Collaborative professionalism – thoughts on Hargreaves and O’Connor
A few weeks ago I came across an interesting phrase on the grand serendipitor Twitter – “collaborative professionalism”. What made it even more interesting was the book of that name that bore the names of Andy Hargreaves and Michael O’Connor . I have used Hargreaves’ work before, one of his seminal papers is on the list of my all time go to papers I would invite any educator to read and chew through (maybe a post about that next time). I have also been passionate about teacher agency for a long time and recently I was delighted and honoured to have written a chapter for the upcoming Flip The System Australia. In short, reading Hargreaves & O’Connor’s Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All fell on some pretty fertile soil and I couldn’t resist a Twitter invitation from Andy and Michael to let them know what I think of the book.
‘Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All’ is a book about educational leadership. Now, I am not exactly a leader (or perhaps am in that fluid and contest[able] sense of the word Jon Andrews spoke about at the recent ACEL conference ). I am ‘just’ a teacher. But reading the book reveals very quickly that this is a text for the leaders as much as the teachers. It speaks to us all in education.
Collaboration, of course, is nothing new in teaching. Quite the opposite it seems, as we are encouraged to collaborate in our work even more these days. There is no dispute whether we should collaborate, only really about the purpose, format, scale and frequency of it. But not all collaboration is of course the same. It can often be a soft sell of how-to-get-staff-buy-into-our-idea-while-appearing-they-had-a-say, ragtag of episodic, contrived conversations that are superficial, weak in effect, usually added on to teaching, polite, uncomfortable for the fear of sticking one’s neck out to avoid appearing as either boisterous or bashful type, or they quickly descend into the useless trad v prog loops. If you have never seen this you either a) don’t work in a school or b) you do work in a school but are incredibly lucky not to have seen, felt it.
Hargreaves & O’Connor posit that effective collaboration is a ‘mixture of pride and humility’ (xv). Pride in one’s capacity that diminishes us all if withheld, humility in acceptance that no one knows everything. Or as they put it:
“Admitting that, at first, we don’t know what the issue might be is part of our professionalism. Inquiring together and acting upon is the essence of collaborative professionalism. “
They helpfully point out the obvious, so often hidden in plain sight, that “no profession can serve people effectively if its members do not share and exchange knowledge about their expertise or about the clients, patients or students they have in common.” This is the essence of professionalism and co-labor-ating (co-working).
I invite you to read how Hargreaves and O’Connor distinguish between professional collaboration and collaborative professionalism (CP). The former takes forms of talking, sharing and reflecting together as teachers. We have been doing professional collaboration, with varying degrees of success and impact on our students and ourselves. We have also done it often to satisfy some distantly-derived rubric (xyz ‘hours of approved PD’, myriad of local and national teaching standards etc) or apply some well-intentioned school-based initiative ‘from the top’. Professional collaboration is descriptive (and sometimes pre-scriptive) as it delineates what should teachers do.
Collaborative professionalism is normative. It proposes, then seeks to critique in order to optimise the positive impact on students as a COLLECTIVE, not as individuals, in a given context. The lexicon of collaborative professionalism is one of unceasing inquiry and open critique, matched and supported by solidarity, care and trust. Collaborative professionalism extends beyond mere meeting, sharing, reflecting … and then going back doing our own individual thing. It is de-privatising individual teaching practice – we’re all in it, no exceptions. In it, failures and successes are not attributable to a specific individual but to the collective. This “shields professional learning and failure from the possibility of personal shame and blame” (p. 39) as teachers bear “collective responsibility for other [teachers’] impact”. In collaborative professionalism, teachers’ work is not about my students but all about our students.1
Collective professionalism however is not some nameless, de-personalised drudgery inside a common system. Quite the opposite in fact. Individuals are valued as part of the collective. Diversity and disagreement of individual perspectives is essential (see previous point about the mixture of pride and humility) – but always open to critique along the collectively agreed standards of feedback, behaviour and protocol. To use a sporting parlance, you as a teacher are as good as you help your team improve, not as good as your individual score. What matters is the collective, rather than individual, efficacy – belief of teachers in their deliberate attempts to make a positive influence on students TOGETHER. While often disputed (links forthcoming), research by Hattie (2018, 2012) indicates that giving teachers feedback on their work and collective teacher efficacy have a very significant impact on student learning.
Collective efficacy is just one of the ten tenets of collaborative professionalism identified by Hargreaves and O’Connor. Many of them would (and do) truly rock the boat of the existing systems. For example [collective autonomy]:
“Collective autonomy means that educators have more independence from top-down bureaucratic authority but less independence of each other. Collective autonomy values teachers’ professional judgement that is informed by a range of evidence rather than marginalising that judgement in favour of the data alone. But collective autonomy is not individual autonomy. Teachers are not individually inscrutable or infallible. The egg crate has emptied; the sanctuary has gone. Instead, teachers’ work is open – and open to each other – for feedback, inspiration and assistance.” (p.109)
Imagine having this sort of agency next time some other ‘what works’ is dropped in from somewhere else to be copied in applied as the solution to (y)our problems with no consent, critique, and depending on a small number of evangelists who may leave at any time.
