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Collaboration – moving into its deeper waters
Acting on a hunch that literature can help to enrich our students’ understanding of how they perceive masculinity, I embarked on an action research project with our Head of English. It was a study that not only gave me wings to work in a different environment other than the library, but it allowed me to observe the art of collaboration from an ethnographic stance. I found myself reviewing the findings from my doctoral study on creating, sharing and using teachers’ knowledge, and observing how the teacher and myself interacted. Through this experience, I gained a more profound appreciation of the powerful force that collaboration can be in re-kindling the processes of imagination and creativity. I also experienced a heightened awareness of the opportunities that we have as teacher-librarians to move collaboration from the shallows of previous conceptual understandings and into the deeper waters of imagination and creativity through engagement in action research.
Our web 2.0 world begs us to collaborate. The richness of various digital tools to facilitate our engagement in creative partnerships has given us a chance to connect intellectually and socially, and to extend our learning and teaching partnerships to involve colleagues across communities, countries, and cultures. This is exciting.
It has also made possible real opportunities to engage in collaborative experiences within our own school environments.
I celebrate this idea because I believe that the way in which schools are designed, both physically and intellectually, works against genuine collaboration. Yet, with the use of social media such as wikis, voicethread, Skype, and the suite of tools on Google, we have at our fingertips the ability to break down the knowledge silos that school communities build.
Our web 2.0 world has given us the chance to re-design relationships above and beyond cooperative work toward a far more powerful force for human engagement – collaboration (John-Steiner, 1992).
But to engage in collaboration means we need to understand the underpinnings that develop creative and critical partnerships. We need to understand the HOW of collaboration. The web 2.0 tools provide the structures, but the processes inherent in the enactment of collaboration need careful scrutiny.
Collaboration or co-blab-oration
I knew I had a soulmate when I read David Perkins’ (2003) work on collaboration. Like Perkins, I had been observing colleagues talking/working together in the course of their teaching day, but with little exchange of deep knowledge and little innovative thinking, and this they called being collaborative. Perkins exposed the action he had observed as co-blab-oration and I thought, ‘Yes, that’s it!’.
No structures or processes for deep knowledge sharing and creation, no collaboration – just co-blab-oration – each teacher trying to state their view without listening and reflecting upon what the other had to say. No wonder teacher-librarians fought uphill battles to engage and sustain collaborative initiatives. But let’s step back a bit . . .
Let’s refresh our understanding of collaboration; let’s understand the difference between co-blab-oration and collaboration in the first instance – this we have to get right.
As Michael Schrage (1995) explains, collaboration is enacted in a shared space that turns talking into innovative thinking and change. He challenges us to think about the enactment of collaboration as similar to scribbling on a shared table napkin - a paper table cloth. You know . . . that feeling when you’re with a mate or two and you begin chatting and scribbling ideas down, moving rapidly from one idea to another, changing the ideas, and getting excited over something you would like to try. That’s powerful collaboration – when opportunities to share your tacit knowledge stimulate the processes of creating, and innovating; arguing and discarding; and taking risks and when your conversation moves from the what if to the how.
Looking back in history, collaboration was de rigueur for many artists and scientists. Consider that remarkable creative group, the Parisian Impressionists, who socialised and painted together and even exhibited together.
There was an honesty and ease in their relationships, as they shared related approaches and techniques, aired controversial ideas, debated and reworked and rethought ideas over a shared space – a shared intellectual and physical space – allowing their ideas to change, to reform and morph into new knowledge.
And this is important! They celebrated creative dissonance.
In fact, it was cultivated through engaging in critical thinking and losing themselves in deep intellectual conversations.
Their collaborative environment demanded from each of them enormous trust and restrained ego. That’s collaboration – the sharing of ideas, the sharing of your knowledge, the sharing of colleagues’ knowledge . . . the co-creation of new ideas without ego pushing power balances... and that’s a fundamental outcome of collaboration.
But let’s not gloss over collaboration. It’s not easy to enact. Unfortunately, the rush of school environments militate against collaborative partnerships and, without deliberate structures and processes in place, the generative qualities inherent in collaboration are often replaced with the more collegial enactment of cooperative partnerships. Perhaps that’s why the concept of collaborative program planning and teaching, for many, many teacher-librarians was not reality.
My doctoral research considered how teachers create, share and, importantly, use knowledge. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the art of deep collaboration was at the heart of sharing and creating knowledge. I understand now that collaboration has a deeper intellectual and emotional edge.
Collaboration is centred on people and how they relate to one another. It relies on transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. It has the capacity to break down knowledge silos in workplaces. It relies on nurturing both creativity and criticality. It needs time and it needs trust – trust to be able to shun the veneer of politeness and to cultivate and celebrate creative dissonance.
My study made it very clear that teachers learn best in a social context – just like our students. They learn best when learning is fun and playful, yet serious, and when critical feedback is part of the process. And again these features are part of the critical building blocks of collaboration.
In summary, collaboration is a far greater generative experience than merely cooperating on a task. For collaboration to be all it can, structures and process that place emphasis on building relationships in the first instance are essential.
So what are some practical ways in which we can enable genuine collaborative partnerships, and what steps do we take to build and maintain them?
To illustrate, I’d like to use the notion of action research which I believe is an excellent process that has at its core social learning, sharing of knowledge and the co-creating of new knowledge (Gibson-Langford, 2006).