Collaborating About How to Collaborate

Through collaboration, ideas can be shared, new and better strategies can be developed, and problems can be solved. However, too often do we create opportunities and environments for our educators to "collaborate" with each other in order to solve problems and make improvements within a school system, without offering any training and support on how to effectively collaborate.

For example, during staff meetings and other professional development sessions, we congregate everyone into a single room with tables formed into groups and we say, "Here are the problems ... now, let's go figure it out!"

While we celebrate a shared vision and value collaboration, educators are often not taught how to effectively collaborate and work together to achieve a common goal.  Moreover, we create these same collaborative learning opportunities for our students without properly teaching them effective collaboration skills needed to be successful.  Yes, some students figure this out by trial and error, but I believe that we should be providing more practice and support for our students when putting them into collaborative settings.

My argument is that educators (and students) need more professional development regarding how to effectively collaborate, before they can begin to successfully collaborate with others.  In my research, I have compiled reliable information that offers best-practice strategies and skills needed for implementing effective collaboration.

Prerequisites for Collaboration

In order to collaborate, there are certain prerequisites that need to happen before effective collaboration can key place. Below are some essential elements that first, need to be in place:
  • Reflecting on your personal belief system: How much do you value sharing ideas? Examine your belief system to see if you have tolerance toward changing your standards in your classroom.  (I recommend reading Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck to develop a growth-mindset) 
  • Refining your interaction skills: First, you need to develop effective communication skills which include listening, attending to nonverbal signals, and asking questions and making statements in clear and nonthreatening ways. Secondly, you need to have interaction-process skills which include conducting effective meetings, responding to resistance, resolving conflict, and persuading others. (I recommend reading To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink)
  • Contributing to a supportive environment: Administrative and staff support, teachers’ effort to contribute to collaborative atmosphere, and the availability of time for collaboration.  (I recommend reading Transforming School Culture by Dr. Anthony Muhammad)

Fundamentals of Collaboration

There are particular fundamentals that need to be understood in order for collaboration to work effectively. These fundamentals need to be understood and accepted by all members on a team.
  1. Collaboration is voluntary. You decide to participate. 
  2. Collaboration is based on parity. Teachers who collaborate must believe that all individuals’ contributions are valued equally. 
  3. Collaboration requires a shared goal. Teachers tend to collaborate only when they share a goal. 
  4. Collaboration includes shared responsibility for key decisions. Teachers divide work and share decision making about the activities they are undertaking. 
  5. Collaboration includes shared accountability for outcomes. If teachers share key decisions, they must also share accountability for the results of the decisions. 
  6. Collaboration is based on shared resources. Each teacher in a collaborative effort should make an effort to contribute some type of resource.
  7. Collaboration is emergent. True collaboration will emerge as teachers are more experienced at
Communication Skills Needed for Effective Collaboration

Communication is arguably the most important part of collaboration.  It is imperative that each member considers effective communication skills and practices these skills when collaborating.
  • Use knowledge of frame of reference to foster effective collaboration.
  • Recognize that shared problem solving begins with the understanding that there are many “right” answers for addressing student learning and behavior. 
  • Develop effective strategies for listening.
  • When someone shares a concern with you, avoid the temptation to offer advice immediately.
  • As much as possible, focus your interactions on observable information.
  • Use collaborative language; that is, ask questions that encourage others to speak.
  • Monitor how much you talk.
  • If you have a disagreement with a colleague, address it as soon as possible and in a straightforward manner. 

Establish Collaboration Norms

Agreeing on collaboration norms is critical to the success of the team.  Without them, teams can often get frustrated or feel like some members are being treated unfairly.  Here are a few recommended norms to establish when collaborating:
  • Everyone would be allowed to voice their opinion.
  • One person would talk at a time.
  • Everyone would listen to what others had to say.
  • Everyone would be respectful of each other even when we disagreed.
  • A solution would be reached that everyone could agree upon.

Six-Step Problem-Solving Process 

After the norms are established in a collaborative team, it is important to apply the Problem-Solving Process in order to generate successful solutions to problems.
  1. Identify and Select the Problem
  2. Analyze the Problem
  3. Generate Potential Solutions
  4. Select and Plan the Solution
  5. Implement the Solution
  6. Evaluate the Solution

Moving forward, my goal is to help build capacity in my students' and educators' ability to effectively collaborate by implementing these strategies.  Only then, can ideas truly be shared, teamwork be facilitated, and problems be solved.

  1. Collaboration: A Must for Teachers in Inclusive Educational Settings:
  2. Problem Solving Process: