Collaboration and pedagogic literacy

The idea of collaboration as a core element in the development of pedagogic expertise is a relatively recent idea within an HE context. In Shulman’s (1993) short paper on pedagogic solitude he highlights the fact that collaboration between academics is common place – in the case of research. However, when it comes to pedagogy he argues that most activity is carried out behind closed doors. His ideas around the concept of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning are meant as an antidote to this. More recently, Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) have developed the concept of Professional Capital as a framework for professional and pedagogic growth. They start from the position of arguing that there are three messages from educational research evidence which need to be considered when taking forward the process of pedagogy:

  1. Teaching like a ‘pro’ means continuously inquiring into and improving one’s own teaching
  2. Teaching like a ‘pro’ means planning and improving teaching often as part of a wider professional team
  3. Teaching like a ‘pro’ means being part of the wider teaching community and contributing to its development.

From a consideration of these ideas emerges a simple ‘equation’,

Professional Capital = Human Capital + Social Capital + Decisional Capital

  • Human Capital – the valuable knowledge and skills that can be developed in teachers. One example might be the idea of Pedagogic Content Knowledge (Shulman, 1986, 1987) where explicit consideration is given of how to ensure the use of the most appropriate pedagogies for explaining and teaching any particular subject knowledge within any given context.
  • Social Capital – quality and quantity of interactions between teachers to understand and develop pedagogic understanding and insights.
  • Decisional Capital – the opportunity to make authentic and professional decisions about pedagogic approaches.

The argument is made within their work (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012) that collaboration between teachers can have a major positive impact on pedagogic practice. By adding the argument of Shulman (1993) that pedagogic practice has to be communal so as to allow others to discuss and evaluate the claims which are made for improving practice, a process of inquiry, reflection, discussion and evaluation begins to emerge as a process for collaborative work.

Little (1990) identifies a spectrum of collaborative practice from ‘weak’ collaboration, based on the exchange of ideas and anecdotes, through a sharing of materials and strategies, to a ‘strong’ form of collaboration which involved joint work including planning, teaching and inquiring together. However, some forms of collaboration can have a negative impact. Again, Hargreaves and Fullan identify collaborative problems such as ‘Balkanisation’ where separate and competitive groups begin to develop within an organisation which can lead to a lack of communication and a temptation to begin to look for power. Collaboration is not necessarily a universal good.

Understanding the development of professional learning through collaboration has tended to occur through the lens of social learning theories, the most often used being Situated Learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1998). In the latter, collaboration is a process of creating and sustaining professional and cultural norms, often through shared language and practices. When new members join a community, they start at a ‘peripheral’ position, slowly migrating to the core as they become inculcated into the dynamics of the community. In Communities of Practice, mutual engagement, interaction and thinking together (Wenger 1998), are all important concepts. Wenger (2000, 227) describes such collaboration as ‘doing things together, talking, producing artefacts’ to encourage and develop shared meaning. The result of engagement and working together is a ‘joint enterprise’ (Wenger 1998, 73) making it possible to produce shared resources or a ‘shared repertoire’ (Wenger 1998, 73). However, collaborative activities are complex. As I’ve suggested in an earlier post, we must never lose sight of the fact that individuals will collaborate for different reasons and will take different insights from collaborative activities, we need to avoid the narrowing impact which ‘group think’ can bring.

So where do these insights take us? Collaboration can be a potent element in the growth of pedagogic understanding. Our own research on Lesson Study (Cajkler et al 2013, 2014; Wood & Cajkler, 2013a, 2013b) is producing a growing body of evidence that teachers find the opportunity to work together over a period of time in authentic problem-solving situations a liberating and positive experience. Our own experience of conducting cycles of Lesson Study on our practice with international master’s students has led not only to small-scale insights concerning points of learning and teaching in specific contexts, but has also led to much more fundamental and larger-scale reflections on curriculum, research and academic practice. However, I would argue that the literature and our evidence also suggest that certain characteristics of collaborative working might be important if it is to be truly useful:

  • Authenticity. The collaboration needs to emerge amongst practitioners who have a genuine reasons to work together. Imposition of collaboration in terms of group membership and pedagogic focus from outside is likely to inhibit any growth in pedagogic understanding and practice.
  • Decisional capital. Linked to authenticity, the group need to have a level of freedom to make professional decisions about the direction and development of their work. Again, the imposition of restrictive external frameworks will stunt utility. An example might be the advocating of a pre-determined view of ‘excellent’ pedagogic practice – surely this must be the work of the group to decide through discussion, experimentation and reflection?
  • Time and emergence. If a group is to generate new insights into their pedagogic work, they need time to discuss, plan, execute and evaluate. Time constraints, particularly those which require some form of identifiable outcome in a limited timeframe, for example, improvement of results by one additional ‘level’ over one half-term or semester may well collapse the opportunity for true pedagogic growth. I still find it amazing how often we are told that it is difficult to make time for collaborative work by more senior managers during endless meetings which focus on data, policies and paperwork. There needs to be an understanding that policies and data are marginal to affecting pedagogic change; this can only come from sustained focus on transforming practice through authentic collaborative endeavour, a process of emergent insight best engaged with over long periods of time.
  • Sharing and evaluating. As Shulman (1993) made clear, collaborative pedagogic work is of little additional use if it is not then shared more widely, rather it will merely lead to pedagogic Balkanisation rather than pedagogic solitude – hardly a transformative step forward. Time needs to be made to regularly share ideas and reflections from  collaborative work. This ensures that positive insights are made more widely available within a ‘pedagogic community’ but also allows for scrutiny, ‘positive critique’ and a sustained emergence not only of pedagogic literacy but also research literacy and research practice.
  • The relationship between the group and the individual. As highlighted earlier in this post, I have already made the case for understanding that individuals within a collaborative group will bring and take different insights from the process. This should be expected as they may have different values, attitudes and philosophies, different beliefs concerning pedagogy, and they will almost certainly be at different points in the growth of their pedagogic literacy. As such they will integrate different ideas into their emergent practice as a consequence of working with others.

Collaboration is essential to aiding the growth of pedagogic literacy, emerging through professional engagement and the use of research (both literacy and practice) to inform and generate pedagogic insights. However, merely stating that collaboration is essential without thinking about the dynamics and links to other elements of teacher growth does not ensure that it is a positive process for change.

References

Cajkler, W. Wood, P. Norton, J. and Pedder, D. (2014) Lesson study as a vehicle for collaborative teacher learning in a secondary school. Professional Development in Education (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2013.866975)

Cajkler, W.; Wood, P.; Norton, J. & Pedder, D. (2013) ‘Lesson Study: towards a collaborative approach to learning in Initial Teacher Education?’ Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 43(4), pp. 537-554.

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.

Little, J.W. (1990) ‘The persistency of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers’ professional relations.’ Teachers College Record, 91(4), 509-536.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15, 4-14.

Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1-22.

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (http://www.iub.edu/~tchsotl/part4/shulman%20community%20property.pdf)

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.

Wood, P. & Cajkler, W. (2013a) ‘Understanding Learning – Exploration of the use of Lesson Study as an approach to developing learning with International Masters students’ European Conference on Educational Research, Istanbul, 10-13 September 2013

Wood, P. & Cajkler, W. (2013b) ‘Fast to Slow: Encouraging exploratory dialogue through the use of Lesson Study’ Third International Conference on Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research Influencing Policy through Enhancing Professionalism, York, 9-10 July 2013

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