And herein lies the trouble you say …
Apart from the obvious enthusiasm for collaboration, the authors helpfully point out a few cons, threats of collaboration. Collaboration can lead to groupthink and culling of tall poppies, hiding in the crowd, suppression of critical judgement, bending to the will of the tyrants, passivity and compliance in the form of conflict avoidance and more. Collaboration can also be very weak, while giving the appearance of vitality.
You and I would not be the first people to recognise that the shifts and nuances of power flows in any knowledge sharing/power sharing designs (Monsieur Foucault is smiling in his grave…) can easily undermine the best intentions. These would need to be seriously attended to because CP would seriously bruise egos and wobble many a career path. Collaborative professionalism is NOT easy. The challenging conversations, one of the cornerstones of the model, could be “oppressive” (p. 95) too, (un)intentionally so.
To establish healthy CP, the authors point the importance of recognising the four Bs – before, betwixt, beside, beyond. The recognition of what was there before (CP) is crucial in recognising the longer trends of applying innovation and collaboration in a given context. Recognition of the broader culture into which CP lies alongside with, or rather is entangled betwixt with, is crucial in avoiding ineffective, and possibly foreign, unwelcome carbon-copies and transplants of models of CP across the world. Recognising what is provided beside CP in the form of support is crucial in providing and sustaining resources to implement CP. Finally, it is important to consider what connections doing CP has beyond the given context. Connections and learning not just from but with others beyond the confines of a given school or area is important for the longevity and quality of CP.
Paying attention to these four Bs demonstrates the importance of paying attention to local cultural practices and their history, reasons for the need to collaborate, and resources available for this to happen. The diversity of these factors are a caveat to anyone thinking of parachuting a copy of something done well in Hong Kong or rural USA will work automatically in Western Australia, something the authors are at pains to point out throughout the book.
“Reform is like ripe fruit: It rarely travels well. Designs for collaborative professionalism are the same. But designs coming from afar can work if people actively figure out the relationship with their own culture.” (p 131)
The proposed ten tenets of collaborative professionalism and the four Bs to serve as a lens to see them through are an incredibly useful starting point in starting, or perhaps continuing, a path towards collaborative professionalism.
The book explores five highly functioning examples of collaborative professionalism: a high-performing state high school in Hong Kong; network of rural teachers across the north-western USA; primary school in affluent, stable Norway; professional learning communities in schools in a low socio-economic areas with high percentage of Indigenous students in Canada; and a truly transformational network of hundreds of school across the decentralised educational landscape in Colombia. The examples almost could not be further apart but the authors’ choice was deliberate. They simply wanted to show how the design of CP thrives in these wildly different contexts. They do so not to position CP as a universal, cookie-cutter (quick) ‘fix’, but as a provocation of what is possible when a genuine purpose meets thoughtful, contextualised application of the model.
Importantly, the purpose for CP is also very different in these contexts and depends highly on their needs. While in all of them teachers collaborate, in varying degrees, on pedagogy (ways of teaching), some of them spend more time on the matters of curriculum while others spend more time in collaborating on evaluation. Similarly, the PLCs of Canada and Escuela Nueva seek to transform the broader society they operate in while the Hong Kong, Norway and USA cases transform the school they work in. These differences clearly demonstrate the need for a very clear and precise purpose CP is established for in a given context.
Throughout the book there seemed to be another dimension, or rather reason for CP that is perhaps less explicit but crucial and ever present – establishment, maintenance and modelling of good, functioning, healthy, culturally responsive relationships between students, staff, school leaders and the communities they serve. In other words, teachers collaborate not only to improve pedagogy, curriculum and/or evaluation to improve either whole society or a single school more narrowly. They collaborate to enact, benefit from and ultimately model good relationships which sustain CP. This ‘relational’ extension stems from a particular view of teaching process (PCRK model) my wife, a counselling psychologist, and I have been exploring lately. It is no surprise that the model was inspired by the seminal work on the importance of emotions and relationships in education by, you guessed it, Andy Hargreaves.
The final chapter suggesting what we should stop doing, continue doing and start doing (sounding similar to “The Russian Brothers” Ridoff, Moreoff and Startoff we jovially refer to in our school sometimes) is a provocation to action. I for one would love to connect with educators in these schools and jurisdictions to pick their brain as I have picked this book for articulating something I have long felt and sought. Thank you Andy and Michael for giving these thoughts a name, shape and examples to stimulate and lead.
Now go and read the book!
1 Incidentally, collaborative professionalism design reminds me of the practice of workers self-management in a country I grew up in and does not longer exist. Anyone living in the former Yugoslavia post World War 2 will remember the word samoupravljanje. Collaborative professionalism shares many idea(l)s with this practice which delivered great results for decades but eventually cracked under the collective weight of economic, political, social instability and aspirational turbo-capitalism in the region.