explicitly within their theory of Professional Capital. The case that they make is that if we are to enable the growth of critical, professional teachers then they need to develop their understanding and practice through three ‘channels’:

Professional Capital = Human Capital + Social Capital + Decisional Capital

Here, the growth of the individual (Human Capital) through the development of valuable knowledge and skills is seen as best achieved through collaboration (Social Capital) within a context where they can make authentic and meaningful judgements (Decisional Capital) to develop and innovate their shared practices. However, Hargreaves and Fullan do stress that there are different forms of collaboration some of which can be identified as negative, such as Balkanisation (where separate groups develop within the organisation who compete against each other) or Contrived Collegiality (where the work of groups is formal and driven from the centre) as these do not allow for professional growth and authentic development.

We therefore need to consider the tensions which may exist between the collaborative or social and the agency of the individual. We all bring unique perspectives, knowledge and experiences to pedagogic development and we need to ensure, within collaborative contexts, that the agency of practitioners is retained, each taking what they value from collaboration rather than feeling pressured to agree to a ‘group-approach’. Going back to the notion of situated and social learning developed by Lave and Wenger (1991), learning is regarded as a social construct. Individuals learn through group interaction. This emphasises learning as a change in identity over the generation of explicit ‘knowledge’. However, this focus on the social can lead to the danger of losing the agency of the individual, as Billett (2007: 59) states:

‘….. data from workplaces of different kinds, over time, consistently emphasises the importance of dualities that comprise both contributions or affordances of the workplace and the bases by which individuals elect to engage with what is afforded them and the relationships between them.’

The agency of the individual needs to be seen as relational to the group; the development of both is negotiated, leading to the need to understand both the life history of the individual and the nature of the negotiation. Even in developing collaborative approaches individuals will bring personal meanings and experience, and likewise will take away different lessons from the collaboration. Again, Billett (2007: 65) argues:

‘While a phenomenon may have some common meaning, its construal by individuals will be shaped by particular sets of values, subjectivities and the discourses to which they have access.’

In considering the development of pedagogic literacies, there is both personal and collaborative growth, but these occur in tension. In understanding the development of pedagogic literacy collaboration is important, but we must accept that individuals will take different lessons and insights from working together. Hence, all individuals will develop unique literacies. Learning and development exists neither solely within the individual or the group but within and between them.


Billett, S. (2007) Including the missing subject: placing the personal within the community. In Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, Hughes, J.; Jewson, N. & Unwin, L. (eds.), Abingdon: Routledge, 55-67.

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization 7(2), 225-246.


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