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The term “collaboration” is tossed about freely in education conversations. Just about everyone agrees that it is a good thing to participate in. We may even see it as a useful tool for staff to use as they share strategies, make plans, and solve problems, especially now as teachers face new instructional contexts and learning challenges. All of these applications can be useful, but to take full advantage of what a collaborative focus can offer to support instructional success requires that we understand and employ collaborative strategies at a deeper level than is common in casual use.


In fact, there are at least five forms of collaboration available to tap. Each application can serve a need and professional purpose. However, tapping collaboration’s real power requires a match between the strategy and the context and goal. We might think of it as having levels, each offering benefits and serving specific purposes.


Level one: Sharing frustrations and emotional release. Collaboration at this level involves sharing frustrations, recounting experiences, expressing opinions, and describing perceptions. These experiences can offer a sense of belonging, mutual support, and emotional release: important experiences during times of stress and uncertainty. Such experiences can be useful to building community and culture, as long as the dominate tone is positive and supportive. However, this form of collaboration typically does not result in significant professional learning or improvements in professional practice. In short, sharing frustrations and emotional release can be useful in measured doses, but overindulgence diminishes most benefits.


Level two: Growing camaraderie and sharing “war stories.” The next level involves the sharing of insights, knowledge gleaned from past experiences, and folklore of the profession. The focus of this type of collaboration is not on solving specific problems as much as sharing traditional wisdom and beliefs about how things work generally. The sharing aspect of this type of collaboration can build common values and ways of thinking, especially for inexperienced participants. Carefully selected mentors and thoughtful coaches can employ this type of collaboration to onboard new professionals. It can also be a grounding experience for veteran practitioners.


Level three: Sharing solutions. At this level, the focus is on identifying and understanding challenges and sharing solutions that team or group members have tried. This form of collaboration is often what people assume when they hear the term. The goal is to share experiences and learning with others in support of each other’s success. However, since the insights and solutions shared are typically based in the experiences and contexts of those who share them, learning must often be translated, evaluated, and applied in a different context. Thus, the learning value can be limited. This type of collaboration works best with specific problems that are likely to be solved using shared actions and common strategies.


Level four: Solving problems together. This higher level of collaboration invites participants to gain a common understanding of the challenge or problem and then work together to find solutions. Collaborators share their best thinking, unique insights, and expertise with the goal of finding the best solution or set of solutions for all. In its best form, every participant learns and all benefit from outcomes in ways that they likely would not have experienced alone. This approach works best with more complex problems that require flexibility and deeper understanding.


Level five: Co-invention. This highest level invites collaborators to go beyond solving a problem to inventing solutions, approaches, frameworks, and strategies that improve professional practices and offer benefits beyond the specific work and needs of participants. This level of engagement is fairly rare in education, but it offers exceptional professional satisfaction and opportunities to make significant contributions to the field. We can support our most talented and creative staff to grow and contribute through this powerful form of collaboration.


As we consider the unprecedented needs and challenges staff members face, it makes sense to support and position staff to engage in the type and level of collaboration that best matches their needs and context. When we do, we open doors to new relationships, novel insights, a healthy culture, and new ideas and solutions.


Adapted from:

Rickabaugh, J. (2016). Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning: A Roadmap for School Leaders (pp.120-122). ASCD.

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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